Prime Minister Yair Lapid delighted many of his supporters by reaching out to the Palestinians at the UN General Assembly. But he also drew criticism, unhelpful in an electoral campaign, by sticking to the two-state solution. Israel and the Palestinians need partition to be sure, but the two-state paradigm may not be the easiest.
It’s no surprise that right-wing politicians attacked Lapid for his “leftism.” The current version of the right cares little about the de facto creation of a binational and nondemocratic state. They think Israel can – and should – forever oppress the Palestinians.
But Lapid also absorbed criticism from his own camp. Defense Minister Benny Gantz claimed on Channel 12 that they “disagree” on the Palestinian issue and Giora Eiland – a former general, but a respected moderate – said on KAN radio that Lapid is “wrong” about the Palestinian state.
Such sniping at Lapid does not contribute to creating the momentum he badly needs ahead of the November election; It reinforces the feeling in the public that the Center-Left does not have a coherent policy or a dominant leader.
And sadly, the criticism is not without some basis in reality (although in Gantz’s case there are also political shenanigans at play since in the former military chief’s unsportsmanlike position he would rather be seen as the alternative to opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu).
Why can't Israel reach an agreement with the Palestinians?
It indeed does not seem realistic for Israel to reach an agreement with the Palestinian leadership – even the Ramallah-based Fatah half represented by Mahmoud Abbas – on a Palestinian state. This is because the minimum demands set by the Palestinians in return for declaring an end to the conflict exceed what Israel is able to accommodate.
Even moderate Palestinians truly demand the entire West Bank; this would leave Israel less than 20 km. width near Netanya. They are serious about controlling the Old City and for the border to pass through the middle of Jerusalem.
This is probably a physical impossibility and the few precedents that can be found (Nicosia and Berlin in the Communist era) enjoyed a more reasonable topography and the absence of terrorism. And some are even serious about the “right of return” for descendants of Palestinian refugees; this would require Israel to risk that millions of Palestinians born in Lebanon and Syria might decide to emigrate to the Galilee.
The Palestinians insist on this for several reasons. First, even a complete transfer of the entire West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem to their control would leave Israel (because of the size of the Negev) in control of more than 70% of mandatory Palestine. Second, the violent extremists among them would never forgive a leader who settles for less. Third, and most importantly, unlike the Israeli right they understand very well that the status quo serves them in the long term, and they possess a stoic willingness (for their people) to suffer in the meantime.
TWICE IN the last 20 years or so Palestinian leaders have failed to embrace far-reaching offers and the skeptics are probably right that they would do it again. Hence, the conclusion by so many that the Palestinian state option is not realistic. But if this narrative is translated into the continuation of the status quo, the result is catastrophic for Israel’s survivability as a Jewish state.
There is already a small Arab majority from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean – the definition of the Holy Land, Eretz Yisrael and Palestine. Even with Gaza out of the equation, the Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, plus the Arab citizens of Israel, leave the Jews with less than 60% of the population. That’s not a Jewish state.
The Right thinks that the fact that the West Bank Palestinians are mostly squeezed into areas A of the Palestinian Authority surrounded by Israeli control makes it as if they are not present. This is infantile – akin to concluding that if the Palestinians were confined to their homes and the homes were not annexed then they would somehow not be here.
Areas A are not contiguous; the autonomy map does not create a reasonable separation into separate entities; and Israel still controls them anyway in practice (the external borders, the ultimate law and security control, the currency and the natural resources).
Moreover, settlers with full citizenship rights live right next to Palestinians disenfranchised in all ways except for their ID cards from the largely fictitious “authority.”
Down this way lies madness: the collapse of the Palestinian Authority and the conflict transitioning from a national dispute to one based on civil and human rights. The world will pressure Israel to annex the West Bank and grant citizenship to the Palestinians and this will eventually occur. This combined country will not be peaceful; Jews will leave; its name will eventually become – probably before 2048 – Palestine.
It is logical for Lapid to want to avoid this, and the right wing is simply blinded by militarism, arrogance and, in some cases, religion. But if Lapid wants to avoid charges of being superficial, he should simply state that it is in Israel’s interest to separate itself from the Palestinians. The exact formula can remain open to debate.
I have my own view of what can and should occur, and it requires the right wing to be far away from power. Israel’s interest is to redraw the map of the West Bank to include most of the settlers, but to declare unequivocally that it does not covet the territory beyond that; the fence line is a reasonable start.
It SHOULD unilaterally freeze settlements beyond the fence line. In the long term, a way must be found to bring home the 100,000-odd settlers who already reside too far inside the West Bank.
That would yield a pure military occupation that can be temporary, while Israel, the Palestinians, the Arabs and the world figure out what to do – and justified purely by security reasons. With the precedent of Hamas taking over Gaza, security concerns are understandable.
Essentially, the world can comprehend with some sympathy Israeli efforts to prevent rocket fire on its territory; it cannot abide the Israeli version of apartheid-lite which festers in the territories. And what makes it unacceptable is the settlements. The settlements are setting Israel up for not only a binational state but also a major rift with the US and American Jews.
Experts like Eiland understand all this, but confuse the voters by quibbling with Lapid. They argue that a Palestinian-Jordanian confederation is a more plausible option than an independent Palestinian state. But Israel faces no sure-fire solutions.
While it’s true that Jordan may not feel as urgent a need to stick to maximalist demands as do the Palestinians, the current Hashemite leadership of Jordan is also not interested in adding any Palestinians to its existing Palestinian majority. Perhaps things in Jordan will change in the future – but it is not in Israel’s interest to wish for this; the Hashemite monarchy has been a convivial peace partner.
Predictions are impossible in a Middle East where Syria may disintegrate, the Iranian regime may collapse and Saudi Arabia may liberalize. Many possibilities might emerge.
But all that will take time. Meanwhile, in Israel many on the Center-Left have given up. They are willing to concede defeat to the Right’s suicide march, and are making plans for the binational state in hopes that it will be democratic. They hope that it will be more like Belgium that Yugoslavia, and I fear they hope in vain.
What is clear, though, is that Israel is digging its own grave by adding settlers across the fence line. A freeze would both make sense and convey to voters that there is a practical plan for starting to defuse a complex and dangerous situation.
The writer is the former Cairo-based Middle East editor and London-based Europe/Africa editor of the Associated Press, served as chairman of the Foreign Press Association in Jerusalem and is managing partner of the New York-based communications firm Thunder11. Follow him at twitter.com/perry_dan.