The concept of a population swap, in which Israeli Arab towns would become part of a Palestinian state, will get its first serious airing Monday at an academic conference in Jerusalem.
The position of the organizers of the symposium, the Floersheimer Institute for Policy Studies, is summed up by the title of a study they authored entitled "Injustice and Folly - On the proposals to cede Arab localities from Israel to Palestine." But both those against the idea and those in favor are aware that it's no longer a crackpot proposal on the margins of the political discussion.
As recently as two years ago, few experts or politicians expressed the view that Israel could transfer sovereignty of areas within the 1967 borders of the state, heavily populated by Arabs, to a Palestinian entity. But in 2004, Israel Beiteinu chairman Avigdor Lieberman began talking about the idea in interviews and even wrote a book about it. His party's success in the last elections, opinion polls showing a growing acceptance of the concept, and the willingness of respected experts and academics to address the issue have raised both hopes and fears that it is an idea whose time has come.
"We are of course against the idea that thousands of Israeli Arabs who are integrated into our society and are full citizens can have their citizenship stripped away from them," says joint head of the Floersheimer Institute, Prof. Amiram Gonen, "but we think that the idea should be debated."
The majority of speakers at the conference will be voicing arguments against the idea - including Arab politicians who are totally opposed to it - even though Gonen says that they made an effort to have more speakers in favor.
One speaker who will argue in favor is Prof. Gideon Biger of the Geography Department of Tel Aviv University, who has been writing about a population swap for almost a decade and identifies with Lieberman's policies.
"I've been writing for years that the Wadi Ara and Triangle areas shouldn't remain a part of the state," says Biger. "My belief is that we founded the State of Israel for the Jewish people, that's the objective. We are prepared to give rights to Arab citizens, but when they don't identify with the state and they're talking about changing the anthem, the flag and the Law of Return, this is where we have a problem. It's absurd. If you don't want to be a part of this state, so don't."
Biger believes that the solution is now becoming more accepted by the Israeli public and establishment. "I hope that it becomes a legitimate part of the public agenda. Now that everyone on the Right and Left knows that we can reach a quick solution with the Palestinians, people are worried for the future identity of the Jewish state. I am trying to speak with as many politicians as possible to make sure that the idea doesn't go away. When Lieberman began talking about it, I met with him and he accepted what I had to say.
"I think that it already has wide acceptance in the public, but many politicians, despite admitting in private that it's a good idea, say that they're afraid to talk about out in the open."
During the election campaign, Lieberman didn't emphasize the "swap" part of his platform. He followed the advice of American election guru Arthur Finkelstein who suggested that talking about personal security and the concerns of the Russian community would bring more votes.
Brig.-Gen. (res.) Shaul Arieli was a candidate on the Meretz Knesset list and is a senior research fellow at the Economic Cooperation Foundation. Together with Doubi Schwartz and Hadas Tagari he wrote the study "Injustice and Folly" which highlights what they see as the legal, moral and practical shortcomings of the population swap.
"Lieberman is talking about canceling the citizenship of Israeli Arabs," he says, "and not only those living near the Palestinian areas, also in Jaffa. He is willing to kill off democracy just to get some more votes."
According to the study, stripping Israeli Arabs of their citizenship and transferring their towns and villages to Palestinian sovereignty is against Israeli and international law and should not be done without the agreement of the Israeli Arabs and the Palestinians. The authors argue that such a step would alienate Israeli Arabs and internationalize issues such as the control of land within the 1967 borders, issues that until now have been regarded as internal Israeli affairs.
They also claim that such a step is barely feasible on the ground since many of the Arab towns slated for transfer are to the west of Jewish towns and Route 6. According to their estimates only about 120,000 Israeli Arabs could really be transferred in this way and that is canceled out by the 220,000 east Jerusalem Arabs who, according to the study, would become part of Israel after it annexes the areas where they live.
Biger disputes this point, saying that according to his plan Israel would also relinquish control of outlying neighborhoods of Jerusalem, in effect leaving more Palestinians out of its control.
The study does admit, however, that debate over the plan should become a part of the political discussion in Israel, since there is a creeping acceptance - not only on the Right, where hopes are that it would allow Israel in return to keep more settlements within its control - but also among some on the Left who see the population swap as a way of convincing Israelis to support a two-state solution.
"I'm aware that having the discussion might stoke the fire," says Arieli, "but it's important to counter the ignorance of the public with these facts. Some people on the Left said that we shouldn't even be talking about it, but most realize that we have to bring it up."
Even Arieli isn't totally discounting the swap idea. In his opinion, once a Palestinian state has been founded, "if the Israeli Arabs, once they have the option, feel that they identify with it more, perhaps people will make 'aliya' to the Palestinian state."
Another speaker at the conference will be MK Otniel Schneller of Kadima, who is a former secretary-general of the Council of Jewish Communities in Judea, Samaria and Gaza (Yesha).
"Jewish morals and democratic ideals," says Schneller, "forbid going ahead with such an idea in the way Lieberman is saying, but once the realignment from parts of Judea and Samaria is a fact, we will have to address the question of how to create a process in which Wadi Ara and the Triangle become part of the Palestinian state."
Schneller, who has been studying such a solution for two years together with a group of experts from Israel and abroad, says, "If we're demanding that Israel give up on part of its land and perhaps even my home, that means we have to take the whole concept of separation seriously, especially towards all those Israeli citizens who are expressing Palestinian nationalism."