Fantasies and Realities About the Prospects for Peace Between Israelis and Palestinians

by SAREE MAKDISI

The recent election of Mahmoud Abbas as the new President of the Palestinian Authority has renewed speculation that 2005 will bring genuine peace between Palestinians and Israelis. Insofar as it depends on Israel’s own intentions, however, such hope is entirely misplaced.

Israel has made it clear that the first thing it expects of the new Palestinian leader is for him to bring the Palestinian population under control: a mission that, in order to demonstrate his good behavior, he has already zealously taken up by deploying his security forces in order to protect Israel from attack by Palestinians (rather than the other way around). If he is successful in that mission, Abbas will likely be invited to agree to a political settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian struggle whose terms will be essentially dictated by Israel. Such an arrangement would allow Palestinians a severely limited form of self-rule in those (disconnected) parts of the territories occupied in 1967 that Israel no longer intends to keep for itself. The rest of the West Bank would be dominated by Israeli colonies, bypass roads, and military outposts. Even in the unlikely event that the colonies there would actually be dismantled, Gaza would become-even more than it is now-essentially a gigantic open-air prison, as would large areas in the West Bank, which would be encircled and completely cut off by the various layers of Israel’s separation barrier, much as the city of Qalqilya (population 60,000) already is today. The process of Judaizing Jerusalem would continue, and the city itself would be encircled by an iron wall of Jewish colonization extending toward the Dead Sea.

There is nothing new here. Most of the plans proposed since Israel conquered the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem in 1967 have been variations on a theme originally devised by Yigal Allon, then Israel’s Deputy Prime Minister. Allon called for Israel to colonize strategically important parts of the West Bank (and east Jerusalem), to maintain control over natural resources, borders and airspace, and to grant a kind of autonomy to densely populated Palestinian areas where colonization would prove difficult. In fact, despite all the talk about a "peace process," Israel’s basic position (which has been gradually translated into realities on the ground for almost forty years now) has not budged an inch since 1967.

The Oslo agreements of the 1990s reiterated the principle behind Allon’s plan by dividing the occupied territories into Area A (nominal Palestinian control, which at its maximum extent amounted to 18 percent of the West Bank), Area B (Palestinian administration, but Israeli security control, about 22 percent of the West Bank) and Area C (total continued Israeli control, about 60 percent of the West Bank, and more or less the same proportion of Gaza). So did Israel’s proposal at Camp David in 2000, which offered Palestinians "sovereignty" over disjointed territories to be dominated by a reinforced network of Israeli colonies and roads-that is, sovereignty in name only, while Israel continued to control not only most of the territory itself, but also the borders, the airspace and the invaluable water resources. Yasser Arafat was only dismissed as an obstacle to peace when he proved incapable of selling these terms to the Palestinian people. Now Abbas is supposed to continue where Arafat left off.

If, however, the so-called disengagement proposal advanced by Ariel Sharon last year is the most forceful reiteration of the original Allon Plan, that is so because for the first time the Israeli scheme now has US support. Reversing decades of US policy-and dismissing key principles of international law in the process-President Bush last April validated Israel’s territorial ambitions. "The understandings between the US President and me protect Israel’s most essential interests," Sharon gloated in a speech he made in December 2004. "First and foremost, not demanding a return to the ’67 borders; allowing Israel to permanently keep large settlement blocs which have high Israeli populations; and the total refusal of allowing Palestinian refugees to return to Israel."

But if Israel’s present policy amounts to a reiteration of an old formula, what’s driving it forward is a form of racism that has been dressed up as merely a kind of demographic paranoia. This racism is, and has always been, at the heart of what Israel stands for as a state, and what Zionism has always represented as a political movement: the idea that an empty land could be found in which an exclusively Jewish state might be established: a land without a people for a people without a land. The problem with this idea is that Zionists were unable to find a suitably empty land. So they took someone else’s land instead. And ever since taking over Palestine and arranging the expulsion of much of its native population in 1948, Israelis have been acting paradoxically-on the one hand, acting as though they really do inhabit a Jewish state, and, on the other hand, panicking about the fact that their state really is not Jewish, that it never has been, and that it is set to become even less Jewish in the years to come.

In fact, the land Israel rules today includes almost equal populations of Jews and Palestinians. Under Israeli rule, however, only Jews enjoy complete rights of citizenship, as well as the ability to circulate in freedom, and, in principle, to live (almost) wherever they like. Palestinians living under Israeli rule in the occupied territories, on the other hand, face extreme difficulties in moving around even in their own territories, and the vast majority of them are barred from entering Israel and even Jerusalem, and are routinely and systematically deprived of their most fundamental human and political rights. Palestinian citizens of Israel proper enjoy certain privileges denied to their compatriots in the occupied territories, but their rights fall far short of those enjoyed by Jewish citizens of the state (for example, in matters of marriage, naturalization, and land use, among others).

Such naked injustice is difficult to defend; when it is noticed, it makes for bad public relations with the rest of the world. It also gives the lie to Israel’s claim of being a Jewish state, which it certainly is not (even leaving aside the occupied territories, Palestinian Arabs constitute a fifth of the population living within Israel’s pre-1967 boundaries).

