Israel's New Politics and the Fate of Palestine

Israel's New Politics and the Fate of Palestine

Mini Teaser: Geography and demography now trump democracy in Israel. The country pays lip service to the two-state solution while steadily appropriating the land it wants in the occupied territories.

by Author(s): Akiva Eldar

Netanyahu himself testified to this scheme and his way of handling it in a private conversation in 2001, when he was out of office. Unaware that he was being recorded, he bragged about the manipulative tactics he had used in his first tenure as prime minister to undermine the Oslo accords. He explained that he had insisted the Clinton administration provide him with a written commitment that Israel alone would be able to determine the borders of the “defined military sites” that would remain under its control. He went on to say that by defining the entire Jordan Valley as a military location, he “actually stopped the Oslo Accord.” He was right. Without this large area, the Palestinians wouldn’t have a viable state.

Indeed, under Netanyahu’s first tenure as prime minister, which ended in 1999, little progress was made in implementing the agreed-upon phases or moving toward a final-status agreement. When the five years allocated for the transitional period passed, no Palestinian state seemed near.

During his first term, Netanyahu came under attack from both sides. Those opposed to dividing the land were furious that he didn’t spurn the peace process overtly. Supporters of the accords, meanwhile, protested against his foot-dragging in implementing the agreement’s provisions. All condemned Netanyahu’s indecision. But these critics failed to perceive that Israel’s new status quo approach was actually a choice—and, indeed, a policy.

No one publicly embraced this decision, and yet it seemed to generate its own momentum as various players quietly understood that it served their purposes. A report published by the International Crisis Group, tellingly titled “The Emperor Has No Clothes: Palestinians and the End of the Peace Process,” lists benefits to the various partners in the so-called peace process, including the entities known collectively as the “quartet” (the UN, United States, European Union and Russia). The Europeans, said the report, wanted influence in the Middle East, and by funding the Palestinian Authority (PA) they found they could get a seat at some prestigious diplomatic tables. Russia and the UN harbored similar desires for diplomatic advancement.

Meanwhile, Washington knew its support for the ongoing peace process, however much it may be a sham, allowed it to maintain good relations with Arab countries even as it nurtured its “special relationship” with Israel. Thus, the United States saw in the status quo an opportunity to preserve its influence in the Middle East by maintaining a delicate balance in its ties with most major regional players. But this approach is far removed from the evenhanded policy championed by President Dwight Eisenhower in the early years of Israel’s existence. Israel today shows immense confidence in the financial aid and large diplomatic umbrella it gets from America, as reflected in Netanyahu’s oft-quoted comment:

I know what America is. America is something that can be easily moved. Moved to the right [direction]. . . . They won’t get in our way. They won’t get in our way. . . . So let’s say they say something. So they said it! They said it! 80 percent of the Americans support us.

Even the Palestinians get sucked into this status quo game, although they pay the highest price for the current stalemate and have demonstrated in recent years open hostility to continuing the barren peace talks. But in reality, under such extremely asymmetrical circumstances, they likely would suffer the most if the process were to collapse. Since the days of Yasir Arafat, and more intensely since the beginning of Mahmoud Abbas’s presidency, the PA leadership has relied almost solely on the international community for generous financial aid and global attention. Thus, the PA is highly dependent on foreign support. Its leaders fear that if they take actions that upset the international community, and particularly the United States, they will lose their aid—and consequently face a possible collapse in their political standing within the Palestinian community.

So, lacking any better alternative, the existence of the PA allows for a kind of welfare for large portions of the West Bank’s political and economic elite. This is true of Fatah, whose raison d’être has become maintaining the ongoing process. It also includes tens of thousands of families whose livelihoods depend on the PA. For these families, stopping the aid would be disastrous. Thus, if the peace process has become an addiction for many participants, as the International Crisis Group report notes, this addiction has become an absolute reliance for the people of the PA.

WHATEVER MOTIVATES most participants in the process, Israel’s embrace of it is most intense, for good reasons—including religion, historical traumas, national security, territorial aspirations, control over natural resources, the threat of internal social division and political survival. Yet, to understand how deeply rooted this imperative is for Israel, one must examine the foundation on which Israeli society and the ethos of its collective identity are built.

If Israeli citizens were to create a collective identification card, most would probably embrace the words “Jewish and democratic.” From the 1940s, when Israel was yet to be established, up until today, these two adjectives have been almost a binding code, the vision with which the different elements of the state were to act. This sensibility was embodied in the country’s declaration of independence, the basis of Israel’s establishment. A body of commentary, scholarship and civic documents emerged that sought to examine whether those two terms were contradictory. These studies included the “basic laws,” the groundwork for a possible future Israeli constitution, restrictions imposed on the platforms of parties running for the Knesset, and many hundreds of news and academic articles.

Yet, since Israel is not merely an abstract idea but an actual political entity, these two concepts—one connected to a collective cultural and religious identity, the other a method for governing—must be merged with the realities of geography. The relationship between the three sides of this triangle—geography, demography and democracy—has influenced Israel’s nature and policies from day one.

When the United Nations General Assembly voted on the partition plan in 1947, two-thirds of the inhabitants of mandatory Palestine were Arabs, while Jews constituted a third of the population. Of course, this situation did not allow for the existence of a state that would be both Jewish and democratic. But only a few months later, with the establishment of the state inside what would become the 1949 armistice line, 84 percent of the population of newly born Israel—spread over 78 percent of the land—were Jews. The formation of an almost absolute identity between the geographic partition and the demographic division over the different parts of what had been mandatory Palestine was anything but accidental. Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, summarized the consequences of the 1948 war:

The IDF could have conquered the entire territory between the [Jordan] River and the Sea. But what kind of state would we have? . . . We would have a Knesset with an Arab majority. Having to choose between the wholeness of the land or a Jewish State, we chose the Jewish State.

In other words, the demographic concern was the dominant factor in Israel’s decisions on how to conduct its first war—initially, by encouraging more than seven hundred thousand Arab inhabitants to leave the territories over which it took control, then by refraining from conquering additional territory.

Image: Pullquote: Washington knew its support for the ongoing peace process, however much it may be a sham, allowed it to maintain good relations with Arab countries even as it nurtured its “special relationship” with Israel.Essay Types: Essay