May 20th 2017
THE victory of Israel over the Arab armies that encircled it in 1967 was so swift and absolute that, many Jews thought, the divine hand must have tipped the scales. Before the six-day war Israel had feared another Holocaust; thereafter it became an empire of sorts. Awestruck, the Jews took the holy sites of Jerusalem and the places of their biblical stories. But the land came with many Palestinians whom Israel could neither expel nor absorb. Was Providence smiling on Israel, or testing it?
For the past 50 years, Israel has tried to have it both ways: taking the land by planting Jewish settlements on it; and keeping the Palestinians un-enfranchised under military occupation, denied either their own state or political equality within Israel (see our special report in this issue). Palestinians have damaged their cause through decades of indiscriminate violence. Yet their dispossession is a reproach to Israel, which is by far the stronger party and claims to be a model democracy.
Israel’s “temporary” occupation has endured for half a century. The peace process that created “interim” Palestinian autonomy, due to last just five years before a final deal, has dragged on for more than 20. A Palestinian state is long overdue. Rather than resist it, Israel should be the foremost champion of the future Palestine that will be its neighbour. This is not because the intractable conflict is the worst in the Middle East or, as many once thought, the central cause of regional instability: the carnage of the civil wars in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere disproves such notions. The reason Israel must let the Palestinian people go is to preserve its own democracy.
The Trump card
Unexpectedly, there may be a new opportunity to make peace: Donald Trump wants to secure “the ultimate deal” and is due to visit the Holy Land on May 22nd, during his first foreign trip. The Israeli Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, appears as nervous as the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, seems upbeat. Mr Trump has, rightly, urged Israel to curb settlement-building. Israel wants him to keep his promise to move the American embassy to Jerusalem. He should hold off until he is ready to go really big: recognise Palestine at the same time and open a second embassy in Jerusalem to talk to it.
The outlines of peace are well known. Palestinians would accept the Jewish state born from the war of 1947-48 (made up of about three-quarters of the British mandate of Palestine). In return, Israel would allow the creation of a Palestinian state in the remaining lands it occupied in 1967 (about one-quarter). Parcels could be swapped to take in the main settlements, and Jerusalem would have to be shared. Palestinian refugees would return mostly to their new state, not Israel.
The fact that such a deal is familiar does not make it likely. Mr Netanyahu and Mr Abbas will probably string out the process—and try to ensure the other gets blamed for failure. Distracted by scandals, Mr Trump may lose interest; Mr Netanyahu may lose power (he faces several police investigations); and Mr Abbas may die (he is 82 and a smoker). The limbo of semi-war and semi-peace is, sadly, a tolerable option for both.
Nevertheless, the creation of a Palestinian state is the second half of the world’s promise, still unredeemed, to split British-era Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state. Since the six-day war, Israel has been willing to swap land for peace, notably when it returned Sinai to Egypt in 1982. But the conquests of East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip were different. They lie at the heart of Israelis’ and Palestinians’ rival histories, and add the intransigence of religion to a nationalist conflict. Early Zionist leaders accepted partition grudgingly; Arab ones tragically rejected it outright. In 1988 the Palestine Liberation Organisation accepted a state on part of the land, but Israeli leaders resisted the idea until 2000. Mr Netanyahu himself spoke of a (limited) Palestinian state only in 2009.
Another reason for the failure to get two states is violence. Extremists on both sides set out to destroy the Oslo accords of 1993, the first step to a deal. The Palestinian uprising in 2000-05 was searing. Wars after Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000 and Gaza in 2005 made everything worse. As blood flowed, the vital ingredient of peace—trust—died.
Most Israelis are in no rush to try offering land for peace again. Their security has improved, the economy is booming and Arab states are courting Israel for intelligence on terrorists and an alliance against Iran. The Palestinians are weak and divided, and might not be able to make a deal. Mr Abbas, though moderate, is unpopular; and he lost Gaza to his Islamist rivals, Hamas. What if Hamas also takes over the West Bank?
All this makes for a dangerous complacency: that, although the conflict cannot be solved, it can be managed indefinitely. Yet the never-ending subjugation of Palestinians will erode Israel’s standing abroad and damage its democracy at home. Its politics are turning towards ethno-religious chauvinism, seeking to marginalise Arabs and Jewish leftists, including human-rights groups. The government objected even to a novel about a Jewish-Arab love affair. As Israel grows wealthier, the immiseration of Palestinians becomes more disturbing. Its predicament grows more acute as the number of Palestinians between the Jordan river and the Mediterranean catches up with that of Jews. Israel cannot hold on to all of the “Land of Israel”, keep its predominantly Jewish identity and remain a proper democracy. To save democracy, and prevent a slide to racism or even apartheid, it has to give up the occupied lands.
Co-Operation, Not Collaboration
Thus, if Mr. Abbas’s Palestinian Authority (PA) is weak, then Israel needs to build it up, not undermine it. Without progress to a state, the PA cannot maintain security co-operation with Israel for ever; nor can it regain its credibility. Israel should let Palestinians move more freely and remove all barriers to their goods (a freer market would make Israel richer, too). It should let the PA expand beyond its ink-spots. Israel should voluntarily halt all settlements, at least beyond its security barrier.
Israel is too strong for a Palestinian state to threaten its existence. In fact, such a state is vital to its future. Only when Palestine is born will Israel complete the victory of 1967.