Last month, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said in an interview that Israel must withdraw from the occupied territories. “What I am saying to you now has not been said by any Israeli leader before me,” he said. “The time has come to say these things.” A closer look, however, reveals that his remarks are not anything dramatically different from what other Israeli leaders have said. Nor is it any consideration for international law or concern about the rights of the Palestinian people that is driving any potential shift in Israeli policy.
Olmert criticized defense strategists for remaining mired in the considerations of the 1948 war that left Israel with expanded borders. “With them,” Olmert said, “it is all about tanks and land and controlling territories and controlled territories and this hilltop and that hilltop. All these things are worthless. Who thinks seriously that if we sit on another hilltop, on another hundred meters, that this is what will make the difference for the State of Israel’s basic security?”
Saying that he had changed his mind over time on the issue of Jerusalem, he said, “I am the first who wanted to enforce Israeli sovereignty on the entire city. I admit it. I am not trying to justify retroactively what I did for 35 years. For a large portion of these years, I was unwilling to look at reality in all its depth.” He explained his shift towards realism by saying that maintaining control over all of Jerusalem would mean including 270,000 Palestinians within the demographics of what Israel considered to be its territory.
It is considerations like these that are leading some Israeli analysts and decision makers to reconsider the policy of continuing the occupation of the Golan Heights and West Bank, which it has illegally occupied since the June 1967 war. Israel has withdrawn from the Gaza Strip, but still maintains a virtual siege of that territory, controlling who and what is allowed enter or leave.
Olmert lamented in his interview that “A decision has to be made. This decision is difficult, terrible, a decision that contradicts our natural instincts, our innermost desires, our collective memories, the prayers of the Jewish people for 2,000 years”, an apparent reference to the belief that all of the land of Palestine, including the occupied territories, belongs to the Jewish state of Israel.
“We face the need to decide but are not willing to tell ourselves, yes, this is what we have to do,” Olmert said. “We have to reach an agreement with the Palestinians, the meaning of which is that in practice we will withdraw from almost all the territories, if not all the territories. We will leave a percentage of these territories in our hands, but will have to give the Palestinians a similar percentage, because without that there will be no peace.”
Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni at the same time insisted that Olmert’s words were not binding. Olmert is set to leave office to face charges of corruption.
An article by former Israeli foreign minister Shlomo Ben-Ami in Foreign Affairs helps shed some light on the driving force behind what has appeared to many to be a paradigm shift for policy analysts.
Ben-Ami begins by noting that “Throughout history, nations have been born in blood and frequently in sin. This is why, as the French philosopher Ernest Renan wrote, they tend to lie about their pasts.”
He then proceeds to review the history of the creation of the state of Israel, a “noble Jewish dream of statehood” that “was stained by the sins of Israel’s birth”, by noting that historians have challenged “the Zionist mythology surrounding Israel’s birth” and “the conventional view of the war as a clash between a Jewish David and an Arab Goliath.”
IIn his analysis, Ben-Ami relies heavily upon the work of noted Israeli historian Benny Morris, whose book The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949 “recounts the often violent expulsion of 700,000 Arabs as Jewish soldiers conquered villages and towns throughout Palestine.”
“Morris shows,” Ben-Ami observes, “that the Zionists committed more massacres than the Arabs, deliberately killed far more civilians and prisoners of war, and committed more acts of rape.”
As for the military strategy of these actions, besides terrorizing the Arab population and ethnic cleansing Palestine, Jewish leaders sought to secure the main roads against Arab invasion and “demarcate the boundaries of a new state.” While many Arabs “fled for fear of military attacks”, Ben-Ami continues, “far more Palestinians were expelled on explicit orders from commanders in the field”. He adds that “in some cases, Ben-Gurion personally authorized such orders”.
These “population transfers”, Ben-Ami’s euphemism for ethnic cleansing, were “not surprising” given that the idea “had a long and solid pedigree in Zionist thought.” While “Zionist leaders differed on many issues,” he writes, “they generally agreed, as Morris points out, on the benefits of a ‘transfer’ — a euphemism for ‘expulsion.’”
