By Roger Cohen
A minister in the outgoing Israeli government put it to me bluntly during a recent visit to Israel: “For the first time in these elections, the Palestinians did not come into it.”
Israelis for the most part are comfortable enough to ignore their neighbours. If they are on the Titanic they prefer not to think about it.
It has become the received wisdom, in the White House and beyond, to suggest the current situation is unsustainable — the 46-year-old Israeli occupation of the West Bank, the undefined borders, the simmering conflict, the oppression. This may be no more than wishful thinking.
Israel’s situation feels sustainable. The economic miracle that makes swathes of the country feel like southern California can go on: Israel’s diplomatic loneliness does not amount to commercial isolation. Military domination will grow with U.S. support. A strong Israeli nationalist current — we won all the land on the battlefield, so it’s ours! — will prevail over the peace-talk fatigue among Israeli liberals and a splintered Palestinian movement.
Stepping across the wall-fence into the West Bank already feels like time travel back 30 years. Soon, given current momentum, it will feel like 40 years. Perhaps half a million Israelis living beyond the Green Line hardly know what it is: The two-state solution based around the 1967 borders, give or take agreed land swaps, is then a diplomatic and intellectual fiction.
Yes, Israel on all the land of Eretz Israel (a biblical term widely used to refer to the area between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, encompassing all of the West Bank) is sustainable. The status quo is not static. On balance, despite demographic patterns that favour the Palestinians, power tilts Israel’s way. Vitality trumps demography.
“Many years will pass without anything,” Tom Segev, the distinguished Israeli historian, told me. “We will go on oppressing; they will go on trying to fight. Most Israelis now feel their security is assured without giving up anything. That is the problem. The oppression of Palestinians is appalling. But the situation is calm. So Israelis don’t realize this everyday oppression. Nobody believes in peace anymore.”
On the Palestinian side, too, believers in a two-state peace agreement have become harder to find. Settlement expansion with U.S. acquiescence has led to the conviction that there will be no viable Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza.
“Israel is not interested in permitting one and the U.S., who is subsidizing this effort, is unable and unwilling to change that because of domestic politics,” Yousef Munayyer, the executive director of the Washington-based Palestine Centre wrote in an e-mail. He said Palestinians had lost faith in American mediation. Palestinians were likely to “re-strategize away from a state-based separatist struggle toward a rights-based struggle (already happening)” as “Israeli colonization” had “destroyed the territorial integrity of a would-be state.”
In other words, Palestinians will seek their rights — including that of return — within one state, rather than pursuing the establishment of their own national state. The only trouble is that, as the Israeli novelist Amos Oz told me recently, “The right of return is a euphemism for the liquidation of Israel. Even for a dove like myself this is out of the question.”
As Omar Barghouti, a leader of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel, once put it: “If the refugees were to return, you would not have a two-state solution, you’d have a Palestine next to a Palestine.”
One state equals the end of Israel as a Jewish national state. It is not going to happen. It cannot be allowed to happen. Palestinian pursuit of that goal equals acceptance of eternal conflict. Jews, after the experience of the 20th century, are not going to give up the homeland they have battled so hard to build.
For any liberal Zionist — and I am one — convinced of the need for the two-state outcome envisaged in the United Nations resolution of 1947 establishing the modern state of Israel, both the religious-nationalist Israeli push to keep all the land and the Palestinian refusal to abandon the untenable, unacceptable “right of return” (there is no such right in history, just ask the Jews) are causes for deep despondency.
I said Israel’s situation is sustainable. It is in physical terms. It is not in ethical terms. This is a state whose Declaration of Independence in 1948 says it will “be founded on the principles of freedom, justice and peace in the spirit of the visions of the Prophets of Israel; will implement equality of complete social and national rights for all her citizens without distinction between religion, race and gender; will promise freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture.” The West Bank dominion over 2.6 million humiliated Palestinians runs counter to every word of this.
President Obama will soon visit Israel and the West Bank. He has zero cause for hope. Peace lies beyond the eye of a rusty needle. The limitlessness of Israeli strength and of Palestinian victimhood has narrowed the path to the well-known compromises needed to end the conflict.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: February 28, 2013
An earlier version of this column gave the wrong venue for a quote by Omar Barghouti. Mr Barghouti used these words at an appearance at the University of Ottawa. He says he was quoting a well-known position of Sari Nusseibeh, the president of Al-Quds University in Jerusalem.