An Alternative Israeli-Arab Peace Plan

by Robert Wolfe (December 2013)

The main reason for the constant drift of Israeli public opinion towards a two state solution to the conflict with the Palestinians is the failure of those in the Israeli national camp to articulate a viable alternative.  Attempting to perpetuate the status quo indefinitely is no longer an effective strategy in the face of the growing pressure from the United States as well as the EU and the UN to accept a Palestinian state.  Most Israelis well understand that a Palestinian state would result in a serious weakening of Israel’s position in the region, yet for want of a better alternative the Netanyahu government has been forced to constantly yield ground to the advocates of a two state solution. Public opinion polls reveal a paradoxical situation where a majority of Israelis do not believe that acceptance of a Palestinian state would bring peace yet say they favor a two state solution all the same.

Just how would the authority of a Palestinian state differ from the authority already exercised by the Palestinian Authority in Judea and Samaria and Hamas in Gaza? It could only differ in ways unfavorable to Israel, such as the ability to import weapons, the insistence on the uprooting of most of the Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria, the right to prevent Israeli pursuit of terrorists into its territory and the acquisition of a corridor connecting Judea and Samaria with Gaza, thereby cutting Israel in two. In return for this Israel would receive not one single tangible benefit but solely a piece of paper perhaps recognizing Israel as a Jewish state, a concession which could easily be modified or withdrawn at a later date. Advocates of a two state solution claim that Israel’s international standing would thereby be greatly improved, yet experience has shown that regardless of what they may say, most governments are more impressed by Israeli strength than Israeli weakness.

Whatever the outcome, the current negotiations with the Palestinian Authority are sure to end badly for Israel. It is hard to say which would be worse, an agreement or a failure to reach agreement. The only possible agreement would be one where Israel made major concessions in return for basically nothing. It was out of weakness that Israel entered the negotiations in the first place, agreeing to free more than 100 convicted terrorists as a precondition for the talks just so the United States would not blame Israel for preventing the start of negotiations. The pressure to continue giving in to the United States until an agreement is reached will only intensify as the negotiations proceed. And if by some miracle Netanyahu finds the strength to refuse a bad deal that the Americans endorse, then Israel will be subjected to a worldwide chorus of blame and sanctions for failing to sign on the dotted line. There is no way out of this trap except to propose a viable alternative to the two state solution.

The basic reason why a two state solution cannot succeed is that neither the Palestinian Authority nor Hamas has any intention of accepting the continued existence of the state of Israel. Whatever power and territory they may gain as a result of a peace agreement will be used to work for Israel’s destruction. Considering the huge disparity in population and resources between Israel on the one hand and the Arab and Muslim world on the other, the Palestinians are convinced that time is on their side and that if they keep up the pressure Israel must eventually collapse. Hamas and the Palestinian Authority may differ in the methods they use to apply pressure against Israel, but there is no disagreement on the ultimate goal, an Arab and Muslim state in the entire territory which the British named Palestine. This is also the goal of most Arabs and Muslims around the world, and it is above all the consciousness of the extensive support which they receive on a global level which enables the Palestinians to persist in their efforts to destroy the state of Israel.

There is also another reason why a two state solution cannot succeed, and that is the weakness of the Palestinian economy. Most of Judea and Samaria consists of rocky, barren hills which are not at present suitable for large scale agriculture. Neither there nor in Gaza are there mineral deposits or oil that could be exported. Nor is there any obvious reason why foreign corporations would want to invest large sums of money in creating new industries in territory ruled by unruly Palestinians. Today the only thing that keeps the Palestinian economy going is the fact that they receive massive amounts of financial assistance from the US and EU, making them the largest recipients of foreign aid on a per capita basis of any entity on earth. But it is hard to see how this largesse could be perpetuated if the Palestinians had a sovereign state and could no longer blame Israel for their economic problems. In practice a two state solution would therefore create a situation in which a weakened yet relatively prosperous Israel was confronted with a state dominated by large numbers of angry, unemployed young men brought up on an educational system committed to the demonization of Israel. Anyone who thinks that such a situation would bring “peace” is not thinking clearly.

