Perspective on the Upcoming Israel's Election on September 17
By Stephen Ditmore
There are nearly 7 million Jews and nearly 7 million Palestinians living between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea in Palestine/Israel. Both populations skew young, Palestinians more so. If you count only those of voting age, parity has not yet been reached; but that will happen, and there are millions more Palestinians living in neighboring nations.
Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party and the Boycott, Divest and Sanction Movement (BDS) have in common that both are working toward a single state – with some clear differences, starting with the presumptive name of that state. In their public pronouncements, neither really wants to lead with their vision for final status, but it doesn’t take a genius to read between the lines (in either case). The concept of a two state solution is therefore middle ground, be it common ground or not. There are variants sometimes floated by the pro-Israel right, or by those who are unenthusiastic about a Palestinian nation state with its own military but who might welcome the involvement of the existing nations of the region in crafting a solution. Then there are those within Israel who advocate simply defining a border and withdrawing on Israel’s own terms. Ariel Sharon was effectively expelled from the Likud Party when it became clear that he intended to withdraw from parts of Eretz Yisrael unilaterally (without consulting Palestinian or Arab representatives), which came to pass in Gaza.
Agreement on a two-state solution was nearly reached via behind-the-scenes negotiations in 2008 immediately before the de-facto resignation of Ehud Olmert as Prime Minister of Israel. Detailed accounts of these talks became public in 2011 in the form of the “Palestine Papers.” A kibosh on further serious peace talks followed the return to power of Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud party, which never fully cooperated in U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s effort to re-start peace talks in 2013-14.
In the Israeli elections of April 9, 2019, Netanyahu's Likud Party tied with the Blue and White alliance of Benny Gantz, each winning 35 seats in the Knesset. The inability of Likud to form a governing coalition has led to a rerun of the election, to be held this upcoming September 17. Despite little discussion of peace offers as a campaign issue, there are differences among the parties, and it’s hard to imagine progress being made as long as Netanyahu remains Prime Minister.
I’m Jewish, though not representative of majority Jewish opinion. This is my effort to present the ideas on the table as I understand them — “brainstorming” the problem, if you will. If I give short shrift to some ideas being put forward among Palestinians, it is inadvertent, and I apologize in advance. I will continue to read and learn, with the hope that Palestinian writers will bring their perspectives to constructive, forward looking debate and dialogue in the pages of the Parkchester Times. I hunger for progress; we all suffer for lack of it, and I’m happy to listen to any serious proposal.
Mahmoud Abbas, Saeb Erekat, Hanan Ashrawi, and others have advocated with consistency (boundaries are not the only issue). Those who attempt to exclude the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and Fatah under Abbas’ leadership from further peace negotiations are making a mistake, in my view. Unfortunately, this type of exclusion describes the approach of Donald Trump. We should take ideas seriously and discuss them on their substantive merits, including those offered by Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt on behalf of the Trump Administration. But the U.S. administration is off to a poor start, for the reason above and because the president has chosen to vilify prominent American Muslims (with significant Democratic Party assent, unfortunately).
We should stop looking at proposals in terms of the personalities involved, and consider them on their merits. The Arab Peace Initiative of 2002 was a positive contribution to peace in the Middle East; it’s unfortunate that its primary architect, King Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud, is no longer with us. Whatever can be said of current Saudi leaders, none are of his stature as a statesman. Fortunately, King Abdullah II bin Al-Hussein of Jordan continues to advocate on behalf of the initiative, and stands ready to play a constructive role. We would do well to appreciate his interest and act. None of us will be here in this earthly realm forever.
Most of the Palestinian-Israeli peace talks have proceeded on the basis of the Oslo Accords. Oslo II had an unfortunate aspect, however. When it divided the West Bank into administrative areas A, B, and C, it created a network of corridors (Area C), which have become Israeli security zones, making Palestinian communities in areas A and B isolated, non-contiguous islands that Yasser Arafat referred to, disparagingly, as “cantons.” Israeli offers have sought to preserve this arrangement in some form, and Israel continues to insist that IT must control the border with Jordan at the river. This concept, along with the building of settlements in East Jerusalem, Hebron, and elsewhere in the “Seam Zone” created by Sharon’s wall, have been major impediments to the drawing of a partition map acceptable to Palestinians. Notable efforts have been made, however. The same year that the Arab Peace Initiative was announced, a group of Israeli and Palestinian leaders unofficially produced a map and document known as the “Geneva Accords,” suggesting a way forward that in some measure laid the groundwork for the effort under Olmert.
There has been a rumor concerning how the Kushner/Greenblatt proposal, yet to be revealed, deals with this constellation of issues (reportedly leaked by then Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, though he denies it). It’s said that the U.S. plan would create a Palestinian State in Gaza, circumventing the West Bank altogether. West Bank Palestinians would be regarded as citizens of the new Palestinian State, but no West Bank land would initially be under its jurisdiction. While I welcome creative new approaches, this doesn’t strike me as a solution to the real issues. Being a cop-out, it will fail to satisfy West Bank Palestinians and reward Hamas for its more radical approach, as did Sharon’s pullout.
Avigdor Lieberman is interesting for other reasons. A segregationist who believes Israeli citizens should have to sign “loyalty oaths,” he is the architect of his own right-wing peace plan — the "Populated-Area Exchange Plan," introduced in 2004. The most controversial aspect of the plan is that Palestinian-Israelis who live in “The Triangle” would lose their Israeli citizenship. What it would accomplish is to create a self-governing Palestinian state that includes important Palestinian areas while shrinking Israel to a size at which Jews would remain a secure, self-governing majority into the foreseeable future. Before dismissing every aspect of Lieberman’s vision, might we look for the silver lining? Lieberman will be on the ballot September 17 as head of the Yisrael Beiteinu party. If they do well, Lieberman could hold the key to forming the next government of Israel.
In light of the demographic problem Israel faces, it’s not surprising that some on the right are offering their own two-state solutions. While they may not appeal to our liberal instincts as people, we must ask ourselves whether their solutions are an improvement over Likud’s slow-walked land grab.
This discussion has not left room for a full and fair consideration of Palestinian one-state solution proposals. One thing we may want to consider is that a nation-state is not the only meaningful form of political entity. Iraqi Kurdistan, Greenland, and until a few weeks ago, Kashmir, are said to be administratively autonomous. What if it’s less that Jews and Palestinians each need a nation-state than that each needs self-rule? Perhaps neither people will ever feel culturally safe without their own laws, police, and judges. Is a federation of autonomous, self-governing regions an option? Does it take a power sharing arrangement like Lebanon’s to govern a diverse, pluralistic nation? How does one assure the rights of a minority in a pluralist democracy? These are tough governance issues that advocates of a single state must grapple with if they want to put forward a compelling vision for the future.
If there is one point that should be driven home at this time, on the eve of a rerun of Israeli elections, it’s that ideas matter. With new leadership, even if it’s not entirely to our liking, will come new opportunities to explore ideas for improving our societies, sustaining our rights, nurturing our spirits, and raising our children in peace.