04 January 2015

Thinking about peace in Israel/Palestine

Peace on the Sea of Galilee
Making peace is never easy - or, rather, it's all to easy to come up with what "should" happen, but translating that into a reality that everyone will look back on in years to come and say "That was a great idea!" is somewhat tricky. As anyone who knows me is all too aware, I have an immense affection for Israel, the Occupied Territories and Jordan - I have had the enormous good fortune to have spent a tiny amount of time in the region, but that time is all too short, and really only sums up to about 12 weeks in total over the past twenty-something years. However it has been long enough to allow me to meet some lovely people and make some great friends.

It's also sufficiently long for me to have some grasp of how difficult making a long term peace is likely to be (and boy, we've proved that!), yet short enough for me to be able to wander in with a classic Irish naïveté, and pronounce my diagnosis and recommended course of treatment to fix all woes and create a veritable paradise in, well, Paradise.

The background to the current situation should be pretty familiar to everyone by now - Israel proper currently maintains an occupation of the West Bank territory which was (along with the Gaza Strip, which is at present under blockade and has recently suffered from a disastrous bombardment from Israeli forces in response to rocket fire from Hamas) to form the basis of a Palestinian state. Much of daily life in the West Bank has been handed over to the Palestinian Authority under Mahmoud Abbas, but security remains under Israeli control. At the same time, many Israeli "settlements" have sprung up and been expanded, in contravention of international law. The Israeli government under Binyamin Netanyahu has frequently unilaterally expanded and developed these settlements in what many have seen as deliberate attempts to redraw the landscape and to prevent a Palestinian state developing. And of course there has been the ongoing violence with terrorist attacks coming from both the Palestinians and the "Price Taggers" of the settler movement. It's a lot more complex than just that of course, but that will do for now.

For many years now I have been a supporter of the "Two State Solution", whereby Israel and the Palestinians reach agreement on setting up the State of Palestine, and, using the 1967 borders and agreed land-swaps, we move to a situation of two states living side by side with a formal peace agreement, and everyone in the Middle East region uses this as the basis for a comprehensive peace that removes the Palestine/Israel issue from the grudge books forever. I have to say I still do support that plan, but repeated settlement expansion, with supporting infrastructure, Palestinian and settler violence, the "Palestine Wall", show-boating at the United Nations, corrupt politicians in both the Israeli government and the PA, cack-handed interventions from abroad, the awful tragedy unfolding in Iraq and Syria with the wars there and the emergence of Daesh/IS - all these factors seem to make a two-state solution a pipe dream. In addition there is a massive imbalance between the Israeli and Palestinian sides, with Israel very much having the upper hand. In this situation, despite the declarations of the American government and the EU, and even with the declared support of the Israeli government, it looks like the Occupation is unbreakable, and a Palestinian State west of the Jordan River simply unachievable.

There are those within Israel, such as the current Economy Minister Naftali Bennett - a hawk if ever there was one, and many many others - who wish to see complete annexation of the West Bank, but this introduces a major problem. What to do with all those non-Jewish people who would suddenly become citizens of the avowedly Jewish state of Israel? Annexation of the West Bank would mean that the Jewish majority in the combined state could not be assured. Bennett's solution is to introduce a form of Apartheid, whereby Jewish citizens would have greater rights than non-Jews. However, not everyone sees it this way.

President Reuven Rivlin has an impeccable right-wing pedigree, and is a proponent of a single state, with guarantees of equality for all. Although he has generally been seen as a hardliner, it seems that this dream may not reflect reality. How would Israel guarantee its Jewish character if it lost a Jewish majority? Furthermore, even within Jewish people there is such a diversity of belief, practice and daily life that the category may not even be all that meaningful.

As a supporter of the Two State Solution, however, I feel it may be time to think again about all this. Let's suppose we actually get a State of Palestine based on the West Bank (plus land swaps etc etc) - what then? In reality it's going to be a pretty paltry affair; there will probably always be an Israeli army presence along the Jordan river, effectively enclosing the state. It will probably be rather poor, because it's going to be hard for it to trade, it will be forever dependent on aid from the US and Europe, and its only water will come via Israel, making it difficult to grow an agricultural sector. It's likely that the price will be "land swaps" which will effectively be border re-drafts around Arab populations close to the border, effectively dumping large numbers of Israel's non-Jewish population into the new state, while Israel will of course integrate the settlements into its share of the land. Travel will become more difficult than it already is, and many of the low-paid labourers who previously had jobs in Israel will (as is happening already) find their jobs taken by transient migrants from the Far East.

Will minorities (eg Christians and Druze) fare well in a new Palestinian State? Certainly at present there doesn't seem to be any indication that Daesh/ISIS are making much headway in the West Bank, but in a volatile region where resentment is unlikely to be assuaged by the mere presence of a state-of-their-own, I think the Palestinian Authority would have cause to be nervous, and this nervousness would hardly sit well with Israel. How would tourism fare? Would the Palestinian government be able to assure the safety of foreigners? Also, apart from "having a state", does this really address the grievances of the very many descendants of the Palestinian refugees who were forcibly expelled from their homes in 1948? A Palestinian State with a "Right of Return" for multiple ex-refugees into Israel proper seems like an organisational nightmare.

And all the while, the Occupation remains a nagging sore that taints relationships between Europe, US and the Middle East. Is it time for a re-think? I am going to make a proposal. I accept that I am not Israeli or Palestinian. However, the "Holy Land" is part of my heritage. Both the fantasy and reality of the region played a large part in making me who I am, and I feel I have a stake, however small. I offer this proposal entirely humbly, realising that it may be a pipe dream, and fully aware of many shortcomings it may have. However, I submit it with the rider that every other solution that has been suggested so far has been a failure, and the status quo is actively harming both Israelis and Palestinians.

My suggestion is this: the Palestinians should call the bluff of Netanyahu, Bennett and the UN and request full annexation by Israel of the West Bank. The state will be called Israel Palestine. Jewish settlements beyond the 1967 Green Line can stay. The capital will be Jerusalem, and there will be a single parliament. People born within the region (historic Palestine) will be citizens of the united state, but will be able to declare either Palestine or Israel on their passports. The fundamental equality of all citizens will be declared in the constitution (including race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity etc). The state must remain the declared homeland of the Jewish people and the Palestinian people. Particular provision will be made for Jewish, Muslim and Christian people, recognising the central importance of New Israel Palestine to all these faiths - and to those who identify as secular, humanist, or atheist. All groups will have access to the holy sites (including the Temple Mount) on a negotiated basis. No-one will be discriminated against because of their religious beliefs. Hebrew and Arabic will enjoy joint official status. Jews and non-Jews will be able to serve in the army (which will be much reduced because of improvements in the security situation). All Arab states in the region will formally sign peace deals with New Israel Palestine.

Pie in the sky? Very probably. Reasons why it can't work? Probably lots (I can think of plenty). But maybe we need to think a little outside the box here. This is not a recipe - it is a scenario. But if the Palestinians were to present this to the United Nations, with a commitment to peace and co-operation within the new structures set up under the new partnership-based state, is this so much worse than continued stalling and eventual Israeli annexation of the West Bank anyway? Maybe it's time for a radical change in direction and thinking. But one thing's for sure - the status quo sucks too, and everyone will be dead before things get much better. And it will allow a much more united response to what is going on in Syria and Iraq, and that can only be a good thing.

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