The unstoppable force of Israel’s settlement movement is about to hit the immovable object of Israel’s desire to be a Jewish-majority democracy.
Israeli politicians may have paid a whole lot of lip-service to the notion of a two-state solution over the years, but they continue to carve up and settle the very land that that Palestinian state would be founded upon.
Mahmoud Abbas is calling their bet. He is now threatening to disband the Palestinian authority and hand over control of the West Bank to Israel in retaliation for Israel’s ongoing settlement building activities:
Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, said he will hand over responsibilty for the West Bank to Israel if peace talks are not renewed after Israel’s elections, Haaretz newspaper reported on Thursday.
In an interview with the Israeli newspaper, Abbas said he would relinquish control and disband the Palestinian authority if there was no progress after January 22.
This — if carried through — is quite literally the single smartest thing any Palestinian leader has ever done. As Jeffrey Goldberg noted back in November:
There is a strategy the Palestinians could implement immediately that would help move them toward independence: They could give up their dream of independence.
It’s a very simple idea. When Abbas goes before the UN, he shouldn’t ask for recognition of an independent state. Instead, he should say the following: “Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza 45 years ago, and shows no interest in letting go of the West Bank, in particular.We, the Palestinian people, recognize two things: The first is that we are not strong enough to push the Israelis out. Armed resistance is a path to nowhere. The second is that the occupation is permanent. The Israelis are here to stay. So we are giving up our demand for independence. Instead, we are simply asking for the vote. Israel rules our lives. We should be allowed to help pick Israel’s rulers.”
Reaction would be seismic and instantaneous. The demand for voting rights would resonate with people around the world, in particular with American Jews, who pride themselves on support for both Israel and for civil rights at home. Such a demand would also force Israel into an untenable position; if it accedes to such a demand, it would very quickly cease to be the world’s only Jewish-majority state, and instead become the world’s 23rd Arab-majority state. If it were to refuse this demand, Israel would very quickly be painted by former friends as an apartheid state.
Israel’s response, then, can be reasonably predicted: Israeli leaders eager to prevent their country from becoming a pariah would move to negotiate the independence, with security caveats, of a Palestinian state on the West Bank, and later in Gaza, as well. Israel would simply have no choice.
This is the very best chance that the Palestinians have of getting a state, and if not a state at least equal democratic rights and some kind of peace. By accepting Israeli rule, Israel would be forced to choose between offering citizenship to the millions of Arabs living in the land it controls (endangering Israel’s status as a Jewish-majority state), or losing its status as a democracy (by denying West Bank Arabs votes) which has brought it significant international support and millions of dollars of aid. Goldberg’s theory is that Israel would choose to remain Jewish-majority, bring the settlement movement under control and relinquish land to the West Bank Arabs to found a Palestinian state.
But I don’t think that Israelis will overwhelmingly choose to abandon the settlements and retreat to the ’67 borders. The growth of Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home party which advocates for a one state solution where West Bank Arabs are left without voting rights illustrates this very well. So too does Likud’s recent transformation into a party largely opposed to the two-state solution, under the control of hardliners like Moshe Feiglin and Danny Danon.
Indeed, the religious right in Israel appears wholly committed to the idea of not giving up an inch of the biblical land of Israel:
The interesting thing is that Gaza is not part of that historic territory. It is often said that including the entirety of the Palestinian territories, Jews and Arabs are very close in population — according to 2007 data, there are 5,300,000 Arabs, and 6,000,000 Jews. However discluding Gaza, Jews retain a large majority — 6,000,000 against just 3,700,000 Arabs. What this means is that by withdrawing from Gaza as Sharon did, Israel could in theory annex the West Bank, grant full-citizenship to the Arab residents (and so remain a democracy), and remain heavily Jewish-majority for the foreseeable future.
This simple fact means that the likeliest compromise between Israel’s settlement movement and its desire to portray itself as a Jewish-majority democracy is the annexation of only the West Bank, leaving Gaza to either merge with Egypt — increasingly likely given the well-known ties between Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood — or to exist as the Palestinian state.
While some like Naftali Bennett may push to keep West Bank Arabs from getting Knesset votes, Israel’s Jewish-majority status would not be threatened by every single West Bank Arab receiving a Knesset vote. This may very well be the best that West Bank Arabs can hope for — they are already under Israeli rule backed by overwhelming Israeli military superiority, and a diehard settlement movement, and have been for almost fifty years. And although there is significant discrimination against Arabs under Israeli rule — indeed, a majority of Israeli Jews openly advocate it — a larger Arab voting bloc would minimise this.
Mahmoud Abbas’ threat is a wise acceptance of this reality. Israeli settlements are not going anywhere. The two state solution is effectively dead. Palestinians in the West Bank can either continue fighting futilely against an overwhelming enemy, or work toward equal rights in the state in which they now live.