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What Future for Israel?

Mahmoud Abbas; drawing by John Springs

Israel’s turn away from the Palestinians has brought an overdue shift in focus from the borders of the state to what lies within them. Jewish identity was a central issue of the 2013 election; indirectly, so too was the place of minorities in the Jewish state. Among Israeli citizens, Jews but not Palestinians have collective rights to land, immigration, symbols such as their own flag, and commemorations, particularly of the Nakba, the catastrophe of Palestinian defeat and expulsion in 1948. Jews and non-Jews cannot legally marry. Current residents of Jerusalem homes that were abandoned during the 1948 war have been evicted to make room for former owners and their descendants—but only when the deed holders are Jews.

The inequality of Jews and non-Jews within Israel’s pre-1967 borders—in which Palestinian citizens and residents lived under military rule from 1948 until the end of 1966—prepared the ground for still more unequal arrangements in the West Bank after the 1967 war.21 Both were created by the Ashkenazi Labor Zionist elite that now criticizes the settlers for dynamics it set in place. On what grounds, Shenhav asks, is the idea of Jewish settlement in ruined Palestinian villages within the pre-1967 borders—formerly inhabited, in many cases, by Palestinian citizens internally displaced by war—considered more moral than Jewish settlement on Palestinian agricultural lands of the West Bank? The former, he argues, involved far more human suffering. Susser, indeed any Zionist, would surely object to comparisons that would cast doubt on Israeli claims to its pre-1967 territory. But he offers strong support for the underlying premise that the root of the conflict is not east of the Green Line but in the more than century-old project of Zionist settlement itself.

The fading importance of the pre-1967 borders means a breaking with illusions and a return to the true nature of the conflict: a struggle between two ethnic groups between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.22 The peaceful arrangements they have so far discussed have all fallen short of both the full sovereignty Palestinians desire and the hard ethnic separation the Israeli center and left seek. As Susser writes:

The Palestinian state that the Israelis were willing to endorse was never a fully sovereign and independent member of the family of nations, but an emasculated, demilitarized, and supervised entity, with Israeli control of its airspace and possibly of its borders too, and some element of Israeli and/or foreign military presence.

This was as true for Netanyahu as for Olmert, Barak, Peres, and Yitzhak Rabin, who a month before his assassination told the Knesset that the Palestinians would have “less than a state.”

Israel, Susser argues, almost certainly will not achieve an end of conflict, much less recognition of a Jewish state, without meeting Palestinian demands to admit responsibility for the flight and expulsion of refugees of the 1948 war. Israel can point to its acceptance of the UN partition plan that was rejected by Palestinians and Arab nations, which then attacked the new Jewish state. But the forced displacement of a very large number of Palestinians during the war that followed is now a documented reality, one that for most Palestinians supports their claims to return, or to ample compensation for their losses, or to both.23

Many Israeli leaders believe that any such acknowledgment of responsibility or acceptance of Palestinian claims to return would shake the very foundations of the state, undermining its international legitimacy and upending decades of Zionist teaching by conceding that Israel was responsible for forcibly dispossessing large numbers of Palestinian civilians from their land and homes at its birth. Netanyahu understands the size of this obstacle, or once did, yet is moving with Kerry to renew talks based on the foundering 1967 model.

Kerry, like his predecessors, has concentrated on 1967 issues such as borders and security, showing few signs that he has learned from past failures. One hopes that he is not under the mistaken impression that Olmert and Abbas were inches away from a real agreement. Those talks did not come close to resolving even the 1967 issues. What’s more, compared to Olmert, Netanyahu is less desperate, less willing to compromise on 1948 issues, and is making calculations in a region that has become less stable and forgiving of risk.

If renewed talks break down, Israelis may begin asking themselves whether the time has come to abandon hopes of a full peace in order to achieve—perhaps through cease-fires or further unilateral withdrawals—a partial separation. They would thereby create something more than one state but less than two, which is, in fact, all that was ever on offer.

  1. 21

    Palestinians within Israel’s pre-1967 borders were not able to obtain citizenship until July 1952. Many remained unable to obtain citizenship even after 1952, because they lacked proof of identity or had not been counted in the population registry of 1949. 

  2. 22

    Former Jerusalem deputy mayor Meron Benvenisti, who was among the first to speak of the obsolescence of the Green line, recently has said, “The Green Line, which was the great alibi of the left, no longer exists. The Green Line is dead.” 

  3. 23

    The war that followed the November 1947 UN Partition Resolution, commonly referred to as the 1948 war, is typically divided by historians into two phases: first, a civil war in Mandatory Palestine, beginning just after the UN General Assembly passed a November 29, 1947 resolution calling for the partition of Palestine; and second, an Arab-Israeli war, which commenced with attacks by Arab states on Israel following the latter’s May 14, 1948 declaration of independence (the day before the British Mandate expired) and ended with the armistice agreements Israel and its neighbors signed in 1949. Many of the war’s deaths and displacements took place during its first phase. By the time the second phase began, in May 1948, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians (most estimates range from 200,000 to 350,000) had already been displaced and more than 2,000 Jews (of a total of roughly 6,000 Jewish deaths during the war) had already been killed. 

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