The End of the Middle East Peace Process?

A Peace No One Wins

A different, shorter version of this article appeared in the August 6, 2005 Los Angeles Times.

"Clearly Israel's goal must be to control as much territory as possible while governing as few Arabs as possible."

On Thursday, August 4, 2005, a Jewish extremist opened fire in a bus in Northern Israel, killing four Arab Israelis and wounding a dozen others before being overpowered and beaten to death by an angry crowd. The killer, Eden Natan-Zada had deserted from the Israeli army rather than take part in the eviction of Jews from settlements in the Gaza Strip, but the leader of the main group opposing the evictions immediately denounced his crime, saying "Murder is murder is murder."

Zada's crime, despite this repudiation, comes as a reminder that tensions rising toward civil war among Israel's Jews can have grave consequences for Israel's Arabs. Few Jews are likely to express hostility toward Arab Israelis as Zada did, but there are other ways, and they are being aired just now with a stunning bluntness.

FLAME (Facts and Logic About the Middle East) is an organization that for years has placed aggressively pro-Israeli advertisements in American magazines. Some weeks ago, one of these advertisements included the following proposal:

"Here's a better idea [than simple Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip]: Yes, move all Jews from Gaza and even from those parts of the 'West Bank,' that might eventually be ceded to form an autonomous Arab entity and repatriate them to 'Israel proper.' But at the same time, evacuate all Arabs from Israel and resettle them in Gaza, the 'West Bank,' or wherever they might want to go. Such exchange of populations would be drastic, but certainly not unprecedented. The vast exchange of Muslims and non-Muslims on the Indian subcontinent, though accompanied by much bloodshed, is perhaps the best and ultimately most successful example of such population exchange."

As an organization that must literally buy its way into print, FLAME might seem a fair example of over-the-top Jewish extremism. But the center is always defined by the extremes; and regarding Israel's treatment of its Arabs, the Jewish center seems to be moving noticeably to the right. Thus, Martin Peretz, editor-in-chief of The New Republic, takes a distinct step to the right, even for an already right-of-center commentator on the Middle East, with a proposal in the August 8 edition that seems designed to strip many Arab Israelis of Israeli citizenship:

"Nearly everybody, even on the Israeli far right, now grasps that Israel cannot sit on the Arabs of the West Bank forever. So Israel will decide where the lines will be drawn, and it will cut as little as possible into densely populated Arab regions of a territorially continguous cartography. Concentrated Arab population centers in Israel that abut the new Palestinian state may be easily transferred from one national jurisdiction to another, with compensation from the Israeli social system following their present recipients for decades and beyond. This is not 'population transfer,' it is pragmatism: the ceding of what are actually Palestinian towns cleaving to Palestine."

If the Jewish state must at all costs be a Jewish-majority state, then the Peretz and FLAME proposals have a certain cold logic: Clearly Israel's goal must be to control as much territory as possible while governing as few Arabs as possible. Unloading Gaza-a small, resource-poor territory with a Jewish population of only 8,000, an Arab population of fully 1.2 million, and a convenient land border with Egypt-is, demographically speaking, a dream of a deal for Jewish Israel. But there are no more such deals to be had. From this point on, preserving a Jewish majority in the Jewish state may well require measures like those that Peretz and FLAME envision.

FLAME concedes that the price in blood could be high. In fact, the Indo-Pakistan war of 1947, which included, in FLAME's phrase, "the most successful example of such population exchange," cost one million lives. But note well: The Indo-Pakistani exchange was supported and facilitated by both sides to the conflict. The proposed Israeli-Palestinian exchanges would be imposed by one state on the two contending ethnic groups and three civil classes under its governance.

To maintain what it had imposed, in other words, Israel would still be required, in Peretz's apt phrase, to "sit on the Arabs of the West Bank forever." It would merely have rearranged their civil status. Between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, the same three groups would continue to live as they now do under de facto Israeli governance: Jewish Israelis as first-class citizens; a reduced number of Arab Israelis as second-class citizens; and Palestinians as third-class stateless noncitizens under Israeli containment with only as much autonomy as Israel chooses to allow (or require) of them.

Israel has administered just such a system for nearly forty years. It can quite probably maintain a version of the same system for some decades to come, and these days, who thinks in a longer time frame than that?

The era of the peace process and the hope for a two-state solution may thus be coming to an end before our eyes. Ariel Sharon will leave office before long, and his likely successor will refuse to evict Jews from the West Bank. Quite apart from the explosion of religious and nationalist emotion that would be unleashed by an Israeli eviction of Jews from a region with far greater historic importance to Jews than the Gaza Strip, the sheer dollar cost of such an eviction may well be declared prohibitive. The evicted Gaza Jews were compensated at $300,000 or more per family. Compensating 400,000 evicted West Bank Jews at the rate would cost at least $8 billion dollars, or about $1,000 per Israeli (Arab or Jew) living in Israel proper. And to this there could well be added the compensations to evicted Arab Israelis that Peretz envisions.

Mahmoud Abbas, meanwhile, has been served notice that unless his crippled police force can stop Palestinian terrorism cold, a task that has been beyond the state-of-the-art capacities of the Israel Defense Forces during forty years of occupation, there will be no Palestinian state. The sole attempt at an Abbas-Sharon summit conference ended with great abruptness and, from both sides, terse, unapologetic declarations of failure. Abbas, too, may leave office before long.

And then what? The world will presently stop talking about a "solution" in the Middle East and start recognizing an outcome. By the terms of this outcome, the Palestinians will clearly have lost; but can any Zionist honestly claim that as Israel devolves into a Jewish-minority state facing a future of endless low-intensity conflict with a subject people, the Israelis will have won?