(Photo: The New Republic)
By Joshua Daniels – Contributor
In his otherwise informed and eloquent piece on the Israeli Annexation of the West Bank, Jacob Starr succumbs to a fatal temptation. He concludes by calling for a binational Jewish and Palestinian state. This, we are told, is ‘perfectly possible’; if only ‘implanted divisions’ are resolved. It is easy to see the attraction of this vision: it is the ‘Disney ending‘ to one of the world’s most entrenched conflicts. One can imagine the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony, catered with ample hummus, in which a beaming American President drapes his arms over the shoulders of Israeli and Palestinian leaders. Yet this vision is entirely and dangerously delusional: it is a Western fantasy that, if it ever came to fruition, would make the current subjugation of the Palestinian people seem like a prelude.
It is important to note that if the global community ever settled on this vision as a replacement to the two-state solution, they would face fierce opposition from the Israeli government and people. Each year, on Yom Hazikaron (Israeli Remembrance day), the howl of a klaxon stops all traffic. On highways and country lanes, cars abruptly halt. Their occupants get out and stand for two minutes. Everyone knows someone who has died for the state. Amongst other endeavours, Israelis have revived a dead language, made the desert bloom and put rifles into the hands of their children in the form of mandatory conscription – these are not things done casually. They are reflections of a profoundly radical ideology, and an uncompromising sense of national identity. The mistake of liberal Westerners is frequently to underestimate the strength of this identity and the nationalism it underpins. This nationalism might one day accommodate a shared Jerusalem and some land swaps along the border but it will never abandon the idea of an indivisible Jewish state. Of equal importance is the demographic reality: in a shared-state, presumably established as a democracy, the higher Palestinian birth rate and the likely return of Palestinian refugees would leave the Jewish population as the minority – with minority voting power. This is precisely the vulnerable status from which Zionism derives its original impetus. Even this cursive analysis makes plain how unlikely Israel is to accede to a shared-state.
It follows therefore that if the one shared-state solution were to be implemented, it would need to be done to Israel rather than with them. A survey of the available means by which Israel might be cajoled or coerced is not encouraging. The influence of soft and economic power over Israel is minimal: divestment and boycotts only serve to energise the Israeli right. At only 29.4% of GDP, Israel’s exports are not particularly high by international standards – it is hard to envisage sanctions doing anything but galvanising the Israeli population against foreign interference. It is inconceivable that they would induce Israel to essentially abandon the only meaningful tenet of Zionism: the establishment of a Jewish state. Even the carrot is fairly small: American aid to Israel is, at this point, an inconsequential portion of the country’s economy. Its withdrawal, however significant a diplomatic signal, would be trivial as a coercive tool. Similarly, a greater offer of aid (perhaps, for instance, from the EU) would not be looked on favourably by the Israeli public: it would quickly be framed as an attempt to buy Jewish support for the destruction of the Jewish state. Note that the majority of these diplomatic tools have been unsuccessfully deployed in order to apply pressure on Israel to withdraw from the illegal settlements: Israel’s settlement activity has only grown. The failure of the international community in changing Israeli domestic policy has been absolute. There are few credible reasons to believe the result would be different if the same tools are applied to engineer Israeli acceptance of an altogether far more insidious proposition.
As a thought experiment rather than a serious suggestion, consider the use of the last available means to implement the shared-state against Israeli will: by force. It is sensible to caveat here that few proponents of the shared-state would endorse such an approach – yet none can illustrate a path to the shared-state that avoids its use. Israel is a nuclear power, with three million trained soldiers, of which 750,000 are active or active reservists. For context, this is greater than the totality of the British, French and German forces. These troops are supported in three critical ways: by the deep military experience of the state (having been in near constant conflict since its establishment), by the cyber capabilities of the state, which are second-to-none, and by the sophisticated intelligence agencies Israel has developed. By population percentage, and military expenditure as a portion of the economy, Israel is amongst the most militarised countries in the world. It is demonstrably clear that using hard power to try to dismantle the existing Israeli state is a risible proposition – despite its small size, Israeli military power would likely outmatch all but the broadest coalition. Not insignificantly, Israel is also a critical ally for most of the countries that would be involved in this theoretical coalition: it supplies essential intelligence, and often acts on behalf of these allies (such as by hacking into, and destroying, an Iranian centrifuge). The implausibility of each of these possibilities – that Israel voluntarily accepts a shared-state, that Israel could be nudged into acceptance, or that Israel could be forced into acceptance – ought to resolve the question of the viability of such an approach.
