WITH DIRECT PEACE talks between Israel and the Palestinians expected to begin soon, the Israeli right is abuzz with new thinking on how best to secure the future of the Zionist enterprise.
In one of the more radical departures, some prominent right-wingers are now advocating a single unitary state, consisting of Israel and the West Bank, in which West Bank Palestinians would be granted Israeli citizenship and full voting rights.
At the other end of the right-wing spectrum is Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s proposal for two separate states, with the borders redrawn in such a way as to leave large numbers of Israeli Arabs in Palestine and most of the West Bank Jewish settlers in Israel. Lieberman’s proposal is based on the principle of two ethnic states, with as many Jews as possible in one, expressing Jewish self-determination, and as many Arabs as possible in the other, expressing Palestinian self-determination.
The new contrary right-wing proposal sees one democratic state in which the Zionist vision of sovereign Jewish independence is preserved, as in Israel proper today, by the existence of a Jewish majority. Other influential right-wingers reject both ideas as either misguided or impractical for now, and favor maintaining the status quo in which Israel continues to occupy the West Bank, while constantly improving the quality of life for Palestinians. In contrast to all these proposals, the right-wing Netanyahu government is committed to a two-state solution, with much smaller land swaps than those envisioned in the Lieberman plan, and with a premium on arrangements to protect Israel’s security.
All the right-wing plans are designed to ensure Israel’s future as a Jewish state.
Centrist and left-wing critics, however, maintain that they are more likely to do the opposite. They argue that a one-state solution would soon lead to the loss of the Jewish majority and before that to mounting pressure from a large Arab minority for a very different kind of state; that maintaining the occupation status quo for any length of time would mean further international isolation; and that both the Lieberman and government approaches to the two-state solution raise the bar too high, rendering the only genuine solution to the conflict in the eyes of the center-left, two states for two peoples, less likely. In sum, the critics say, far from advancing Israel’s cause, the rightwing ideas are more likely to jeopardize Israel’s future.
THE LEADING RIGHT-WING thinker pushing for a one-state solution is journalist Uri Elitzur, a former head of the Judea and Samaria Settlers Council and Benjamin Netanyahu’s bureau chief during his first term as prime minister.
As Elitzur sees it, there are three broad alternatives for dealing with the conflict: establishing a Palestinian state along the 1967 borders, which he sees as a recipe for interminable bloodshed; maintaining the status quo, which is becoming increasingly unacceptable to the international community; or annexing the West Bank to Israel and creating a Jewish state with the inherent problem of having to deal with a large Arab minority.
“Each one of the solutions is problematic, and, from a Zionist point of view, each one carries a heavy price. In my view, the price of the third option is the lowest,” Elitzur tells The Report.
For Elitzur, the advantages of the third option are considerable: Israel would retain all the Jewish settlements, it would not have to withdraw from territory and expose itself to rocket fire and the international community would applaud a one-man one-vote solution to the conflict, ending Israel’s diplomatic isolation. In Elitzur’s view, other right-wing one-state ideas, like annexing the West Bank and having the Palestinians vote in Jordan, or dividing Israel and the West Bank into 10 cantons for electoral purposes, of which the Palestinians would get only two, would rightly be dismissed by the international community as forms of “apartheid.” Therefore, he insists, the only realistic option for Israel is a new South Africa-style unitary democratic state with Israelis and Palestinians enjoying equal political, social and individual rights.
Ironically, this kind of thinking was once the exclusive preserve of Palestinian hardliners, European intellectuals and the post- Zionist far left. What they envisaged was a single Palestinian state, with an Arab majority, and a tolerated Jewish minority.
So how come this idea is now being touted by prominent members of the Zionist right, like Elitzur? The big change is in the right-wing view of the demographic numbers. Two events in 2005 turned things upside down for them: Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and a new right-wing demographic survey, which found a million fewer Palestinians in the West Bank than previously thought.
With Gaza and the still generally accepted traditional population
figures, a single Israeli-Palestinian state would start off with a
minuscule Jewish majority that would be very quickly overturned; but
without Gaza’s estimated 1.5 million Arabs, and based on the
controversial 2005 right-wing census, there would be around 5.8 million
Jews and 2.7 million Arabs in a single Israel-West Bank state. Suddenly,
the right-wingers could see a single state with a relatively secure
Jewish majority of just under 70 percent.
The 2005 disengagement from Gaza, which they virulently opposed, had
become a strategic game-changer in their favor, opening up the
possibility of a Jewish state in Israel and the West Bank.
THE RIGHT-WING STATISTICS are based on the 2005-6 findings of the
“American-Israel Demographic Research Group” led by Bennett Zimmerman,
Roberta Seid and Michael Wise. In their “Forecast for Israel and the
West Bank 2025,” a paper released in 2006, they predict a Jewish
majority in Israel and the West Bank of 63-71 percent in 2025.
