Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Why Bibi Waits And Sees

Let's look at this strictly from Israel's perspective. Say it chose to annex the West Bank, arguing, as sovereign nations will, that it won the land from Jordan in 1967 with its blood and treasure. While dealing with the bloodcurdling global outcry, Israel would have to decide whether to grant citizenship to the region's two million Arabs. Israel's population would then be about 5.8 million Jewish and 3.5 million Arab (compared to 20% Arab today). If Arab growth rates continued to outstrip non-haredim Jews', voters would probably soon put an end to Israel's status as a Jewish state.

If Israel annexed the West Bank but didn't let its Arabs vote, it would deserve being called an apartheid state. Many Israelis put security above democracy. But such a grave violation of Israel's democratic principles would be unthinkable to tens of millions of its citizens and international friends.

Instead, say Israel and the Palestinians finally made a deal on two states. Then your problem would be strategic unpredictability instead of the iron law of demographics. The main question is whether Palestine would go in the direction of secular Muslim Turkey or fanatical Iran. You'll be able to make a better guess when you see where Egypt goes with its Muslim Brotherhood president. The two-state deal would be freighted with massive security guarantees. For the foreseeable future, Israel's armed forces would outmatch anything Palestine could muster. But Tel Aviv and Haifa would be easy targets for missiles fired or bombs smuggled from just a few miles away.

So if you were a relatively enlightened Israeli leader, sworn to protect your country at all costs, what would you do? Friends and enemies will tell you that your responsibilities include justice for those living under occupation for over 40 years. You understand that, but you still keep coming back to job one. Besides, you don't have to say yes to a two-state settlement if Palestinians keep saying no.

My guess is that your preference would be to keep watching and waiting, not taking any action you're not compelled to take on the strict grounds of national interest. Writing in the aptly named National Interest, published by the former Nixon Center, Israeli journalist Akiva Eldar seems to have put his finger on it:
Israel never overtly spurned a two-state solution involving land partition and a Palestinian state. But it never acknowledged that West Bank developments had rendered such a solution impossible. Facing a default reality in which a one-state solution seemed the only option, Israel chose a third way—the continuation of the status quo. This unspoken strategic decision has dictated its polices and tactics for the past decade, simultaneously safeguarding political negotiations as a framework for the future and tightening Israel’s control over the West Bank. In essence, a “peace process” that allegedly is meant to bring the occupation to an end and achieve a two-state solution has become a mechanism to perpetuate the conflict and preserve the status quo.
What makes the status quo tenable for Israel is the dramatic decline in the conflict, namely Palestinian violence since the end of the second intifada in 2004. Traveling with a group of St. John's Episcopal Church pilgrims, I've just finished my fourth visit to the region since 2007. Each time the atmosphere has been less tense. Palestinians are less hassled at Israeli check points and border crossings. Thanks to injections of foreign aid, the West Bank economy is doing well, though fiscal problems are brewing. Perhaps it's a little like China, where the availability of jobs and opportunity makes people less frantic about being deprived of political self-determination. The West Bank's Fatah leaders are being good citizens, focusing on economic development and diplomacy instead of violence -- though there are signs that some Palestinians are angrier about the lack of progress toward a Palestinian state. People we met even complained less about Israeli settlements. All in all, shrugged shoulders seem more common than balled fists.

So again, you're an Israeli leader. What do you do? Justice and fairness for Palestinians -- of course, of course, you get all that. But give them all a vote in Israel? No way. Your country's founders died to create a sanctuary for Jews. Annex Palestinian land but make them second-class citizens? Your founders died for freedom, too. Risk Hamas having the deciding vote in Palestinian foreign policy? Not on your watch.

Sure, things could go south again on the West Bank -- renewed terrorism, even civil war. Maybe a U.S. president will finally threaten to cut off some or all of your $3 billion in annual security aid. But you'll decide how to react to those developments when they occur. You'll see how things look in the morning, and the morning after that, and next year. All in all, amorally but understandably, maybe you really would just wait and see.

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