Written for Jerusalem Post, March 2006.
Israel: Victim of Her Own Success
By Yakov M Rabkin
The recent incursion of Israeli troops into the prison in Jericho infuriated many Palestinians. They saw it as another slap on the face on the part of the vastly more powerful and arrogant Israel. Some took to the streets, others shot in the air and few kidnapped Western humanitarian workers. Their frustration is understandable. But there is a silver lining to this recent act of aggression.
The incursion demonstrates that the Palestinian Authority (PA) has in fact no authority. It never really did, in spite of its appurtenances of power and sovereignty. Israel allowed it to exist but never meant to share power with it. The main role of the PA was to control the Palestinians and prevent terrorism against Israelis. In the meantime, both Labour and Likud governments consolidated Israel’s control over territory, all the while isolating Palestinian population centres. Zionist approach has always been pragmatic: occupy as much land as possible with as few Arabs as possible. The arrangement with the Palestinian authority fits neatly into this approach.
The political philosopher, Hannah Arendt, warned in 1948, during Israel’s War of Independence:
Even if the Jews were to win the war … the “victorious” Jews would live surrounded by an entirely hostile Arab population, secluded inside ever threatened borders, absorbed by physical self-defence … And all this would be the fate of a nation that – no matter how many immigrants it could still absorb and how it extended its boundaries – would still remain a very small people greatly outnumbered by hostile neighbours.
Her prophecy has been sadly true. The State of Israel has faced incessant violence since its proclamation. Demographically, Israel’s Jewish population is and will remain a tiny minority facing the rapidly growing Arab masses, 40% of whom are today below the age of fifteen. Israel is condemned to live by the sword if the Zionist structure remains intact. To survive even in the short term, Israel will continue to need significant population inflows from abroad. But even if all the Jews of the world were to move to Israel, this would only delay the showdown with its more numerous and mostly hostile neighbours.
Throughout the years, the basic instincts of the Zionist settlement have remained intact. Israeli governments continue to flex the muscle and to humiliate the Palestinians. They want to have a Jewish state, yet find it difficult to let go of the Palestinian lands. Most Israelis continue to believe that the stronger and the bigger Israel becomes, the safer they will feel. This explains the reluctance of many Israelis to evacuate the occupied territories in spite of the obvious sacrifices that the retention of the land has required.
This addiction to the occupation is playing a dirty trick on Israel. Of course, Israel’s army is capable of defeating the Palestinians but the moral cost of such a “victory” would not bring peace any closer. Many Israeli generals have learned this the hard way, and once in retirement, openly decry the use of force in settling the
In the last decade, the State of Israel has become wealthy, militarily invincible and politically invulnerable. Its per capita revenue has surpassed many countries of the European Union while influential leaders in Europe suggest that Israel should join NATO. On the other hand, the gap between the Israelis and the Palestinians has become unbridgeable. This imbalance casts a coup de grace to the concept of a two-state solution, i.e. the establishment of a Palestinian state next to Israel.
After decades of conflicting nationalist efforts from both sides, it is the entire area from the Jordan to the sea, not just the occupied territories that requires a solution. New Jerusalem suburbs of Gilo or East Talpiot, Jewish cities of Ariel or Emanuel built on the lands conquered in 1967, are hardly different from cities in Israel proper. As the expulsion of Zionist settlers from Gaza clearly showed, large-scale evacuations in an eventual territorial settlement would be a human drama of major proportions. “Transferring” Arab population into Jordan and Egypt, an option accepted by about one half of Israelis, would be equally cruel, senseless and probably impossible. The separation along the security fence or the Wall that Israeli is building on Palestinian territories is hardly feasible since Jews and Arabs are too interspersed across the entire disputed territory and can be found on both sides of the Wall.
The frustration of the Palestinian Arabs subjected to Israeli military incursions and economic strangulation may finally weaken the Palestinians’ fixation on national independence à l’israélienne. The recent election of Hamas suggests that secular nationalism that has brought so little to the average Palestinian is on the decline. They may come around to demand equal rights within Israel rather than separation from it. After all, the State of Israel has lived two-thirds of its short history as the occupying power, which has created a common space shared, however unequally, by Israelis and Palestinians. Rather than a new nation-state, a liberal political structure based on citizens’ equal rights and, consequently, their self-interest, may have more chances to succeed.
Details of such a one-state arrangement may take a while to work out, and even longer to implement. Its main merit would be able to break the cycle of ethnic exclusivity and to end the bloody zero-sum game in the Holy Land. This idea was quite popular in both camps prior to 1948, and, according to recent surveys, is still popular among about one third of the Palestinians. Most Israelis, accustomed to the Zionist structure of their society, would recoil in horror from such a prospect. But they have only themselves to blame for the political, military and economic imbalance they have created. Israel may discover that it has become a victim of its own success. The new arrangement should augur a more peaceful future for Jews and Arabs alike. It will turn the intractable conflict in Israel/Palestine into peace and reconciliation along the lines of the arrangement in South Africa. This may not be perfect but will certainly be less dangerous, both for the inhabitants of the land and for the world around it.
Yakov M Rabkin is Professor of History at the University of Montreal; his most recent book is A Threat from Within: A Century of Jewish Opposition to Zionism (Fernwood, 2006)