What would it take for a real peace between Israel and the Palestinians to become possible? In the first place it would require that a liberal and democratic culture take root in the Arab and Muslim world. From the start, the fact that Israel is a liberal democracy was always the primary reason for its demonization by Arabs and Muslims. Israeli culture was perceived as antithetical to the authoritarian traditions associated with the religion of Islam. Until the liberal and democratic forces in the Middle East can mount a serious challenge to those traditions, Israel will always be viewed with hatred and fear by the great majority of Arabs and Muslims, including the Palestinians. And in the second place, peace between Israel and the Palestinians requires the political and economic integration of the Palestinians into Israeli society. Figuring out the best way to achieve such integration without abandoning the ideal of Israel as a Jewish state is the essential precondition for creating a viable alternative to the two state solution.

Advocates of the two state solution like to speak of “two states for two peoples,” but in history there has never been any such thing as either a Palestinian people or a Palestinian state. Until the British invented Palestine after the First World War, the Arabs who lived there were regarded both by themselves and by others first and foremost as Arabs and secondarily as subjects or citizens of the Ottoman empire. And even after the British created an administrative entity called Palestine, something which had never existed under either the Ottoman or the Arab empire, few Arabs living there thought of themselves as Palestinians until the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. But as soon as the concept of Palestine ceased to have any Jewish connotations, it was immediately seized upon by the Arabs as the banner in the name of which they intended to drive the Jews into the sea. This usage was consistent with the original meaning of the term “Palestine,” which was coined by the Romans after the end of the Second Jewish War, during the course of which they killed by their own count 580,000 Jews in the land which they had formerly called Judea and now called Palestine.

For the Palestinians as for the Romans, the term “Palestine” has come to have a purely negative meaning: it is simply a way of saying “not Jewish.” Abbas, the head of the Palestinian Authority, has made this point quite clear through his frequent statements that “not one single Israeli” would be permitted to live in the future Palestinian state. But although the concept of a non-Jewish Palestine has proved an extremely effective weapon in the war against the Jews, it also has a weakness in that it is not a very deep rooted or positive way of affirming an Arab ethnic identity. It is no older than the concept of “Israeli Arab,” which also began to come into general use following the establishment of the state of Israel. If only the concept of Israeli Arab could become more than a reluctant statement of fact and take on an affirmative meaning as well then a path could be found to the integration of the Arabs now living in Judea and Samaria into Israeli society.

Most discussion of this alternative has centered around the demographic issue. Israeli Arabs at present make up approximately 20% of the population of Israel. Estimates differ on what would be the Arab Israeli proportion of the Israeli population if all the Arabs now living in Judea and Samaria were to become Israeli citizens. Those who favor such an alternative often suggest a figure of about one third, while those who oppose it argue that the proportion would be considerably larger. Numerous experts are arrayed on both sides of this controversy which is further complicated by the question of relative birth rates. But even if Jewish Israelis were to retain a two thirds majority over Arab Israelis, the survival of Israel as a Jewish state would still depend in large measure on how Arab Israelis felt about being Israeli. Without a positive conception of Israeli identity on the part of most Israeli Arabs, no one state solution could possibly hope to succeed.

Efforts to promote a more positive view of Israel on the part of the existing population of Israeli Arabs have generally taken the form of calls to reduce or minimize the overtly Jewish component in Israeli public life. In the name of “a state of all its citizens,” there have been demands that “Hatikvah,” the Israeli national anthem with its reference to a “Jewish soul” yearning for “Zion,” be replaced by something more neutral.  Likewise some have advocated the repeal of the Law of the Return, according to which any Jew from around the world can automatically receive Israeli citizenship just by immigrating to Israel. However, Jews from around the world must still face the same hurdle as Israeli Arabs, namely that the key to advancement in Israeli society is a good knowledge of Hebrew, a language which forms the bedrock of Jewish tradition and culture. It is not realistic to expect native Arabic speakers to want to learn Hebrew and at the same time tell them that the tradition and culture based on it has no relevance for them. A much more promising approach would be to focus on what Jewish tradition and Arab tradition have in common and make that the basis of Arab Israeli identity. 