“The Arabs of the Land,” he quotes Ben Gurion as saying at the time, “have only one function left to them — to run away.”
“And they did,” Ben-Ami observes. “[P]anic-stricken, they fled in the face of massacres in Ein Zeitun and Eilabun, just as they had done in the wake of an earlier massacre in Deir Yassin. Operational orders, such as the instruction from Moshe Carmel, the Israeli commander of the northern front, ‘to attack in order to conquer, to kill among the men, to destroy and burn the villages,’ were carved into the collective memory of the Palestinians, spawning hatred and resentment for generations.”
At the same time, he notes that Morris wasn’t condemning Israeli actions in his account: “In January 2004, Morris famously lamented that the architects of Israel’s 1948 war strategy had not more thoroughly purged the Jewish state of its Arab population. Morris told the Haaretz journalist Ari Shavit, ‘If [David] Ben-Gurion [Israel’s first prime minister] had carried out a large expulsion and cleansed the whole country — the whole Land of Israel, as far as the Jordan River …. he would have stabilized the State of Israel for generations…. If the end of the story turns out to be a gloomy one for the Jews, it will be because Ben-Gurion did not complete the transfer in 1948.”
Ben-Ami criticizes Morris’s analysis on a few points. Morris, for instance, “is unconvincing in his attempt to pardon some of Israel’s original sins” and his “characterization of the conflict of 1948 as an Islamic jihad against Jewish-Western infidels in Palestine is also unpersuasive.”
Yet Morris’s “scrupulous research” shows how the ethnic cleansing of Arab Palestinians “was in no small measure driven by a desire for land among Israeli settlers, who grabbed it and then actively pressured the Israeli government to prevent the Arab refugees from returning to their villages.”
“The hunger for land,” Ben-Ami notes, “persists to this day, as settlers lobby politicians to allow the expansion of outposts in the West Bank.” This “hunger for land” was “always central to the Zionist enterprise.”
Having thus outlined the history, Ben-Ami turns to his critical analysis of present Israeli policy, saying that “Unfortunately, Zionist thinking got fossilized” and that the same policy of land-grabbing did not offer the same “military advantage” as it had in 1948. Moreover, this “Zionist tradition” should “be challenged on political grounds as well; after all,” he observes, “a normal state is not supposed to occupy land beyond its legitimate borders.” (A “normal state” is supposed to respect international law.)
Despite having been “admitted to the United Nations” and aspiring to “have orderly relations with the international community”, Israel “continues to behave” as though it was “bent on outsmarting a colonial occupier [Great Britain] and the local Arab population.”
While today the “two-state” solution to the Israeli-Arab conflict is the accepted framework, Ben-Ami reminds his readers that “Many Palestinian nationalists wanted an Arab state with a Jewish minority; it was Yasir Arafat who eventually imposed the two-state solution on them.” A one-state solution is still preferred by some who argue for “undoing the Jewish state and going back to the supposedly happy days of Arab-Jewish coexistence in a binational community.” This “notion of returning to a peaceful paradise lost is not new,” Ben-Ami explains, “but it has never been practical.”
Yet, “Israel’s persistent policy of expanding the settlements has severely undermined the Palestinians’ trust in the two-state idea.” Moreover, “Secular nationalism … is being swept away by Islamic fundamentalism.”
“Palestinians are moving away from Arafat’s pragmatic nationalism toward revolutionary and maximalist positions on issues such as the return of refugees and the liberation of prepartition Palestine.”
For there to be a resolution to the conflict, there will need to be “a final settlement of the Palestinian question.”
Ben-Ami notes Israel’s gains: “Israel has already managed to force the entire Arab world to accept the legitimacy of its 1967 borders prior to the Six-Day War — as evidenced by the peace plan offered by the Arab League in 2002.”
He then points to the way forward for Israel in words paralleling the remarks by Olmert: “It must now belatedly seize this unique opportunity and negotiate peace agreements with Syria, Lebanon, and the Palestinians for a return to the June 4, 1967, lines — essentially the same borders established in the aftermath of Israel’s crushing 1948 victory.”
