For forty years Israel has been steadily engaged in a project-the occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip-that has had dual consequences: the marginalization and brutalization of the Palestinian people, and the deformation of the moral and social foundation of Israel itself. Now, because of a number of external pressures, Israel is at risk of serious and permanent changes to its identity as a Jewish Democratic state.
On November 27, the Bush administration will convene a peace conference at which will be gathered Palestinian and Israeli leaders, and high-ranking ministers from Syria and other Arab states. This meeting has been advertised as a grand scheme, evidence that the Bush administration is not indifferent to what remains of the peace process. But there is already skepticism that anything will be accomplished. In an interview with the Independent, former Congressman Lee Hamilton, who co-chaired both the 9/11 Commission and the Iraq Study Group, and who recently signed a letter-along with former Washington officials Brent Scowcroft, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and Henry Siegman-to the President exhorting him to success at Annapolis, noted of the meeting, “It looks at this point as if the content is going to be fairly thin. The Palestinians want specifics, and the Israelis prefer vagueness with regard to the principle issues. Probably the best that can be done here is avoiding failure.”
And yet avoiding failure at Annapolis-which could be as modest as, in Hamilton’s words, “the beginning of the start of a process”-could be vital to Israel’s future. Henry Seigman, the head of the US/Middle-East project, recently wrote, “Annapolis may well be a historic watershed-the last opportunity to salvage not only a two-state solution but a Jewish state that remains a democracy.”
The reason, Siegman said-a reason Israel’s leaders are well aware of-has to do with the changing demographic balance in Palestine. Palestinian birth rates are such that within the next year or two-and possibly already-there will be an Arab majority within the land that is historical Palestine-that is, Israel and the West Bank. This will have deep ramifications for Israel. Most Palestinians are not allowed to vote in Israeli elections, yet they also lack a state. This means that Israel will very soon face a situation in which a majority of its population cannot vote. So either Israel can work to create a viable Palestinian state based on the pre-1967 borders, and remain a democracy, or it can continue on its current path, which seems designed to discourage and stymie any progress toward a two-state solution. If it does this, it will forfeit its claim to democracy.
But this is not the most frightening prospect Israel faces if does not succeed in a negotiating a two-state solution. One of the great, generally unmentioned aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that what is today regarded as the legitimate border of a prospective Palestinian state-the pre-1967 border-actually represents less than half of the territory that the United Nations Partition Resolution originally assigned to Palestine’s Arab inhabitants. Anyone who imagines that Palestinians refuse to compromise would do well to remember that in 1988 they made, as Henry Siegman put, “the most far-reaching, wrenching compromise of all,” when Yassar Arafat accepted the legitimacy of an Israeli state within the pre-1967 border. Should the Annapolis conference fail, Siegman wrote, it may convince Palestinians that it is foolish to pursue a two-state solution at all. Instead, they might merely wait until they have established a majority within Israel, and then demand equal rights in a single state. The implications of this are impossible to overstate. If Palestinians decide they do not want a separate state, it will be an utter disaster for Israel. Israel will eventually have to give them the vote, and their demographic majority will spell the end of Israel as a Jewish state. The longer a two-state solution is postponed, the more attractive this prospect becomes for Palestinians. As Siegman wrote, “Why settle for crumbs now if as a result of their decisive majority they will soon become the dominant political and cultural force in all of Israel?”
The outline of the two-state solution is well known to Palestinians and Israelis, and polls continually demonstrate is desired by the majority of both sides. It is described by Lee Hamilton in his Independent interview. Essentially, it is a Palestinian state on the pre-1967 borders, with some land swaps with Israel to accommodate the most intractable settlements, a shared capital in Jerusalem, and the recognition, in principle, of the right of return to the estimated 4 million Palestinians expelled by Israel over the decades (though of course Palestinians will not be allowed to return in numbers that would threaten Israel’s Jewish demographic majority). If there is no movement toward these goals at the Annapolis conference, it will further alienate Palestinians, who over the last few years have become increasingly disenchanted about the prospect of a negotiated settlement with Israel. Israel’s refusal to reign in the radical, violent Zionist settlers who continue to illegally set up outposts in the West Bank has convinced many Palestinians that they have no partner for peace. As a consequence, moderate Palestinians-and their moderate political faction, Fatah-have been losing ground, a fact dramatically illustrated when Hamas swept to power in Gaza in the 2006 elections.
The world, with the exception of the United States, has turned against Israel. This is so not because of rising anti-Semitism, but because Israel’s systematic oppression and marginalization of Palestinians has been highly visible, and because its occupation of the West Bank and, until recently the Gaza Strip, is illegal under UN Resolutions 142 and 144 (a fact few Israelis dispute). The peculiar American avidity for the idea of Israeli victimhood-the idea that the occupation is a necessary pre-condition of Israel’s security-prevails nowhere else, including Israel itself. As recently as this month the esteemed Israeli political commentator Avishai Margalit described the Occupation as a “moral and political disaster” for Israel. And last summer, in a highly dramatic moment, Israel’s most famous novelist, David Grossman, not known for antipathy to the Israel state, delivered a speech at a gathering of Israeli leaders, including Prime Minister Ehud Barak, in which he said Israel has lost its moral compass, and is in danger of political suicide. “Israel,” Grossman said “has, for many years now, criminally wasted:the miracle that occurred here-the great and rare opportunity that history granted it, the opportunity to create an enlightened, properly functioning democratic state that would act in accordance with Jewish and universal values.” If the Annapolis conference fails, as it seems fated to do, Grossman will surely not be surprised, for he also said this: “Anyone who thinks there is an alternative [to a Palestinian state], that time is on our side, does not grasp the profound, dangerous process that is now well underway.”