Israeli demographers take a different view. Indeed, Israel’s leading
demographer, Sergio DellaPergola of the Hebrew University, slams their
figures as groundless and politically motivated, pointing out that the
researchers were not professional demographers. He estimates the Jewish
majority in Israel and the West Bank today at just 62-63 percent, and
predicts that if present trends continue, the Jews will lose their
majority in about 25 to 30 years.
DellaPergola observes that the Palestinian population is much younger,
with about half under the age of 20, compared to 30 in the Jewish
population, and that life expectancy in the two populations only
marginally favors the Jews. This means proportionately less deaths per
annum among the Arabs, a key factor not fully taken into account in the
More importantly, he questions the basic notion of a “Jewish state” with
a very large non-Jewish minority, and calls Elitzur’s plan
“delusional.” “Even if you have a majority of around 60 percent which is
the position today, how can one side rule and expect the other simply
to obey? There is nothing like it anywhere in the world. Take the
Belgians – there is a 55-45 Flemish majority and the country is on the
verge of splitting into two,” he tells The Report.
There are other potential demographic headaches. If annexed, surely West
Bankers would demand the inclusion of Gaza, with its 1.5 million
Palestinians. And what about the Palestinian refugees? In the two-state
solution, they are slated to return to Palestine. In a one-state
arrangement there could be massive international pressure to incorporate
them in the single Israeli- Palestinian state.
Demographics aside, Elitzur’s plan is riddled with dubious assumptions.
For example, by annexing the West Bank, he believes Israel would be
“domesticating” the conflict with the Palestinians. Instead of it being
waged with weapons and on the international stage, he reckons it would
morph into a struggle for civil rights and power within the new country.
“It won’t be fought with blood and fire, but through fierce arguments
in the Knesset, the media and among the public. And I prefer dealing
with a civil struggle than with a military one,” he declares.
But what if, as is more likely, the large Palestinian minority proves
recalcitrant and resorts to violence and terror? Here, too, Elitzur
seems to engage in wishful thinking, arguing that terror only occurs
where there is an “authority vacuum,” and that it could be contained
through efficient policing.
“We wouldn’t need large military forces. If we mobilize 20,000 police
and deploy them everywhere to catch car thieves, tax evaders and other
criminals, then terror will also be reduced to a minimum,” he opines.
Equally problematic is the assumption that the international community
would tolerate a long transitional period before all Palestinians
receive basic rights. Elitzur envisages an extended process, perhaps
lasting decades, in which Israeli law is applied to different parts of
the West Bank in stages, starting with areas in which there are hardly
any Arabs. Arabs would only receive basic citizenship rights, like the
vote, after their particular area is annexed.
This would soon create a situation in which Israel will have announced
its intention to annex all of the West Bank, but will have annexed only
part, while continuing to rule over vast unannexed areas, in which the
inhabitants would be denied basic rights.
Other supporters of the Elitzur plan go further, insisting on different
categories of Palestinian status even after Israeli law is applied.
Former National Religious Party, Hatechiya and National Union Knesset
member Hanan Porat suggests that Palestinians who resort to terror be
denied citizenship, others who accept Israeli rule but refuse to swear
allegiance to the state be permanent residents without the vote, and
only Palestinians who take a loyalty oath become full citizens with
Support for the Elitzur-Porat style onestate solution is not widespread,
but it does have some high-profile backing. For example, former Likud
defense and foreign minister Moshe Arens, Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin
and Likud Knesset neophyte Tzipi Hotovely, who organized a conference
last year on “Alternatives to Two States,” have all come out strongly in
favor of the idea.
Like Elitzur and Porat, they too see a long period between the decision
to annex and the granting of civil rights to the Palestinians. Arens,
for example, says Israel should first fully integrate its own Israeli-
Arab population, and only then initiate moves towards integrating the
West Bank Palestinians.
Besides Rivlin and Hotovely, there is little overt support for the
one-state idea in the Knesset. It has not been picked up by Likud
hard-liners like Danny Danon or Zeev Elkin, or by hawkish parties like
the National Home and the National Union.
More significantly, it has no support within the government. Elitzur
says he raised the idea in passing with Prime Minister Benjamin
Netanyahu, who wasn’t interested.
Nevertheless, Elitzur maintains that it could become relevant, if and
when the current talks on the two-state solution reach an impasse, as he
is convinced they will.
THE LIEBERMAN PROPOSAL, known as the “Populated Area Exchange Plan,”
also raises major civil rights issues. According to the plan, the border
with a future Palestinian state would be redrawn in such a way as to
leave 10 Israeli-Arab border towns in Palestine. The inhabitants would
be given a choice of staying in their homes and becoming Palestinian
citizens, or returning to Israel proper and swearing an oath of
allegiance to retain their Israeli citizenship.