One thing which Jews and Arabs definitely have in common is a tradition of resistance to European domination. In ancient times Jews in the land of Israel fought against Greek and Roman rule for some 300 years, and after the Romans overthrew the kingdom of Judah, converts to Judaism among the Berbers, Ethiopians, Arameans and Arabs continued to resist Roman and Byzantine rule right down to the time of the rise of Islam. It was precisely because of this earlier history of Jewish resistance that the Muslims took over so many aspects of Jewish tradition, such as the myth of descent from Abraham, the practice of circumcision and similar dietary laws. But while the Arabs went on to found a great empire, the Jews shrank to the position of a small ghettoized minority. Nonetheless we never lost the hope of reversing the verdict of the Jewish Wars, and in the fullness of time this hope was realized. Hebrew is no less a Middle Eastern language than Arabic, and the state of Israel is no less an expression of a Middle Eastern cultural identity than the many Arab states. There is no reason why Israeli Arabs should not celebrate the festival of Hanukah nor Israeli Jews the victory of Saladin over the violently anti-Semitic Crusaders.

But as everyone knows, the bottom line is economic. Israeli Arabs would undoubtedly have a more positive view of Israel if more money were allocated to programs intended to benefit them. As for the Arabs in Judea and Samaria, the only way they would ever accept any form of Israeli rule is if it were crystal clear that Israel could provide them with greater economic opportunities than the Palestinian Authority. Yet at the present time social services for all Israelis are being slowly cut back due to the crushing weight of the defense budget which Arab and Muslim hostility imposes on Israel. It is not at all clear where the money would come from for dramatic new Israeli initiatives in the Arab sector.

But even without the money there is a pressing need for the delineation of a comprehensive program for the economic development of Judea and Samaria under Israeli sovereignty. An offer of Israeli citizenship to the Arabs now living there should form an integral part of such a program. Even though it could not not be immediately implemented, advancing a program of this kind is the only way that Israel can counter the international pressure for the uprooting of most of the Israeli settlements in Judea and Samaria. Although both the Palestinians and the “international community” are sure to reject at first any deviation from their mantra of a Palestinian state “within the 1967 borders,” they could not easily deny that such a program, if successfully implemented, would result in a substantial improvement in the living standards of the Palestinians. And having accepted the possibility of granting Israeli citizenship to the Palestinians in Judea and Samaria, Israel would clearly be justified in demanding that none of the Israeli settlements in Judea and Samaria should be uprooted. At the same time Israel could utilize the diplomatic breathing room that might be gained through the new program to initiate the process of raising the money necessary for its implementation.

Just how many Palestinians would receive Israeli citizenship is something which could not be stipulated in advance. Many Palestinians would not want to become Israeli citizens even if they could, and their precise status would have to be negotiated. The important point is that Israel indicate its willingness in principle to accept all the Palestinians in Judea and Samaria as citizens. Even so, the Palestinian Authority could be expected to bitterly oppose such a program, which would undercut its reason for existence. But since it has already shown both in word and in deed that it is fundamentally opposed to the existence of the state of Israel, its hostility would not be anything new. What would be new is that now many Palestinians would have a motive to reject the corrupt and dictatorial rule of the Palestinian Authority in favor of the benefits and rights they could gain as Israeli citizens. It would take some time for political, economic and diplomatic support for the new program to materialize, but hopefully it would prove sufficiently attractive even at first to head off the gathering momentum in favor of a Palestinian state founded on a Judenrein Judea and Samaria.

