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.