Three main legal issues arise: Can Israel transfer territory without the
consent of the inhabitants? Can it revoke the Israeli citizenship of
those who find themselves on the Palestinian side of the border? Can it
insist on a loyalty oath as a condition for the continued citizenship of
those who choose to return? Legal experts are divided. In a 2008 paper
entitled, “The Blessing of Departure,” published in the Law & Ethics
of Human Rights journal, Timothy Waters, a law professor at Indiana
University, argues that transfer of an area to another state does not
require the consent of the population of the transferred area, and that
international law does not bar revoking citizenship as long as it does
not lead to statelessness and as long as those who lose one nationality
immediately acquire another. In other words, the Lieberman plan could
pass the test of international law, if it is done by agreement with the
Palestinian Authority and if part of that agreement entails the
immediate conferring of Palestinian citizenship on those Israeli Arabs,
who find themselves on the Palestinian side of the border.
Other experts, however, maintain that the right to nationality is
fundamental and cannot simply be stripped away to suit diplomatic
machinations. In other words, Jewish self-determination rights cannot
take precedence over the individual rights, including the right to
citizenship, of Israeli Arabs. On the third issue: making retention of
Israeli citizenship for those Israeli Arabs who choose to return to
Israel proper dependent on a loyalty oath, almost all the experts agree
that that would be in stark contravention of international law, since
refusal to grant the returnees citizenship would leave them stateless.
IN ANY EVENT, ISRAELI ARABS are overwhelmingly opposed to the plan. A
July 2000 survey by the Kul al- Arab weekly in Umm al-Fahm, the largest
of the relevant border towns, showed that only 11 percent favored
becoming part of Palestine, while 83 percent wanted to stay in Israel.
And, according to Mohammed Zeidan, Chairman of the Supreme Arab
Monitoring Committee, there is no reason to suppose these figures have
changed much in the ensuing decade. “This is our homeland. We don’t want
to live under any other jurisdiction. We see the Lieberman plan as a
racist idea, designed to strengthen the Jewish majority in Israel, and
we will oppose it with all the power we can muster,” he tells The
According to Zeidan, although most Israeli Arabs regard themselves as
Palestinians, they don’t see a Palestinian state as their homeland. He
says their ideal vision of the future is based on two states for two
peoples, and full equality for the Arab minority living in Israel on its
ancestral lands. He adds that in every meeting with Palestinian
Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and others in the Palestinian
Authority, Israeli Arab leaders urge them not to go along with the
Lieberman plan. And without support from the PA, the plan would be a
political and legal non-starter.
There is also scant support for the Lieberman plan among Israeli leaders.
There are currently two main schools of thought in the government, both a long way away from the Lieberman and Elitzur plans.
One, led by minister without portfolio Benny Begin, argues that given
the weakness of the PA, the Hamas hold on Gaza and the unbridgeable
positions between Israel and the PA on key issues, peace, based on two
states for two peoples, is not possible.
In Begin’s view, the best that can be hoped for at this juncture is
humane maintenance of the status quo, with significant improvements in
the quality of Palestinian life.
Entering peace talks now would only be to help defuse tensions and further improve economic conditions in the West Bank.
This is also the position of Minister for Regional Cooperation Silvan
Shalom, and is very similar to the notion of “economic peace” held by
Netanyahu before he became prime minister.
THE SECOND SCHOOL, LED BY Netanyahu himself, holds that, given the
weight of international pressure, Israel has no choice but to embark on
serious negotiations for a two-state solution, and that it should use
the talks primarily to press its security demands in a two-state
reality. That is why Netanyahu has been insisting on security as the
first item on the agenda, even before borders, arguing that the amount
of land Israel hands over to Palestinian control is dependent on the
degree of security Israel is afforded. The emphasis also stems from the
basic premise that security will guarantee peace, not the other way
A very good idea of the kinds of security demands Israel will be making
in the negotiations can be gleaned from a recent booklet by a group of
mainly right-wing exgenerals, diplomats and analysts, including
Strategic Affairs Minister and former chief of staff Moshe Yaalon,
former deputy chief of staff Uzi Dayan, former UN ambassador Dore Gold
and former head of military intelligence Aharon Zeevi Farkash, and
produced under the auspices of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.
Entitled “Israel’s Critical Security Needs for a Viable Peace,” it makes
the following demands: • An Israeli military presence in the Jordan
Valley to keep out weapons and foreign forces, and to block the five
east-west passages into the West Bank and Israel proper.
• Total demilitarization of the Palestinian state, with the exception of light weapons needed for public order.
• A total ban on incitement to terror in schools, mosques and other public places.
• Israeli control of Palestinian airspace to defend against
shoulder-launched missiles against civilian aircraft and air attack from
• Israeli control of Palestinian electromagnetic space to prevent
jamming of Israeli communications • No foreign peacekeeping forces in
the West Bank, given their long record of failure elsewhere.
Few on both the Israeli and the Palestinian sides expect the talks to
make much headway. And if, as most observers anticipate, they fail, the
alternative rightwing one-state and two-state models could gain more
traction as possible ways of breaking the ensuing impasse. On the other
hand, if, against all the odds, the talks succeed, the alternative
models will likely surface in the context of new campaigns to torpedo an
Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, entailing the dismantling of
dozens of settlements and the relocation of tens of thousands of Jewish