Media coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute tends to focus on issues that make for better sound bites. The media will often latch onto statements made by leaders on either side on a given day, high profile events such as the Palestinian bid for statehood recognition at the United Nations or largely meaningless but ostensibly easily understandable concepts such as “peace process.”
In fact, the core issue of this dispute has always been and will continue to be, regardless of the size or location of land swaps, whether the Palestinians and the larger Arab World are willing to ultimately accept the existence of a Jewish state in the Middle East or whether peace agreements with that country are really only temporary expediencies on the road towards “righting the historical wrong” of a Jewish state in the region. When the Palestinians refer to “ending the occupation” or achieving “justice” for the Palestinian cause, one can never be sure whether they are referring to an ultimate solution that provides them with national independence in the territory of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip or whether they mean the ultimate establishment of a Palestinian state in lieu of Israel. While groups like Hamas make no bones about which of the aforementioned objectives they plan to achieve (i.e., the destruction of Israel), Israel’s ostensible partners in the peace process, Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah organization, are purposefully opaque on this issue. One may argue that Palestinian “moderates” are unwilling to make it crystal clear that they are willing to live side-by-side with a Jewish state because they variously do not want to completely alienate Palestinian hardliners in Hamas, do not want to alienate the large (some five to six million) constituency of Palestinian refugees and their descendants, and/or do not want to concede a major negotiating card (something the Israelis clearly desperately want) prior to real negotiations on ending the dispute. While there are clearly Palestinians who are willing to acquiesce in a true two-state solution that accepts the existence of a Jewish State alongside a Palestinian one, the bulk of the Palestinian leadership either refuses to take a clear position or is quite frank about its rejection of the two-state solution.
Abbas and many of his mainstream Fatah supporters have argued that a two-state solution is the only realistic outcome but, not wanting to alienate the large Palestinian refugee constituency, they have insisted that the conflict cannot be solved and true “justice” achieved without recognizing the “right of return” of Palestinian refugees and their descendents to their former homes (virtually none of which still exist) and lands (despite the fact that virtually none have documentary evidence of prior ownership). If implemented, this course of action will result in two Palestinian-majority states: Palestine (in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem) and Israel which, with its Palestinian majority, is likely to democratically vote itself out of existence and merge with Palestine. At present, there are approximately six and a half million Israeli Jews and close to one and a half million Israeli Palestinians (often referred to as “Israeli Arabs”). It is not hard to see that an influx of five to six million Palestinian refugees into Israel will provide the Palestinians with a majority, if not right away than within a few years.
This dilemma is well known to students of the conflict. Palestinian leaders cannot abandon the refugees and their cause while Israeli leaders cannot make agreements that will result in the dismantling of the Jewish state via a massive influx of hostile Palestinians. For Israeli leaders, their country’s raison d’etre is to be a Jewish state and homeland for the Jewish people and this can clearly only be accomplished as long as there is a clear Jewish majority in the country. If that core objective, the very reason for the country’s existence, is abandoned, then there is no reason that Israel cannot simply become Palestine and those Jews that choose to remain on the land become a minority in an Arab state (though, judging from the treatment meted out to Jews in Arab countries in the 20th century, it is not likely that many will willingly choose to stay behind).
Accordingly, if the Palestinians are not willing to unambiguously accept the reality that the Palestinian refugee problem will have to be solved via integrating the refugees in the societies in which they live and perhaps allowing some limited immigration to the future Palestinian state (provided it has the economic wherewithal to integrate them), then there is really little point in Israel negotiating with them. Peace should be a critical objective of Israeli policymaking, but peace is not the ultimate policy goal. Israel’s ultimate policy goal is national survival as a Jewish state and this objective trumps peace.
For those Palestinians willing to negotiate with Israel on the basis of a two-state solution, the effective abandonment of the right of return will be the most bitter pill the Palestinian national movement has ever had to swallow and will doubtless cause huge rifts and internal strife within Palestinian society further increasing the support for Palestinian rejectionists. At the same time, the Palestinians are the weaker party to this dispute and cannot logically expect the Israeli side to abandon its core national objective. Israel has weathered many regional wars and has developed a strong society and economy, and it is simply not realistic to assume that this will somehow disappear or grow weaker over time.
