We are approaching a point of no return regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In fact, it may be that we have already crossed it. The issue may not seem as urgent to the Israeli public as the Iranian nuclear program, which has become, with the help of our leaders, a central focus of public discussion at the expense of other pressing issues. To my regret, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has yet to reach a prominent place at the top of our list of priorities, nor has it become the second, even third most important issue. However this very subject has a place in our essence, in our identity, in our souls, in our security, and in our perception of morality—as a society or nation that has been chosen to rule another nation.
The relative security calm that we have recently enjoyed creates a dangerous illusion that our problems have been solved and maybe worse—that we have actually “frozen the situation”: a kind of de facto strategy in the face of the “Arab Spring” that is raging all around us. But it is clear that it is impossible to truly freeze the situation as social, economic, political, and other processes are never frozen in time. Unfortunately we have yet to find a strategy or the technology that can freeze frustration. Look no further than at what’s been happening in the Arab world in recent years, at what’s been happening in Egypt in the last several days, what is happening simultaneously in Brazil, at what happened in Russia after Putin was elected, and at what happened in Iran in the latest elections—and even at what happened in the social protests that took place in Israel during the summer of 2011—and you will understand that in the latest era, which is represented by the “Arab Spring,” there is no way to freeze the frustration of a nation or of any public entity.
Among the Palestinians there is a growing sense of anger and frustration. The fading hopes for a real change in the situation haven’t just lowered the Palestinian street’s faith in a solution to the conflict through means of the negotiation, but it is also the reason why, at the end of the day, the Palestinians will take to the streets, leading to another round of bloody violence. And the construction of settlements (whether or not this is taken as a symbolic gesture toward Mahmoud Abbas) is not stopping; the number of settlers or “inhabitants” in the West Bank, outside of the main settlement blocs, is growing to (if they have not already arrived at) dimensions that no Israeli government will be able to dismantle in an orderly fashion, unless through willing consent—and it doesn’t appear that the current government possess the will and/or the desire to buck the trend.
Just as troublesome—many of our friends in the world, whose support of the peace process with the Palestinians is critical, understand the powerless leaderships of Netanyahu and Abbas. They see the continued expansion of the settlements and are choosing to call it quits regarding the possibility of ever implementing the solution of “two states for two nations.”
Until recently I believed with all my heart that there is still a chance for the “two-state solution.” However, in the absence of true leadership willing to take real actions instead of making idle statements, I am convinced more and more that this option, which until recently was preferred by the Israeli majority according to surveys, is becoming increasingly unrealistic and is no longer feasible.
So, I now return to where we are in time, the “point of no return.” It is possible to compare our situation to flying in a plane. When we fly, it’s worthwhile to know if we have enough fuel to return home. There won’t be any obvious signs that we have reached the “point of no return”; there won’t be any exploding sounds, and it won’t be possible to paint it on a poster to present during speeches made to the United Nations or anywhere else. Even researches and reports won’t be able to prove that we’ve crossed the line; it will be more similar to the picture of the cat that slowly turns into a dog. Except in this case, the dog will also be buried.
Considering all of the above, I will summarize my argument. In terms of the future, the identity, the nature and security of the state of Israel and the Jewish nation, it will be impossible to know when we have passed the point from which we will never be able to return home and retain our identity as a democratic, Jewish state.
The blame game taking place between Netanyahu and Abbas is foolish in my eyes, a useless game that is dangerous on a strategic level, in which the real losers are not the leaders themselves—rather their two nations and mostly the Jewish, democratic state of Israel.
As for the Palestinians, I believe that in the long term they will not lose from the disintegration of the two-state option and the shift to a nearly inevitable outcome of the one remaining reality—a state “from the sea to the river” meaning in other words, “one state for two nations.” When we get there, we will face an immediate existential threat of the erasing of the identity of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, and in a few years the reality of the country’s demographics will become a Palestinian-Arab majority and a Jewish minority, along with all that entails.
Anyone who wants to can see the data of the Research and Information Center Committee (based on a study by professors Arnon Sofer and Sergio Della Pergola) suggesting that at the end of the year 2010, the proportion of Jews—if you add the total population between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River—was only 53 percent! If we study the issue of the geographical distribution of the various populations in the area between the sea and the river—we will understand that we will have created a state with a Jewish majority (temporarily) concentrated in small sections of its territory.
Meanwhile, the quiet on the security front creates the illusion of “everything is OK,” mistakenly lulling us into believing that there is no reason to worry. But what else do we really need in order to recognize the fact that we are in a state of national emergency in every sense of the term, an emergency whose resolution should have long been at the top of the list of priorities?
