By David K. Shipler
In the 52 years since Israel took control of the West Bank from Jordan during the Six-Day War, the prospect of attaining peace by granting some form of self-government to the area’s Palestinian Arabs has hovered over the conflict like an apparition of hope or dread, depending on your political view. Now, that approach to solving the conflict might be closed off by Israel’s tight election results, since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is positioned to form a right-wing coalition.
In the first two decades after the 1967 war, the notion of an independent Palestinian state was so anathema to most Israeli Jews that it was supported only on the far left, mainly by Communists in the tiny Hadash party. Even liberal Peace Now leaders, who opposed Jewish settlements that were being built in the West Bank, avoided advocating Palestinian statehood for fear that their movement would lose credibility in Israel’s mainstream.
Indeed, Israel’s 1978 Camp David accord with Egypt, which led to a peace treaty in 1979, stopped short of calling for a Palestinian state, providing instead for “autonomy,” which was ill-defined and never implemented. Once statehood gained traction in Israeli politics following the 1993 Oslo accords with the Palestine Liberation Organization, support among Israelis usually oscillated just above and below 50 percent, with occasional spikes during peaceful stretches.
That support itself carried so many caveats that it would have been impossible to convert into statehood without broad changes of attitude among both Israelis and Palestinians. Spates of terrorism by Palestinians knocked off some percentage points, as would be expected, but even in relatively calm periods, Israeli Jews expressed serious doubts about statehood defined as Palestinians might accept, and Palestinians had their own reservations about the compromises they would have to make.
A joint Israeli-Palestinian poll in December 2013, for example, found an abstract two-state solution supported by 63 percent of Israelis and 53 percent of Palestinians. But the numbers declined as details were specified. Israeli withdrawal from all but 3 percent of the West Bank—all Jewish settlements except those in several large blocks—was favored by only 44 percent of Israelis. A Palestine with no army and only a strong police and multinational force appealed to 60 percent of Israelis but just 28 percent of Palestinians. Dividing Jerusalem was accepted by merely 37 and 32 percent of Israelis and Palestinians respectively—each side wanted the city all for itself. And in December 2012, a refugee solution providing for compensation to Palestinian refugees, their right of return to the new Palestinian state, and an undefined number admitted to Israel, won only minority support on both sides—39 percent of Israelis and 49 percent of Palestinians.
It’s conceivable that inspirational Israeli and Palestinian leaders could have moved both populations toward accommodation if there had been a long run of nonviolence. The Palestinians have never had such a figure, and since the ’67 war Israel has had only one—Yitzhak Rabin, the old warrior who signed the Oslo agreement and was then assassinated by a right-wing religious Jew. Netanyahu, now poised for a fifth term after yesterday’s elections, has narrowed Israel’s options by aggressively expanding Jewish settlements.
“Settlements” is a misnomer. Some began as tiny outposts of house trailers under Labor governments, and grew intensively under the Likud government of Prime Minister Menachem Begin. Many are now small cities of apartments, synagogues, swimming pools, schools, and the like, so extensive that few contiguous swatches of territory remain to make a coherent Palestinian state without wholesale withdrawal of Jewish residents. And just before the election, Netanyahu—emboldened by the blank check President Trump has given for Israeli dominance—announced that if reelected he would annex the settlements by extending Israeli “sovereignty.”
That would end the possibility of a Palestinian state, relegating Israel to a quasi-democracy. The 2.6 million West Bank Palestinians would remain disenfranchised under Israeli control. The term “apartheid,” already used by Israel’s severest critics, would become an appropriate description.
An expanded Israel would face a demographic time bomb. The Jewish and Arab populations are now about even in the territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean, if you count the Palestinians in Israel proper (one-fifth of Israeli citizens are Arab); the Gaza Strip (now ruled by the radical Palestinian movement Hamas); East Jerusalem (annexed by Israel); and the West Bank (a patchwork of Israeli and Palestinian administrations). The disparities in birthrates guarantee that Jews would eventually be a minority ruling over an Arab majority.
The center has not held on either side. Israelis and Palestinians have radicalized each other. As Palestinians have watched the spread of Jewish settlements and suffered the indignation and violence of Israeli army checkpoints and arrests, their politicians, journalists, teachers, and religious clerics have peddled mythical history and fantastic dreams that activate Israelis’ existential fears.
In the last several decades, Palestinian society has been infected by the falsehood that no Jewish temples ever stood in the Old City of Jerusalem. Go to a West Bank school and you’re likely to hear this from Arab students, who parrot the argument that the two Jewish temples of biblical times are fictions concocted by Israelis to rationalize their claims to the land. This is a toxic lie, for it says to Israeli Jews: You have no roots here, you have no legitimacy here, you are interlopers and colonialists.
Furthermore, Palestinians have increasingly championed their dreams of returning to Arab villages destroyed in Israel’s 1948 war of independence, or since converted to Jewish towns. High school students in Ramallah, on the West Bank, told me several years ago that they were from Jaffa (a formerly Arab city) or such-and-such Arab town and were merely “living in Ramallah.” In fact, no one in their immediate families had lived in those towns since their grandparents 71 years ago. In a cultural center in Dheisheh refugee slum near Bethlehem, each room is named after a destroyed Arab village inside Israel. This says to Israeli Jews: Your country will be overtaken by Palestinians.
This might be empty propaganda, but it is regarded seriously by the Israeli right, and feeds the anxiety that a West Bank Palestinian state would be a well of constant struggle against the Jewish state. In addition, security concerns animate anxiety across much of the Israeli political spectrum. That’s a product of bad experience.
The Oslo accords stimulated Palestinian radicals to disrupt the peace process by staging uprisings and suicide terrorist attacks, which provoked disproportionate Israeli attacks on the West Bank by air and artillery. Israel’s unilateral military withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 produced not peaceful coexistence but rockets instead, fired randomly into Israel by Hamas, which came to power after Israel’s departure.
I am told by Israeli friends that Palestinians on the West Bank are hardly on the radar screen of most Jews, especially the young, who have lived their entire lives in the current situation. Israeli news coverage is minimal, no peace negotiations are underway, and terrorism is at a relatively low ebb. That is due in part to a security wall that Israel built along the West Bank border after earlier waves of attacks, and in part to efforts by the Palestinian Authority to cooperate with Israeli security in preventing terrorism. (The Oslo accords gave the Authority limited patches of West Bank territory to run.)It could be that if Netanyahu goes ahead with annexation, Palestinians might want to get Israelis’ attention—in ways that wouldn’t be pretty. And if a Palestinian state is foreclosed, no other way to resolve the conflict is apparent. Israel would have deprived itself of flexibility, rarely a mark of wise policy. Slamming the door on others also means slamming the door on yourself.