Some will argue that the United Kingdom’s expulsion this week of an Israeli diplomat, by most accounts a Mossad agent, was a transitory spat between allies, following Israel’s use of forged British passports in the recent assassination of a Hamas operative in Dubai. After all, they might add, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher did something similar in 1988, without lingering consequences. Yet things seem rather different this time.
Israeli officials should take note that the narrative of their conflict with the Palestinians is changing fundamentally outside Israel. The specifics aside, in the larger picture more countries than ever before see Israel as the problem, and we’re not talking here about the popular antipathy the country seems to often provoke in Asia and Latin America. Even in friendlier climes such as the United States and Europe, the hardening perception is that Israel’s irresponsible settlement expansion plan is destroying all prospects for a mutually satisfactory accord with the Palestinians, and that the ensuing instability will harm everyone.
In the uproar that followed US Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to Israel two weeks ago, relatively little attention was paid to his important speech at Tel Aviv University, where one sentence accurately summarized Israel’s dilemma. “It’s no secret the demographic realities make it increasingly difficult for Israel to remain both a Jewish homeland and a democratic country in the absence of the Palestinian state,” Biden warned his hosts.
In this, the vice president only echoed a theme that Israeli officials themselves have long acknowledged. All things staying equal, Israel will continue to control a growing Palestinian population whose rights, by necessity given the imperatives of security, it will abuse even more extensively than it is doing today. Nor would this resolve anything, because demographics would march on, until two peoples are fighting over one piece of land – or trying to conclude an impossible peace.
The only alternative for Israel is the full-scale expulsion of Palestinians, which would thoroughly discredit Israel in the eyes of the world. In a way the Israelis are paying for that choice before it has ever been made. Nor will it be. Israel simply has no expulsion option. It can reduce the Arab population in Jerusalem, perhaps; it can momentarily seal off Palestinians in enclaves in the West Bank and Gaza; but without a political solution, those are merely odious stopgap measures costing the Israelis ever more valuable political capital to sustain.
That’s why the narrative has shifted, and it’s why Israel today is facing, for the first time, criticism from allies on moral grounds. A state that sustained itself for decades as a moral creation, a refuge for the world’s suffering Jews, is essentially ensuring that the only long-term outlook for Israelis and Palestinians is violence. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s declared backing for a two-state solution notwithstanding, Israel has no endgame other than the perpetuation of ruinous stalemate. And because it holds the land, the burden is on Israel to define that endgame.
Israel’s ability to draw the negotiating process out indefinitely has been greatly facilitated by Palestinian incompetence. The Palestinian Authority under Mahmoud Abbas is struggling to regain the initiative among Palestinians, while Hamas, despite optimistic suggestions to the contrary, has no interest in entering peace talks with Israel. Yet Hamas’ disastrous provocation of the Gaza war over a year ago has considerably undermined the movement’s military strategy, with Palestinians now more willing to go along with Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s state-building project in the West Bank, if it is allowed to eventually lead somewhere.
The Palestinian Authority has faced much criticism, especially by purported supporters of the Palestinian cause. But Fayyad’s approach is the only realistic project that Palestinians can pursue today – a project of internal consolidation. More important, as the world watches Abbas and Fayyad focusing on domestic reform, they also see Israel in a different light. The Palestinians, for once, have managed to transform interpretation of their relationship with Israel to their own advantage.
That’s why continuing skepticism over the extent of the dispute between Israel and the United States, or Israel and the United Kingdom, is irrelevant. Neither the Americans nor the British will soon, or ever, break with Israel. But neither, too, is disposed any more to acquiesce in Israel’s contention that its policies in the West Bank are justified by the absence of a resolute Palestinian partner. As Biden affirmed in his Tel Aviv speech, “Genuine steps toward a two-state solution are also required to empower those [willing] to live in peace and security with Israel and to undercut their rivals who will never accept that future.”
Ultimately, Israeli leaders will insist they have no obligations but to their own people. They will disregard intensifying frustration with their actions because Israel’s security is an Israeli matter. But how true is that? If Iran acquires nuclear weapons, Israeli security will be more closely tied in with that of the United States. Any American regional nuclear umbrella will also cover Israel, regardless of Israel’s nuclear arsenal. As for the Palestinians, their problem has never been more internationalized – its repercussions felt in countless foreign capitals. Palestinian statehood may be debated at the United Nations in the not too distant future. Israel’s latitude to pursue containable unilateral steps is diminishing because the Middle East’s dynamics now have an impact in so many countries.
A more disturbing thought is that any solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is long gone, making this entire discussion pointless. In that reading, the Palestinians have time in their favor, as they will form a numerical majority over the Jews before long. Therefore, all we can really look forward to is open-ended armed hostility, again lasting generations. That may be too bleak an evaluation. Then again it may not be.
Interestingly, I find not much to argue with in this well-written piece. We are well aware of the price paid for past and present decisions, each made on the basis of facts at the time. My own personal feelings are so coloured by real-life interaction with our morally bankrupt 'cousins', theft, lies, big and small, promises meant to be broken, evil and reprehensible media-propaganda from Egypt, Lebanon, and Turkey. Our perceived 'arrogance' in defending basic rights to exist against brain-dead pathological and diabolical forces on every border is understandable, at least to me and my children in the army who, in a perfect world would be otherwise pursuing careers in universities. Perhaps move the discussion to the subject of, say, the Taliban, who are equally keen on making a wasteland of a once-paradise. We've seen what Jordan wreaked during their period of 'responsibility' for parts of Jerusalem. Broken tombstones, desecrated holy places. Why would anyone putatively sane give such creatures a second chance? One Chamberlain was quite enough, and the UK will surely pay, in due time, for their head in the sand. The scum-bag we may have dealt with in Dubai had long-since given up his right to live in the community of honourable men. Once again, a thoughtful article describing very well a painful and almost intractable situation. Thank you for posting it/ js, tel aviv