Finally Ben-Ami arrives at his explanation for why negotiating a two-state solution with the Palestinians is necessary. “A failure to do so,” he says, “coupled with rapidly shifting demographic trends — namely, a higher birthrate among Arabs than among Jews — will permanently destroy the credibility of the two-state solution, allowing the binational model to gain sway among the Palestinians as they become a majority. A binanational state would lead to a situation resembling the old South Africa, with two classes of citizens possessing vastly different political and civil rights. Worse, such a development would not lend itself to a peaceful South African-style solution, because Israel, with its superior might, would never concede power to a Palestinian majority as white South Africans eventually did to the black majority in 1994.”
The reasons for the recent suggested shift in Israeli policy towards ending the occupation and negotiating a two-state settlement thus become clear. If Israel proceeds to annex Palestinian territory, there will be a change in the demographics of the state towards an Arab majority. This is unacceptable to Jewish leaders.
In Morris’s view, the blame lies with Ben Gurion and the military leaders of 1948, who did not properly finish the job of the total ethnic cleansing of Palestine while they had the chance.
Ben-Ami, on the other hand, sees this initial policy of ethnic cleansing a “sin”, but agrees with Morris that Israel should maintain the gains early Zionists achieved through that very policy.
Olmert would like to see an Israel consisting of all of Palestine, but is pragmatic about the facts on the ground. If Israel continues to expand its settlements and effectively take over more and more of the West Bank, a certain segment of the Arab Palestinian population would inexorably become integrated into the Jewish state, altering the demographics of that state and threatening to once again make Jews the minority population within any greater Israel.
Once this shift in demographics has occurred, Jews would never recognize the majority rights of the Arabs, and so Israel would be doomed to follow the model of apartheid of South Africa. But this, too, would be infeasible since such a state of affairs would never be accepted by the international community. While the community of nations condemns the ongoing occupation, Israel has achieved a victory in gaining acceptance for the legitimacy of its pre-1967 borders and should seek to preserve those gains achieved by ethnic cleansing.
A one-state solution is out of the question for demographics reasons and the strongly-rooted Jewish ideology that their Arab neighbors could never be considered their equal. An outright Israeli annexation of the territories would result effectively in just such a one-state solution, which would follow the apartheid model).
The only option, therefore, is for Israel to reach a negotiated settlement with its neighbors involving a withdrawal from the occupied territories, with the possibility of swapping land so Israel could keep some of the existing illegal settlements.
This realization among the Israeli leadership might likely explain Israel’s recent willingness to come to the table with its neighbors, such as with talking to Syria or reaching a cease-fire with Hamas in Gaza. It also explains the true motivations for the Israeli Prime Minister’s recent comments regarding a possible withdrawal from the occupied territories.
Ehud Olmert’s remarks do not, however, represent a significant shift in policy. Israeli leaders have long expressed in rhetoric belied by their policies their favor for a two-state solution. The tactics may be altered, but the overall strategy will remain the same, with the goal being a single Jewish state consisting of land it took in the first place through a policy of ethnic cleansing and acquisition of territory by war, a practice forbidden under international law and the UN Charter to which Israel is party. The hope of furthering that land expansion to include all of Palestine is becoming increasingly impractical and unlikely, particularly with so much international opposition to Israel’s illegal policies. It is unacceptable for the Jewish state to recognize the equality of its Arab inhabitants, and so therefore the creation of a Palestinian state while the possibility remains at least moderately viable becomes the only option, in the minds of some Israeli leaders.
It’s unrealistic to expect that Israeli leaders might suddenly recognize that an alternative model for a one-state solution would exist if they merely surrendering their racist ideology. That being the case, it is thus a mistake to think that a single Jewish-Arab state could ever provide a resolution to the conflict. But to delude oneself into thinking that any two-state model that might be implemented in the future would be a pragmatic “solution” so long as such hateful prejudice and disregard for social and legal norms remains would be to commit an equally grievous error.