Searching for serenity in Israel and Palestine
After Asher Susser, an Israeli scholar and one of his country’s foremost experts on Middle Eastern affairs, gave a talk in Oslo a few years ago, an audience member asked him a question: How soon, once a Palestinian state is created, will Israel and Palestine unite to form one country? “Twenty-four hours!” Susser said he replied. “Twenty-four hours after Norway and Sweden unite into one Scandinavian state!”
Susser, with whom I spoke recently in London, told the story to illustrate the fact that, as he said, “people value their ethnic and national identities much more than many wish to believe. Norway and Sweden are similar and friendly societies, but a merger would be unthinkable. Why assume it would be different with us?” (Norway, once united with Sweden under a Swedish king, achieved full independence in 1905.)
His central thesis, which he says will be revealed once more in all its dreary inevitability when President Barack Obama meets Israeli and Palestinian leaders next month, is that there is no hope of a successful negotiation between Israelis and Palestinians. Structurally, psychologically, culturally, politically, they cannot agree. So better not to try.
This is not, he insists, a message of despair. Nor is it a reformulation of the view on the right – of politicians like Naftali Bennett of HaBayit HaYehudi (“Jewish Home”), who didn’t achieve an expected breakthrough in the elections late last month; nor Avigdor Lieberman, the former foreign minister and leader of Yisrael Beiteinu (“Israel, Our Home”), who had to stand down from his office because of an impending trial for fraud and breach of trust. They don’t believe Israel should allow a Palestinian state to emerge. Susser believes such an emergence is imperative for Israel’s survival.
Israelis know that optimistic projects have come to naught and always will. There are two fundamental issues that bedevil everything: the right of return and the status of the Palestinians who remain in Israel and are Israeli citizens. Both stem from 1948, when Israel defeated a coalition of Arab armies and annexed large parts of Palestine that had been allotted, under a United Nations plan, to the Palestinians. The Israeli victory was followed by the expulsion of many of the Palestinians in the area, mainly to Jordan, but many others stayed. The right of return for the majority who left and who are mainly in Jordan would destroy Israel’s status as a Jewish state. Palestinians would become a majority, the Jewishness of the state would be gone – and, most Israelis believe, so would its democracy. “Who would protect the Jews then? Look at the fate of the Christians in the Middle East”, says Susser.
The Israeli Arabs, some 20 percent of the population of 7.7 million, are – polls show – increasingly disaffected. A 2009 survey showed that only 41 percent of Israeli Arabs believe Israel has a right to exist as a Jewish, democratic state – down from almost 66 percent six years before. The 2010 Arab Jewish Relations Survey showed 62 percent believed that the Jews are a foreign element in the Middle East, destined to be replaced by Palestinians. Arab Israelis vote less, care less about Parliament and more often take part in the commemoration of the Nakba (“The Disaster”), the 1948 expulsions. Almost 40 percent don’t believe the Holocaust happened. On the Jewish side, attitudes have also hardened. There is more distrust, less concern for good relations, a recoil from contact or hospitality, more anger at the disloyalty of those they believe live a much better life than their ethnic kin elsewhere. Itzchak Weisman, who heads the Jewish-Arab Center at Haifa University, blames the Likud-dominated governments of recent years and the rise of radical religious figures on both sides.
So be it, says Susser. The Jewish obsession with Arab-Israeli loyalty is futile. “You think the Arabs are going to sing Hatikvah? Give me a break!” Hatikvah (“The Hope”) is the Israeli national anthem, full of Zionist yearning. The refrain runs, “Our hope is not yet lost/The ancient hope/To return to the land of our fathers/The city where David encamped.” Truly, it would be an exceptional Arab who sang that with conviction.
Reconciliation, accord, peace settlement: All these large concepts should be set aside. Instead, there should be a recognition of, and more support for, the work of U.S.-educated Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad in building up the economy of the West Bank as a prelude to full statehood. Statehood for the Palestinians must become a central Israeli aim – Susser believes Israel should have supported Palestine’s bid for statehood recognition at the U.N.. But statehood should come incrementally, and unilaterally – each side pursuing their own ends, with a largely tacit recognition that two states would, bit by bit, emerge.
The three main settlement blocs on the West Bank would be integrated into Israel with corresponding concessions of Israeli territory to the Palestinians state. The greatest danger is the growth of belief in a one-state solution, which would, like the right of return, destroy the entire Zionist project. But if the Israeli government offers only aggression, and elevates those who believe in aggression to power, belief in a one-state solution will grow.
Will something like this happen? Negotiations between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and various parties to form a new cabinet after the decline of the right and the growth of the center – especially of the TV presenter Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid (“There is a Future”) Party – continue as this is written. Lapid, whose program is largely a domestic one, believes in two states, though it has been last on his list of priorities. The Arab Spring is slowly turning into another – this time self-administered – Arab disaster, with wholly unpredictable effects on relations with Israel. This will tend to harden Israeli attitudes.
The temptation of an activist U.S. administration, newly energized and eager for success, is to knock Israeli and Palestinian heads together, to force a deal. The response of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to the announcement of the Obama visit was tepid, his electorate’s apparently more so. The Jewish reaction is similarly indifferent. Yet perhaps indifference to grand schemes, and offerings to the gods of small things, should get an outing?
PHOTO: Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) attends the swearing-in ceremony of the 19th Knesset, the new Israeli parliament, in Jerusalem February 5, 2013. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun
PHOTO:Women wave Palestinian (front) and Fatah flags during a rally marking the 48th anniversary of the founding of the Fatah movement, in Gaza City January 4, 2013. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem