Political reality reveals fascinating paradoxes. Sometimes a curse holds a blessing and sometimes a blessing carries a disaster. For example, the growing threat of Iran, which many Israelis fear, serves our interest in deepening relations with the Arab world. At the same time, Palestinian weakness, which many Israelis welcome, calls into question the Jewish character of Israel, as will be clarified below. These two paradoxes are intertwined: The Arab leaders who want to get closer to Israel in the face of the Iranian menace are less anxious about internal opposition due to the growing public indifference to the fate of the Palestinians.
Those who are mainly to blame for the Palestinian fatigue are the Palestinians themselves: 15 years of unresolved division between the West Bank and Gaza, endless rivalry between Fatah and Hamas, and corrupt governance are at the top of the depressing list. All these have alienated the Palestinians from their best friends and have also intensified the erosion of the Israeli peace camp.
Indeed, every handshake between an Israeli leader and his Arab counterpart and every El Al plane flying across the skies of Saudi Arabia validate for the Israeli public the right-wing claim: Weakening the Palestinians and pushing their cause off the agenda paves the way for peace with the rest of the Arab world without relinquishing territory.
A reason to celebrate? Definitely not.
Under the shield of stalemate in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, settlement activity continues steadily and gnaws away at the possibility of dividing the land between the two peoples, which would sustain the Jewish character of Israel. The threat is suppressed and pushed from the public discourse. In the election campaign already upon us, the leading candidates will not volunteer to explain how they intend to deal with the most significant calamity Israel faces: the loss of its essence as a Jewish state.
Jerusalem’s demographic situation is the most tangible embodiment of the binational reality that threatens us. Israel may face a rude and shuddering awakening on the day the Arab residents of Jerusalem decide to participate in the municipal elections. A survey conducted in early 2018 at the initiative of the Hebrew University found that almost 60% of east Jerusalem residents are in favor of participating in the capital’s municipal elections.
So far, this desire has been quashed by the Palestinian leadership, which views it as granting legitimacy to the Israeli occupation. But this national logic is about to dissipate as the practical possibility of dividing the land fades and the Palestinian national weakness deepens.
A fresh reminder of this weakness appears in the findings of a recent poll conducted by the Washington Institute, which points to a moderation process in the attitudes of the Palestinian residents of east Jerusalem. According to this poll, if the Arabs of Jerusalem were given the choice, 48% would opt for Israeli citizenship (compared to 20% in surveys conducted by 2020), 43% would favor Palestinian citizenship and 9% would choose Jordanian citizenship. In the same spirit, 63% of Jerusalem’s Arab residents agree with the statement, “It would be better for us if we were part of Israel, rather than in Palestinian Authority or Hamas ruled lands.”
Paradoxically, this moderation trend found by the survey must serve as a flashing warning light: it signals that Arab participation in Jerusalem’s municipal elections is only a matter of time. Sooner or later, they will break free from the past and exercise their legal right to vote so that Jerusalem better reflects the power, culture and aspirations of the city’s 350,000 Arabs.
The political mutation away from the Palestinian national weakness will not be confined to Israel’s capital. Jerusalem’s experience will show the Palestinians in the territories that there is, in fact, a substitute for a two state solution: a one-state solution. When the Palestinians decide to follow in the footsteps of their Jerusalem brethren and opt for Israeli citizenship, who in the world would side with Israel if it denies them the right to vote in national Knesset elections? Eventually, Israel will become a bi-national state and its Jewish expressions, such as “Hatikvah,” the national flag and the holidays, will lose their status and their meaning.
The Palestinian weakness, the signs of moderation and the decline in their national aspirations are perceived by many in Israel as a marvel, but the cunning of history may prove that in what appears to be a blessing lurks a lethal curse: the end of Israel as a Jewish state.
The writer is a senior fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute and a former director-general of the Foreign Ministry. His new novel Toronto Junction was recently published by 2sfarim-publishing.