Mainstream Zionists have never been able to tolerate the possibility of having a significant Palestinian Arab presence inside the borders of what was supposed (by them) to be their Jewish state. Recent work by Israeli historians has revealed the extent to which, long before the UN’s 1947 Partition Plan, Zionists were eagerly preparing for what they called the "transfer" of the indigenous Palestinian population from as much as possible of its native land, an ambition which the outbreak of war in 1947-48 allowed them to accomplish. Benny Morris, one of the Israeli historians who has done much to reveal the realities of what happened in 1948, is unabashed about both the necessity and the desirability of what he frankly admits was a form of ethnic cleansing. "There are circumstances that justify ethnic cleansing," Morris has claimed since he wrote his famous book on the Palestinian refugee "problem." Just as "the great American democracy could not have been created without the annihilation of the Indians," he argues in an interview with Ha’aretz, in 1948 "a Jewish state would not have come into being without the uprooting of 700,000 Palestinians. Therefore it was necessary to uproot them. There was no choice but to expel that population. It was necessary to cleanse the hinterland and cleanse the border areas and cleanse the main roads. It was necessary to cleanse the villages from which our convoys and our settlements were being fired on." The only problem Morris has with what happened in 1948 is that Israel did not go far enough. Even though Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, "understood the demographic issue and the need to establish a Jewish state without a large Arab minority, he got cold feet during the war. In the end, he faltered." Perhaps, Morris adds, "if he was already engaged in expulsion, he should have done a complete job." For "if the end of the story turns out to be a gloomy one for the Jews, it will be because Ben-Gurion did not complete the transfer in 1948. Because he left a large and volatile demographic reserve in the West Bank and Gaza and within Israel itself."

The existential "threat" that seems to be posed by this "volatile demographic reserve" (that is, a group of people merely trying as best they can to go about their daily lives under the most trying circumstances) is what is driving current Israeli policy toward the Palestinians. Israel has chosen to respond to this "threat" through what it calls a policy of "separation," or, in other words, by removing as many Palestinians as possible from the land officially under Israeli control. Granting nominal sovereignty to areas with dense Palestinian populations-while absorbing as much other territory as possible into Israel itself-is the easiest way to do this.

With precisely this in mind, the original logic of Yigal Allon has thus been reformulated and repackaged for our own times by Haifa University geographer Arnon Soffer, a prime intellectual force behind Sharon’s policy. Soffer states bluntly that his aim is not peace but power. Separation, he points out, "doesn’t guaranteee ‘peace’-it guarantees a Zionist-Jewish state with an overwhelming majority of Jews," he argues. "And it guarantees one other important thing. Between 1948 and 1967, the fence was a fence, and 400,000 people left the West Bank voluntarily. This is what will happen after separation. If a Palestinian cannot come to Tel Aviv for work, he will look in Iraq, or Kuwait, or London. I believe there will be movement out of the area."

The mechanisms prompting such movement are obvious. "When 2.5 million people live in a closed-off Gaza, it’s going to be a human catastrophe," Soffer predicts. "Those people will become even bigger animals than they are today, with the aid of an insane fundamentalist Islam. The pressure at the border is going to be awful. It’s going to be a terrible war. So, if we want to remain alive , we will have to kill and kill and kill. All day, every day." All this killing, Soffer adds, will force Palestinians to realize that "we’re here and they’re there."

The declared aim of Sharon’s plan is thus to maintain the fantasy of Israel’s Jewishness-regardless, of course, of the cost to Palestinians. If Abbas refuses these terms, Israel has made it clear that it will proceed without him. And as long as it enjoys unconditional American support, there is little standing in its way.

But, even according to its own logic, Sharon’s plan is flawed. A quarter of the schoolchildren of Israel (excluding the occupied territories) are today Palestinian. Even if Israel rids itself of unwanted Palestinian territories, it still must contend with the fact that within decades its own population will include a Palestinian majority. Separation today, unilateral or otherwise, will be of little use then. If in an age of global multicultural connectedness (and continued Palestinian resistance) it turns out to be difficult for Israel to transform its current apartheid policy from a weapon used against a minority to one used against an eventual majority (which is by no means certain, of course), Israel will at last face two remaining choices. It must either persist with its violent fantasy of Jewishness and continue the ethnic cleansing initiated in 1947-48 by expelling all the remaining Palestinians living within its borders, or at least enough of them to artificially maintain-according to the same obscene demographic calculus that keeps people like Soffer and Sharon up at night-some kind of Jewish edge, for however long it takes until the process has to be repeated again. Or Israel must abandon fantasy for reality and see what chances might be left to come to a genuine and just peace with a people that it will by then have brutalized for decades on end. Assuming, of course, that that people–the Palestinians–are still interested in peace. But by then it might already be too late.

SAREE MAKDISI, a professor of English Literature at UCLA, can be reached at: makdisi@humnet.ucla.edu


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