Forum — From the September 2014 issue

Israel and Palestine

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PART TWO: “WE ARE NOT A FORT. WE ARE A HUB”

AVISHAI: We’ve done a very good job of laying out terms here, saying where things stand now. But what, more specifically, are the possibilities for the future?

RUBINSTEIN: Since I started covering the territories, I have believed in the Green Line, in the pre-’67 borders. Because you have to start somewhere. The ’67 borders should be the only starting point for any kind of dialogue. And why is that? The ’67 border was the only border that was recognized. The State of Israel had global recognition with the ’67 borders. For me, there is a sort of . . . I cannot say “sacred.” There’s no holiness in any border, but from a political point of view, this is the border. This is Israel’s border. So in the future, if you need to uproot settlers, like Dani Dayan, well, that hurts me. But Bassim’s family, and Khalil’s family, they were uprooted. We displaced almost 1 million Palestinians in ’48. We are now talking about a few hundred thousand settlers. It’s not a big issue.

I think everyone knows all that. The real issue is the economy. In Israel, annual per capita income is $35,000. In Gaza, it’s $1,000. It’s a bit better in the West Bank — $2,500 or $3,000. But that’s a huge gap. You cannot build anything with that. Dani, you put the blame on Gaza. They made the wrong decisions. But a decision was made by Ariel Sharon not to develop Gaza. They have a gas field in Gaza, but Israel decided, “No, we don’t want to buy gas from the Palestinians. We should buy from the Egyptians.” If Israel won’t buy the gas, the Palestinians don’t have any other customer. Why don’t we give them an opportunity to work in Israel, to develop Gaza?

KHOURY: I am well acquainted with those gas negotiations. Initial reports indicated that we have 1.4 trillion cubic feet of gas in Gaza — an estimated value of $4 billion. Israel’s idea was, “Yes, you can have the rights and you can exploit the gas in Gaza. Under one condition: you give it to us and we will not pay you in cash. We will pay you in goods and services.” This is the hostage taker’s mentality, the mentality of the occupier. According to Israeli and Palestinian statistics, in the wake of Oslo an average Israeli was earning twelve times as much as an average Palestinian. After six years of peace, in 1999, you would have expected that this disparity had shrunk, but in reality it rose.

Israelis have so far managed to close their eyes to what they call the “benign occupation.” Well, there’s nothing benign about an occupation. You know, the first thing that came to my mind when I read Dani’s article in the New York Times was, “It’s a farce that you can have a benign occupation.” What is happening, and you Israelis have to face it, is apartheid.

I am a refugee. My family came from Mujaydil. For those of you who don’t know, Mujaydil is a village to the west of Nazareth on the way to Haifa. We were forced to leave in 1948. The only thing remaining from the village is the church my great-grandfather built. It’s no secret we lost a lot in ’48 as the largest landowners in the village. I have decided that I want to leave that all behind. To me, the Green Line is a red line. If you really want to open the Green Line and the two-state border for negotiations because you have some affinity somewhere in the West Bank, then people like me will start pushing to move the borders only five kilometers to the north, and I can get my ancestral land back. And that, in a sense, opens a Pandora’s box.

Photographs of bomb shelters in Israel, by Adam Reynolds. By law, all Israelis are required to have access to a bomb shelter, which are at times repurposed for other uses. Clockwise from top left: “Flamenco dance studio/public bomb shelter, Jerusalem”; “Pub/bomb shelter, Kibbutz Kfar Aza”; “Conference room/bomb shelter at the Bible Lands Museum, Jerusalem”; and “Science classroom in a secondary school designed to withstand rocket attacks, Sderot.”

Photographs of bomb shelters in Israel, by Adam Reynolds. By law, all Israelis are required to have access to a bomb shelter, which are at times repurposed for other uses. Clockwise from top left: “Flamenco dance studio/public bomb shelter, Jerusalem”; “Pub/bomb shelter, Kibbutz Kfar Aza”; “Conference room/bomb shelter at the Bible Lands Museum, Jerusalem”; and “Science classroom in a secondary school designed to withstand rocket attacks, Sderot.”

Respecting borders is crucial. The colonial infrastructure and the wall make it impossible to have a contiguous Palestinian state. In this regard, I don’t believe that walls build peace or security. However, if Israel believes it needs to make a wall eight meters high between us and them, let them have it eighty meters high. Under one condition: it has to be on the international border. What is missing from this whole discussion is that on November 29, 2012, an overwhelming majority of the world, a two-thirds majority in the United Nations, voted yes to a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders. Israel and its colonists can claim whatever they want, but according to international law, this is occupied Palestinian territory. Not territories, it’s one territory occupied by Israel. By the way, for those of you who don’t know, the territory internationally recognized as the State of Palestine constitutes 22 percent of historic Palestine. We have forgiven you for 78 percent, for crying out loud. You’re telling us to compromise on the 22 percent?

AVISHAI: Let’s say we have to have a border. What is that really going to have to look like? Do we actually have to have a border in order to have two distinct national groups who are going to live in their own communities? Is there not more to be said about what you think is going to be plausible given the forces that we’ve identified now on the ground? Go ahead, Dani.

DAYAN: Well, the ideas that were presented by Bassim and Danny, whether they’re nice or not, the fact is that they are unimplementable. Look, the partition — once we called it partition; now we call it the two-state formula — the partition has been the only game in town for the past twenty years, but I dare to say that it has been the only game for the past seventy-seven years, since Lord Peel came here in a mission sent by King George VI in 1937. And it doesn’t work.

