Among the more moderate responses to Ehud Barak''s proposal to withdraw some 30,000 Israelis from the West Bank (i.e, leaving aside those whose response was "absolutely crazy"), is the warning that planning must be better than in the case of the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza.
For the sake of argument, let''s assume that the withdrawal from Gaza was not ideal. Perhaps there was not enough Israeli effort to reach agreement with Palestinians.
On the other hand, perhaps no agreement was possibie. Hamas has come to rule Gaza with considerable popular support that may--despite elections that fall somewhat short of classic Chicago--justify the designation of "majority." Hamas qualifies for the label "extreme" in its refusal to recognize Israel''s legitimacy, and it is buffered by factions even more extreme that send rockets toward Israeli towns and cities with or without the tolerance ,support, or encouragement of Hamas.
Could planning be any better for a withdrawal of numerous settlements from the West Bank?
What Americans and other westerners (and some Israelis) fail to recognize is the intensity of opposition to Israel within Palestinian society, and the weight of a political culture that has not accommodated itself fully to Israel''s existence. The Middle East is not like the Middle West.
Despite a variety of opinion polls, we cannot be certain about the proportion of the Palestinian population that is opposed to Israel''s existence to the extent of volunteering as suicide bombers or encouraging their children to suicide for the sake of Palestine or Islam. Or what proportions are politically indifferent, or appreciate that a closer relationships with Israeli and other western cultures can enhance their lives.
My own contacts with Israeli Arabs (including individuals who are Israeli citizens or Jerusalem residents and describe themselves as Palestinians) and other Palestinians are not likely to be a representative sample. They are primarily students at the university, with some of whom I have maintained a relationship of friendship, and friends I''ve acquired over the years in the university gym. Most seem to be political moderates. Some are intense Palestinian nationalists who have accommodated themselves to Israel''s existence and have reached senior positions in its institutions. Some are politically active in Palestinian forums, or in one or another of the numerous entities seeking to improve relations between Jews and Arabs.
What is apparent from my own experience and a great deal of writing on the subject is the difficulty of individuals to depart from the norms expected and enforced within the communities of Israeli Arabs and Palestinians. I have seen it up close in conversations about the failure of Arabs to vote in Jerusalem local elections. While Israeli citizenship is a requirement in voting for the Knesset, only local residence is a requirement for voting in municipal elections. The Arabs of Jerusalem (most of whom have not accepted the opportunity to become Israeli citizens) could select a third of the municipal council, and hold the balance in elections for mayor. Yet 90 percent or more refuse to vote.
The standard argument is that they are standing firm in opposition to the Israeli conquest and occupation of the city. Or--in more moderate versions--the Israeli conquest and occupation of East Jerusalem in the 1967 war.
I have asked why they cannot vote for nationalist parties in the local election, and use their leverage in behalf of Arab causes. Examples would be more resources for Arabic-language schools, or better facilities in neighborhoods whose residents are largely or entirely Arab.
The responses are 1) the Jews would not allow it, 2) it doesn''t work in the Knesset, and 3) the pressure from within the Arab community and authorities of the Palestine National Authority are so great as to prevent individuals from breaking the norm.
Reason #1 is nonsense. Not only has the expectation of Jewish opposition never been tested, but the record of Israeli judicial decisions and their respect by other authorities indicates that Jerusalem''s Arabs could parley their political weight--if they used it--into substantial benefits.
Reason #2 is not persuasive insofar as the Arab parties in the Knesset have not played by the rules of political give and take. Instead of using their 10 or so votes out of 120 to tip things one way or another in exchange for benefits going to their constituents, the Arab parties devote themselves to immodest opposition. Some of the members pride themselves in operating at the edge of what is permitted by Israeli security regulations or laws against racist incitement.
Reason #3 appears to the the best reason for Arab avoidance of Jerusalem politics. Friends say that they cannot bring themselves to vote in Jerusalem elections, or encourage others to vote. I haven''t heard about physical threats, but what seems to be intense social pressure. If my friends want to maintain their standing with friends and relatives, among professional associates and fellow political activists, they must recognize that participating in Jerusalem local elections is beyond the pale of what is acceptable.
What does all this say about careful planning for the removal of 30,000 Jews from the West Bank?
The same social pressure that prevents Jerusalem Arabs from taking the small step of voting in local elections appears to be operating to keep Palestinians from the much larger step of accommodating themselves formally to Israel''s existence and reaching an agreement that takes all unresolved issues off the table.
Israelis and others argue as to whether Ehud Barak along with Bill Clinton offered enough to the Palestinians in 2000, or whether Ehud Olmert offered enough toward the end of his tenure as prime minister in 2007-08. Insofar as the Palestinian leadership rejected both offers, and avoided making any public counter-offers, it may be fair to conclude that any imaginable Palestinian leadership is not likely to accept an agreement considered decent by any imaginable Israeli leadership.
Yossi Beilin and his colleagues in the Geneva Initiative disagree. They have found Palestinian partners who say they would accept something more forthcoming from Israelis.
The Palestinian partners of the Geneva Initiative are political activists at a high but not the highest level of Palestinian society. They express attitudes similar to some of my students and gym friends. That is, they are personally willing to be forthcoming, but are not able or willing to do what is necessary to bring along the mass of Palestinian activists, and certainly not the religious and nationalist extremists inclined to violence.
Americans and others who like to imagine that all people are the same, despite their culture, might think of sensitive issues capable of provoking easily riled population groups in their own countries. Authorities in the United States and Western Europe are cautious lest they produce a spread of unrest among African-Americans or Latinos in the United States, or Muslims in Western Europe. Israeli authorities are cautious in dealing with Arabs and Haredim.
Some groups with a potential for violence are not in the ethnic, racial, or religious categories. They include students, some organized workers, "football holligans" well known to British authorities, and the combination of ideologues and troublemakers who gather around international economic meetings.
Police train their personnel to avoid missteps that may provoke widespread violence. Rodney King and Kent State are extreme examples of what can go wrong.
Does this make me pessimistic about the future of Israel or Palestine?
It doesn''t make me ecstatic, but the present anomoly seems to be a decent accommodation in the context of political and social realities. Israelis live better than Palestinians and Israeli Jews better than Israeli Arabs. Western parallels are comparisons between the US an Mexico, and internal comparisons between ethnic majorities and others. Overall, the conditions of Israeli Arabs are arguably better than those of American or European minorities. (Note the data that Israeli Arabs are healthier (as measured by life expectancy) than American whites, and much more healthier than American minorities.)
Conditions of Israeli Arabs and Palestinians could improve with respect to those of Israeli Jews, but that depends at least partly upon their fuller accommodation with Israel''s existence, and their leaders'' capacity to take the political steps appropriate in the directions of engagement, compromise, trade-offs, and deal making.