One only needs to consider what took place in the largest political parties that supposedly support a two-state solution. When asked to comment on their positions during the election campaign, Likud chairman Benjamin Netanyahu, who for the most part was certain that he was en route to a crushing victory, said nothing of consequence about the subject or other matters. Yair Lapid continued to dazzle us with mediocre pronouncements that were designed to be well-received by all, shrewdly avoiding the need to commit himself either way as it relates to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Shelly Yacimovich has steadfastly refrained from any clear-cut statement on the topic, which has traditionally been a litmus-test issue for her predecessors in the Labor Party.
At the center of the Israeli political map and taking a clear stand were just Tzipi Livni, the leader of Hatnua, a party that placed a solution to the conflict as the central item on its agenda; Meretz, headed by Zehava Gal-On; and the disintegrating Kadima Party.
The reasons for this disappointing and disconcerting state of affairs could be found in a misunderstanding of the gravity of the situation as well as in discomfort from meeting this issue head-on, a discomfort motivated by narrow political interests. Then there is the populist stance taken by leaders who prefer uncontroversial, palatable sound bites that appeal to the widest possible audience. They take this stance while avoiding the task of dealing with a fateful, weighty, and unpopular issue that is still on the national agenda.
Whoever is adept at constantly drawing “red lines” for the Iranians would be better off taking a look at his next-door neighbors rather than those on the other side of the far-off, darkened hills, for doing so would reveal to him that it is here, right here, where we are nearing the point of no return. The problem is that our planes that will take off toward the unknown will also be of no use in solving the problem.
If our leaders in Israel and the Palestinian leadership both lack the necessary willpower to lead us to a two-state solution, then it would be best to begin thinking about the bi-national alternative in realistic terms. This isn’t because I necessarily support the bi-national model, but rather because it is gradually turning into the only alternative that is on the table. If the situation remains as is, then it would be best to begin preparing for the inevitable.
This alternative entails addressing some serious concerns. What status will be conferred upon the Palestinian citizens in this “from the river to the sea” state that we have created with our own hands? Will they have full voting rights like those enjoyed by Israeli Arabs? Will they be given equal rights as residents with the exception of the right to vote? Will we grant the Palestinians autonomy that will allow them to manage their own affairs? And what of the Arab citizens of Israel? Won’t they demand autonomy of their own? Will the security situation improve in such a setting? Will the Palestinians really relinquish their demands once this “river to the sea” state arises? Will we remove the separation wall in such a state? How will we sort out our identity as a Jewish and democratic once we turn into a minority? Will our status in the eyes of the family of nations improve as a result? We cannot simply brush off these questions as nothing more than “shrapnel in the buttocks,” in the words of Naftali Bennett of Bayit Yehudi. Indeed, in the eventuality of a “river to the sea” state, one of the most difficult questions that need to be addressed is who is the shrapnel and who is the buttocks? These are questions that cannot be evaded by means of “bypass routes” or highway junctions, nor can they be sidestepped by annexing pieces of Area C or establishing Palestinian autonomous zones in line with the “progressive” vision propagated by Bennett and others. There really is no way to avoid these issues.
If we don’t wish to continue ruling over another people and thus turn into an ostracized apartheid state, there is no alternative but to grant full rights, including the right to vote, to Palestinians. In such a scenario, there is no need to hold further discussions about the future of the Jewish and democratic vision as put forth by our founding fathers, the same vision on which we were reared and educated. It will melt away and disappear.
Lapid and Yacimovich must help Netanyahu. Yes, on the surface this issue is quite simple, yet at the same time there is no more complex conundrum. It seems simple because everyone knows what the parameters of a settlement will inevitably entail: the establishment of a demilitarized Palestinian state along the 1967 lines with territorial swaps that will allow Israel to keep large settlement blocs; a symbolic right of return for refugees, with financial compensation being paid to Palestinians in the diaspora; dismantling of settlements that are beyond the agreed-upon borders and compensation to those who will be evicted from them; a political partition of Jerusalem that would be in line with our interest to avoid ruling over a large Palestinian population; a creative solution regarding sovereignty over the holy sites in the Old City (internationalization, perhaps?); a resolution of the future status of the Temple Mount and the Western Wall; and a diplomatic solution over the contours of Israel’s eastern border and the Jordan Valley.
This alternative is also extremely complex for a number of reasons.
There are the enormous psychological gaps and lack of faith between those who are charged with leading the negotiations; the fact that apparently neither Netanyahu or Abbas has what it takes to lead their peoples to such a solution; the fact that Abbas has no solution to the serious rift that has been created between his Fatah-led West Bank and the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip; the fact that it is impossible to solve this conflict without Hamas; and—let’s face it—the fact that Netanyahu has no realistic solution to the federation-like network of settlements that has grown out of control in the West Bank.
There is no way to solve this conflict without involving our brothers (and this is said without a hint of cynicism) the settlers.