Judea and Samaria are the Latin names for Yehudah and Shomron, which formed the heartland of the ancient Hebrew kingdoms of Judah and Israel. A so-called peace agreement which called for the eradication of all or most of the Jewish communities established there since 1967 would tear Israeli society apart and gravely weaken the state of Israel, which is of course why the Palestinians have made such a big point of demanding that this be done. They have succeeded in convincing the “international community” that the Jewish settlements there are “illegal” and “illegitimate,” but the main reason why the existing Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria were only formed after the Six Days War in 1967 is because the Arabs had killed or expelled all the Jews who had been living there prior to the War of Independence in 1948. It was the Arab ethnic cleansing of Judea and Samaria between 1919 and 1948 which was “illegal” and “illegitimate,” whereas the Jewish communities established there after 1967 did not kill or displace any Arabs but merely settled near them. In Hebron and the Etzion bloc the new communities were founded on the initiative of descendants of Jews who had been killed or expelled in 1929 in Hebron and in 1948 in the Etzion bloc.

Those who want a Palestinian state as opposed to merely a better life for the Palestinians should be satisfied with the state they already have in Gaza. Even if Gaza were not ruled by Hamas, it is too densely populated to be absorbed into Israel. It ought to become the independent state of Palestine and take over the Palestinian diplomatic missions around the world from the Palestinian Authority. Perhaps at some point under different leadership it might evolve into the Singapore or Hong Kong of the Middle East, but under Hamas rule it will undoubtedly continue to pose a threat to Israel for some time to come. However, unlike Judea and Samaria, it does not border on any major Israeli population centers, so the threat it poses could probably be contained as it is at present.

A comprehensive peace between Israel and its neighbors will not prove possible so long as the Arab and Muslim world is dominated by authoritarian political structures. There is not much that Israel can do to democratize the Middle East, but Israel does have the capacity to develop a program for peace and make it the basis of its negotiating strategy. Up to now it has been the Palestinians who have claimed to have a program for peace, in the form of “two states for two peoples,” and Israel who is always in the position of reacting to the Palestinian program. Were it not for the Palestinian insistence on the so-called “right of return” to Israel of all the millions of descendants of Palestinian refugees, the Palestinians would have already achieved most of their demands. The only thing which prevented first Barak and then Olmert from signing an agreement providing for the destruction of most of the Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria was Palestinian intransigence on the refugee question. But under US pressure the Palestinian Authority might easily agree to Netanyahu’s demand that they recognize Israel as a Jewish state, implying the abandonment of the “right of return,” at which point the US would most certainly throw its weight behind the Palestinian demand for the dismantling of most of the settlements. 

The only way to head off this nightmare scenario is for Israel to have its own program for peace in the form of a realistic plan for the economic development of Judea and Samaria under Israeli sovereignty and with an option for Israeli citizenship for the Arabs now living there. Right now only a small minority of Israelis would favor such a program, but the more the difficulty of maintaining the status quo under the constantly escalating pressure from the Palestinians and the “international community,” the more the advantages of an Israeli program for peace will become apparent. The forced acceptance of a slightly modified version of the Palestinian program will result in the establishment of an internationally recognized terrorist state in Judea and Samaria as well as Gaza, whereas an Israeli program to integrate the Arabs in Judea and Samaria into Israeli society has at least the potential for the reconciliation of Jews and Arabs in the land of Israel. And so long as the Arab minority in Israel did not exceed approximately one third of the total Israeli population, Israel could preserve its status as a Jewish state, although of course one in which Arab influence was considerably stronger than before.

It would be foolish to attempt to describe in advance the process whereby a program to absorb large numbers of Arabs into Israeli society might first become Israeli policy and then gain international recognition and acceptance. The important point is to recognize that such a program is the only practical way out of the dilemma which Israel now confronts. No doubt it will entail risks and difficulties, but giving the Palestinians an enhanced territorial base from which to attack a weakened Israel will result in far greater risks and difficulties. It would be nice if the current negotiations would lead to a peaceful, demilitarized, prosperous Palestinian state on the borders of Israel, but that is not what is going to happen. The longer that Israel postpones the necessary task of articulating a viable alternative to the two state mirage, the more difficult it will be to avoid a disaster at the end of the current negotiations. Israel needs to redefine the terms of the debate, and the time to begin is now.


Robert Wolfe is a professional historian and scholar with 40 years experience teaching history on the college level in the United States. He made aliyah to Israel in 2001 and lives in Netanya with his wife.

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