At the same time, the Palestinians cannot be expected to make such a difficult sacrifice without it being clearly understood that Israel will make difficult sacrifices and that Israel is committed to the creation of a viable Palestinian state alongside Israel provided the Palestinians, and the larger Arab world, are willing to accept a Jewish state as a legitimate and normal part of the region.
Rather than both sides waiting for the twin objectives of a two-state solution and a “normalized” Israel in the region as the outcome of the negotiations, they should make these ultimate objectives clear at the outset and then negotiate the specifics as to how to achieve these objectives.
The Palestinian side can take clear steps to make it a basic plank of the Palestinian negotiating platform that the Palestinian refugees will not have the right of return to Israel. This will not solve the problem of two Palestinian governments (one in Ramallah and one in Gaza) and the rejectionist camp within Palestinian society, but it will go a long way towards assuaging Israeli concerns that the so-called “peace process” is merely just cover for the eventual dismantling of the Jewish state. It is also likely to trigger a political earthquake in Israel that will isolate the extreme right wing and force the major parties to compete over a platform of compromise. Public opinion polls in Israel consistently show that the population is not opposed to a two-state solution, but public pressure in this direction is currently largely non-existent because there is little sense that the Palestinian objective is anything other than Israel’s eventual destruction.
At the same time, the Israeli side will need to make it clear to the Palestinians that Israel is serious about a two-state solution and that the talk of a two-state solution is not merely cover for the creeping annexation of the West Bank through the expansion of Israeli settlements. Accordingly, the Israeli government should do something it has avoided doing since 1967: outline the national borders of the State of Israel with respect to the West Bank and determine which areas within Israel will be transferred to the State of Palestine in exchange for some of the settlement blocs (if those are indeed deemed vital to retain). As an additional good faith measure, Israel should dismantle some of the more isolated settlements deep within Palestinian population centers. There is already precedence for this as Israeli dismantled four West Bank settlements when it withdrew from the Gaza Strip in 2005. It is clear to decision-makers in Israel that such settlements are only a military and diplomatic burden and do not enhance the country’s security.
Israel should also publically note which Palestinian majority neighborhoods in eastern, southern and northern Jerusalem that it is willing to hand over to a Palestinian state and this can at least form the basis for an agreement with the more sensitive issue of the Old City to be left to the actual negotiations. Needless to say, these measures will not be easily accomplished in Israel and will cause deep rifts within the Israeli population and possibly low-level civil strife and terrorism on the part of Jewish rejectionists. Of course, Palestinian rejectionists will see these Israeli measures as “proof” that “resistance” pays off and that Israel will cave in without requiring the ultimate Palestinian sacrifice of forgoing the right of return.
Ultimately, Palestinian leaders who accept a true two-state solution will have to impose their views on the rejectionists (just as Israel will be doing with its own rejectionists) and the Israeli security community must continue to vigilantly protect the lives of Israelis and make it clear to the Palestinian rejectionists that Israel is not negotiating from a position of weakness. This will also necessitate maintaining an Israeli military presence in the West Bank until the Palestinian Authority demonstrates that it can control areas evacuated by Israel and prevent them from becoming launching pads for attacks against Israel.
The Oslo Peace Process of the 1990s failed, at least in part, because it did not outline the nature of the final outcome of the peace process and focused instead on negotiating tangible but less critical issues, thus leaving both sides to continue to view the nature of a final settlement of the conflict in very different ways. That approach should now be inverted. The Palestinians will never achieve a solution to the conflict that will afford them any sort of independent national existence if they deny Israel the right to exist as a Jewish state (which is the only way it can exist). At the same time, the Palestinian national struggle is not going to go away, and Israel will not be able to enjoy normalized relations in the region (especially in the wake of the so-called “Arab Spring,” where public opinion is likely to play a much larger role in Arab policymaking) and avoid future wars without addressing the Palestinian issue in a manner that both sides can live with.