There are those who say that the conflict is insoluble. I believe there are many strategic and tactical risks involved, but the alternative—a “river to the sea” state and continued occupation of another people, with all that it entails—is far worse. As such, the problem is unavoidable. It cannot be put on hold or contained.
This is Netanyahu’s moment of truth. He can prove to all of his most vociferous naysayers and critics (me among them) that he is not just a politician passing his—and our—time in the prime minister’s office, but a leader who is capable of grasping the gravity of the situation; a leader capable of freeing himself of his trepidations, fears and secret advisers; a leader capable of understanding the critical need to rise above himself and establish a proper set of priorities; and, most important, a leader capable of shepherding the nation (or, at least a majority of it) to the right path. I have huge doubts as to whether Netanyahu is such a leader, but I will be the first one to praise him if he proves otherwise.
This is also a moment of truth for Yair Lapid, who has a chance to liberate himself from the image of a Facebook-centric, shallow politician, and for opposition chief Shelly Yacimovich, who can restore the soul of a party gone awry. Together, these two individuals can help Netanyahu rise above himself. There’s no need to worry about Tzipi Livni and Hatnua not extending their support for such a move, and I am convinced that Zehava Gal-On of Meretz will also back it, as will what remains of Kadima and other parties.
This is also the moment of truth for another key figure—Naftali Bennett—who can prove that he possesses the maturity of someone who understands the strategic significance of this point of no return as it relates to the future of the state and this nation.
This is not a matter of Right versus Left, or who is in the political Center.
This is a matter that requires national responsibility of the highest order.
It requires taking advantage of what may be the last opportunity to extricate ourselves from the deadly clutches of our conflict with the Palestinians, clutches that we have tethered to ourselves.
I, too, believe that the risks are considerable, and success is not guaranteed because this is a very deep conflict, with dimensions that are religious, nationalistic, and territorial. In the Middle East, blood doesn’t turn into water. The two sides are also separated by deep economic, cultural, and psychological gaps, and the wounds are still fresh. We are still more likely than not to experience moments of crisis, disappointment, and failure, and there will be further need to readjust our expectations amongst ourselves as well as with our Palestinian interlocutors.
I still believe that genuine leadership that charts a clear path toward a defined goal could propel forward a process that if undertaken in a truly positive spirit (and I emphasize a truly positive spirit) could instill hope and create the momentum and positive atmosphere on the Israeli and Palestinian streets, thus leading to the crystallization of strong majorities on both sides that will support the process. Such a process would have to be devoid of pettiness and intrigue, and it would have to entail generous, confidence-building gestures by Israel. It would have to gradually establish a relationship of trust between the leaders, a relationship that just may form the basis of fruitful negotiations.
As part of this effort, a complete, immediate cessation of all construction in the settlements (with the exception of some building within the large blocs) for an indefinite period is critical to keeping alive the chances of creating a positive atmosphere conducive to relaunching negotiations. Even acceding to the Palestinian Authority’s request for the release of “pre-Oslo” prisoners and bolstering Fatah’s credibility in the eyes of the Palestinian street is, in my view, a worthy gesture. It is far more preferable than capitulating to the dictates of a terrorist organization that abducted an Israeli soldier and agreeing to the disproportionate release of murderers in prisoner swaps that will only encourage more abductions.
Perhaps we will fail. One cannot discount this possibility, which would most likely lead us to begin entertaining all sorts of interim alternatives that some have bandied about, most prominent of which is a unilateral Israeli move in which we exit most of the territories that we control today without coordinating it with a partner or delineating an agreed-upon border.
It would also be done most likely without summoning significant public support for the evacuation of outposts and settlements that lie outside of the large settlement blocs.
Such a move may partially—and temporarily—improve Israel’s image in the eyes of the world, though this is doubtful. It will not, however, solve the problem. Obviously I would recommend against giving this alternative any sort of preference at this stage. I do not believe in the utility of such a move or in the ability to implement it.
Given the complexity and the gravity of the situation, I would recommend that Prime Minister Netanyahu, who is famous for his admiration for Winston Churchill and is wont to quote him, make it a point to internalize this quote from the latter: “Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.” This is true leadership in a nutshell. It is a leadership that adheres to a determined path, one that is determined to realize the goals that it has established.
There is no alternative but to enter into a diplomatic process with the Palestinians, here and now, despite the anxieties and the numerous risks. Without such a process, we will certainly cross the point of no return, after which we will be left with one state from the river to the sea for two peoples. The consequences of such a state for our national identity, our security, our ability to maintain a worthy, democratic state, our moral fiber as a society, and our place in the family of nations would be far-reaching.
Tablet Magazine is reprinting this English-language translation by Amishai Gottlieb of Yuval Diskin’s essay, which first appeared in the Jerusalem Post, because it is an unusually eloquent and persuasive statement of one view of Israel’s future.