Palestinian Jews and Israeli Arabs

Jews living in what may become a future Palestinian state should have the same native status and rights to citizenship and land in that state as Arabs do in ours.

311_Beitar Illit (photo credit: Associated Press)
311_Beitar Illit
(photo credit: Associated Press)
Freezing growth of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, on the assumption that these lands will become part of a future sovereign Palestine, might arguably be fair were the same principle applied in equal measure to Arab cities and villages in Israel. Were Arabs forbidden to rent or purchase new land or to expand their cities, it would be judged racist and loudly protested. Israeli Arabs are Israeli citizens. Most of them had progenitors or brethren that lived in what is now Israel at the time of its reestablishment. And you know what? Jews living in what may become a future Palestinian state would then have the same native status and rights to citizenship in that state.
Would Jews really consent to be loyal citizens of a Palestinian state whose newly established borders included them? Well, why would they be any less loyal to it, if they remain there, than Israeli Arabs (of which the corresponding question could be asked) are to Israel?
Surely, they would have as much of an interest in its stability as any other citizen. There is the long-standing complication, of course, that Jews in a predominantly Arab country would be in mortal danger – that is one of the true asymmetries in the Middle East – but who knows what they would decide if the Palestinian state provided (not promised, provided) them physical security and equal rights?
However hypothetical this question may be, the fact that the answer is at present unknowable should not deprive Jews of fundamental rights to purchase or rent land anywhere.
Wait, some may say: The Jews living in occupied territories obtained their residence there via conquest, whereas Arabs living in Israel were already there at its inception. Actually, the Arabs acquired their residence and supremacy through conquest followed by racist laws. Throughout the Ottoman occupation, not to mention the preceding millennia, Arabs were allowed to settle in Palestine/Israel while Jews, with few exceptions, were not. It is no wonder that Arabs there outnumbered Jews in the early 20th century.
It must have seemed very peculiar and threatening to many Arabs when the British briefly allowed both Jews and Arabs to settle in Israel/Palestine, and they soon got the British to put a stop to it. Now outraged that Jews are still allowed to settle in the West Bank, from which Jews were evicted long ago and again in 1948, they are successfully pressuring US President Barack Obama as they successfully pressured Great Britain. It’s all very expected and ho-hum, as racism traditionally is until challenged.
LEAVING ASIDE all mention of the State of Israel, peace will come to the Middle East only when all Arabs with the power to ruin such peace recognize the right of Jews to live there. The violence and terror, which existed in even greater proportions before 1948, are not about border disputes, Israel’s policies or even Israel itself. Aside from ethnic bigotry, the fighting is over real estate.
Allowing Jews to buy land freely and live in peace on it, if it doesn’t ruin the neighborhood, drives up prices. David Ben-Gurion’s book My Talks with Arab Leaders reveals the candid statements of those leaders about why they opposed Jewish immigration, even within an Arab-dominated Palestine. He paraphrases Auni Abdul Hadi, a prominent Palestinian Arab, speaking in July 1934, shortly after Hitler took power in Germany: “Who can resist the insane prices [for land] paid by Jews?”
To this day, the right to private land transactions between consenting parties counts for little in Middle Eastern politics.In a free market, politicians have less power. Jews living on land in the Gaza Strip privately purchased from Arab owners were evicted from it by the Sharon government, while the world cheered, because they were Jews, and, on these grounds alone, apparently not permitted to exercise their legal ownership. Arab political leaders loudly protested the influx of Jews from the former Soviet Union during the 1990s for reasons that had nothing to do with Arab-Israeli borders, and everything to do with their being Jews and not Arabs.
This is not to deny the difficulties of poor tenants when real estate prices increase. This universal problem, however, is hardly grounds for abolishing the freedom of property owners to sell it for a good price. If an Arab wants to sell his home and/or plot of land for a million dollars to a Jew who is willing to pay this much for it, what right does anyone have to prevent these individuals from making the transaction?
Had the freedom of private transaction between consenting individuals been respected before 1948, there would have been no massive Palestinian refugee problem. The cost of 10,000 brand new homes per year that would have been needed for Palestinians displaced by market forces (far less than the rate of home foreclosures in the US during the recent recession) would have been $1 billion or so per year (in 2010 dollars). This is ludicrously small compared to the cost of support for post- 1948 refugees. Most importantly, the cost of new homes and land plots would have been truly minuscule compared to the revenues that land sales to Jews in Hitler’s shadow would have brought to the Palestinian Arabs.
THE POSITION that Jews are entitled to live anywhere is the one slim hope for peace, because it confronts the underlying obstacle to peace head on. The last breakthrough for peace, Menahem Begin’s agreement with Anwar Sadat (skyrocketing oil prices of the 1970s notwithstanding), followed Begin’s innocent question to the world: Jews are allowed to live in London, New York, Los Angeles, why shouldn’t they be allowed to live in the land of their forefathers? The world did not have a good answer.
Perhaps sensing in Begin a man of strength and principle, as per president Jimmy Carter’s description, Sadat dramatically announced within months that he was going to Jerusalem in search of peace. His recognition of Israel as a matter of principle preceded any territorial negotiations, probably because he recognized that universal matters of principle are not bargaining chips, even if the guarantees and details of their implementation are. This recognition did not end up costing Egypt an inch of territory.(Of course, the knee-jerk expulsion of the Jews from the Sinai cost Egypt billions of dollars in tax revenues.)
Arabs and Jews want to fall in love, raise families, earn money, buy homes, sell them for a profit and buy newer, better ones, and to pursue happiness – anywhere. Has Obama considered how he is interfering with this process, on both sides, when ethnic restrictions are imposed, at his behest, on transaction of property and on construction?
When private individuals enjoy unrestricted rights to conduct private business, warmongering elements are neutralized. As quoted by a 2009 New York Times article about the improvement of the Palestinian economy and security, Palestinian store owner Rashid al-Sakhel said, “For the past eight years, a 10-year-old boy could order a strike and we would all close. Now nobody can threaten us.”
People also want physical security and, in a region with a history of violence, mistrust, numerical asymmetry and dictatorship, it will be hard to implement the ideals of unrestricted individual freedom. But this is all the more reason to proclaim the ideals, while negotiations for assurances, guarantees, checks and balances, etc. proceed. Otherwise, there is little to negotiate about.
Peace, which surely must accommodate Israeli Arabs in its equation, must also accommodate Palestinian Jews. And it must accommodate the inevitability of competition over land. We cannot eliminate such competition through negotiation, but we can choose whether it will take place on the battlefield or in the free market.
The writer is professor of theoretical astrophysics at Ben-Gurion University.