It is not gratuitous to note that the enormous challenges of attempting to establish the shared-state actually represent one of the more minor reasons why it should be disregarded. Attempting to make Israelis and Palestinians share sovereignty is likely to result in genocide. The seriousness of this possibility is why the suggestion of the shared-state does not warrant a place in discourse on bringing about a lasting peace. As a matter of clarification, I use the term genocide in its gravest and narrowest sense: the world would wake from the dream of peaceful coexistence to the nightmare of ethnic cleansing. As international observers, and as Politics students with moderate influence over the foreign policy of our own countries, we owe it to the residents of the region to engage earnestly with their perspectives. Dr. Shikaki, Palestine’s most prominent political scientist, conducted a series of polls which illuminate these perspectives: 65% of Israeli Jews fear Palestinians. 40% of the same group believe the long term goal of the Palestinians is to conquer the State of Israel and destroy the Jewish population. For their part, the Palestinians are even more fearful: 76% are worried, or very worried, that they or their family could be hurt by Israel in their daily life. Stratifying these results by age group reveals that younger generations feel an even greater level of fear. There are few contexts in which there is greater distrust and, consequently, it is difficult to think of two peoples less suited to being forced to live amongst each other.
Atop the distrust and fear are the material asymmetries. As things presently stand: Israelis are 14 times wealthier per capita than Palestinians. They control all of the significant industries and most of the critical resources, including the water supply and the high-output agriculture. Further, Israelis control all of the major institutions of state, including the military and police. If the distrust is the spark, these vast inequalities are the fuel for an inferno of ethnic conflict. The lethal violence that has characterised past clashes (the 2018 Gaza border protests resulted in 190 deaths and 28,000 injuries) between the Palestinian population and the Israeli state would be magnified in scale and severity without the relative separation afforded by the current arrangements on the border. In a new shared-state there would be no shortage of substantive issues over which clashes would emerge. The right of return, the right to use force, foreign policy, the implementation of religious protections in law – on each of these points the Israeli position is irreconcilable with the Palestinian one. Note that there are no insubstantial issues: for two peoples as soaked in nationalism, even questions about the design of the currency, the selection of national holidays and the school curriculum would provoke enormous strife. It is the inevitability of such clashes and the violence we can expect to accompany them that ought to give those calling for the shared-state the greatest pause for thought.
None of this is to say that the preservation of the status quo is sustainable, or that an uncomplicated and consensus-commanding alternative exists. The international community ought to confront this reality unflinchingly, and redouble efforts to bring about some form of a two-state solution. It is the only plan which simultaneously recognises the need for Israeli self-determination, Palestinian liberation and the incompatibility of these aspirations within a single territory. Acknowledging the challenges of achieving the two-state solution is not mutually exclusive with the view that it is possible and desirable. Amongst these challenges are a lack of leadership within the region and within international stakeholders, the growing quantity of settlers within the West Bank and the proposed annexation. Yet, when scrutinised, each of these obstacles is less insurmountable than at first glance. For instance, between 1993 and 2011, the enrolment of Palestinians in higher education increased by a staggering 940%. As this new generation of highly educated Palestinians take their places in the ranks of key institutions such as the Palestinian Authority and the various development agencies operating within the territories, we can expect a professionalisation of Palestinian leadership. Though the demands of the Palestinian people are unlikely to drastically change, a new and more capable group of leaders will be more effective in framing their negotiating position as consistent with Israeli interest.
In the international space, we might cautiously find cause for optimism: the European Union, which has long been an outspoken proponent for two-states, is at last developing a cohesive foreign policy and strengthening the mechanisms to enact it. The EU’s participation in the Iran deal is a potent example of the kind of diplomatic force that can be brought to bear when the community acts collectively – and collective action becomes ever more feasible as the push to end unanimity voting on foreign policy gathers traction. Across the Atlantic, the likely election of Joe Biden will also alter the calculus of the Levant’s realpolitik. If elected, President Biden will be answerable to a Democratic Congress that is ever less willing to support Israel uncritically. At the very least he will desist from the Trump administration’s practice of offering zealous support to nationalist hardliners and evangelical Christians within the settlements. In this near-term scenario, Israel (irrespective of whether Benjamin Netanyahu, the combative Prime Minister, holds his office) would find it difficult to avoid resuming negotiations with the Palestinian side.
There exists a final and sizable issue with advocacy of the one-state solution: it is admitting defeat. If the desired outcome of the international community is one that is entirely impractical, there is in effect a concession to the status-quo – it can endure until we have a plan. This would be disastrous from every angle: it would appear to the Palestinians as though the legitimacy of their desire for statehood had been rejected, and moreover, that they had been abandoned to the brutality and humiliation of the Occupation. It would immeasurably strengthen the hand of the Islamist hardliners (including Hamas) who, having always claimed that violent struggle and terrorism is the only means to achieve statehood, would now be able to point to an outside world disinterested in the reality of the conflict. In Israel, extreme voices would find ever greater platforms and more sympathetic audiences.
Ultimately, even if the shared-state never came into existence, widespread state-level advocacy for it would invite catastrophe. The notion of peaceful coexistence is the most objectionable form of delusion, because the Western liberals arguing vociferously for it would not be the ones to suffer the consequences of the destabilisation and violence that would ensue. Though the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel involves overcoming considerable challenges, it is the only way to achieve a real and lasting peace. It could not be more urgent: the dignity, security and prosperity of both peoples depends on it.