Why doesn’t it work? Because one side accepted it and the other started a war in order to prevent it. And that will almost be my last word about the past. The other word that I must say about the past is that the Jordanian army that invaded Israel in 1967 shattered whatever sanctity existed. The Green Line was shattered by aggression against Israel, by an attempt to take it all by force.

The tragic reality is that the conflict now does not have a solution. I want to be more accurate: It does not have a solution that can be agreed on by both sides. A negotiated agreement is a utopia. The positions of mainstream Israelis and mainstream Palestinians are worlds apart on almost every core issue. The big challenge — for all of us, Israelis and Palestinians — is whether we are able to separate the national from the human. If we are able to differentiate the national from the human, we can make tremendous advances.

MARGALIT: Look, let me tell you something. Despair and the pessimistic approach are not in the cards. I’ve joined the political life and I see the dynamics. The Israeli Knesset has a majority for a two-state solution, a clear majority.

RUBINSTEIN: And according to Khalil, also among the Palestinians there’s a majority?

SHIKAKI: Yes. For at least a decade, if not more, majorities in both societies have been willing to accept the compromise that one could describe as a two-state solution. But the demands of the mainstream Palestinian national movement are not compatible with the right-wing mind-set in Israel. If there is a right-wing Israeli government, then there’s absolutely no way that we can make the Palestinian positions compatible with that. Since Netanyahu was elected, since the right-wing coalition has been put in place, it’s just not doable.

MARGALIT: I agree. It’s a question of leadership. There’s overwhelming support on the left, center, and even on the moderate right in Israeli society for a two-state solution with land swaps. The settlers, there are — what is it?

DAYAN: 375,000, not including eastern Jerusalem.

MARGALIT: How many of them are in the blocks? 300,000?

RUBINSTEIN: 80 percent of them.

MARGALIT: So you see, most of the settlers are within the big blocks, which can be traded in these land swaps. I believe that most of the settlers outside the blocks will agree to economic value for their homes. There’s going to be a big group that won’t agree to this, and we need to have a debate within our own people. And the issue is this: Israel is waiting for the kind of leadership, just like the Palestinians are waiting for integrated leadership, that will —

DAYAN: It’s a fantasy.

MARGALIT: Maybe, maybe . . . You know, that’s what they told Herzl when he dreamed of a Jewish state. That’s what they told the movement’s leader, Ben-Gurion, when there were only 50,000 of us here. They told us we were fooling ourselves, but we succeeded. We are not a fort. We are a hub. We can find a solution between us and the Palestinians. The solution would be —

DAYAN: All the empirical proof is against your thesis, and you’re talking with such self-confidence. Seventy-five years of history contradicts what you just said. The twenty years since Oslo contradict all you are saying. Just a bit of humility after failing, and failing, and failing.

MARGALIT: I think you need some humility! The movement that established this country was about building what others said was impossible.

AVISHAI: I think we understand each other’s positions by now. We know each other’s positions. I want to come back to what you meant by a “hub” rather than a “fortress” because I think that at least gives us a gesture toward some kind of future.

And I want to ask a question, which is: let’s assume you could have some kind of political accommodation, how do you imagine it could succeed? We don’t have a million people on each side fighting over hilltops to see who can be farming in the valleys. We’ve got 12 million people in 10,000 square miles, and we have a largely urban population. And we keep talking about this fight as if we’re back in ’48. I want to understand how we can actually think about the future, not simply in the categories that brought us to this standoff. I thought in Dani’s article, he was aiming in that direction. Bassim, you said it was a farce.

KHOURY: No, the farce is believing that we have a benign occupation. You cannot have a benign occupation. Occupation is a malignant cancer, and as with all malignancies it must be removed. That’s what I meant.

AVISHAI: So we go back to the end of the occupation through the reimposition of some kind of border through a political accommodation, which at least some people around this table believe is possible.

SHIKAKI: And I would like to say something about political accommodation and link it to what I said earlier about the support among the youth for the one-state solution. That isn’t something that the youth believe the Israelis will give them. They believe once the one-state reality is consolidated, and Palestinians recognize that this is a reality that cannot be changed through diplomacy and negotiation, that they will then dismantle the Palestinian Authority and begin to fight a South African style of resistance — fighting for equal rights, one man, one vote.

ILLOUZ: These Palestinian youth understood something very powerful. If there is a framework in which they can make practical claims like “one man, one vote,” then this is a way of solving the problem that is non-ideological, so to speak. It doesn’t go through the politicians. The politicians have failed. Ethnic and religious and nationalist ideologies — which make Israeli and Palestinian societies mirror images of each other — have become very powerful, but they have also failed to provide a sustainable and convincing means of coexistence. The other mechanism, which I think Erel was referring to earlier, is something on the order of: “Let’s create facts on the ground. Let’s have Israeli Arabs mediate this process and play a much bigger and much more formal role than has been given to them.” And then you change the terms of the identity and the negotiation.

MARGALIT: That’s exactly what’s happening. In Israel, we used to speak about the “Israeli Arab problem.” But today, there’s an overwhelming opportunity. There are so many young, dynamic, interesting, educated, well-meaning, constructive Israeli Arabs in the north and the center of Israel that it’s overwhelming. In other words, they’re getting into the new economy.

HUSSEIN: I agree with you, Erel. And I’ve always seen the Palestinian Israeli community, the Israeli Arabs, if you will, as that perfect bridge. But this is where I have a problem with our country, which is that we have become a hypocritical country, a country of hypocritical policies.

MARGALIT: What do you mean?

HUSSEIN: What I mean is that I personally am — and the entire Israeli Arab population is — sick and tired of being in no-man’s-land, of being seen as Grade B citizens, a constant security threat to our very own country. I see discrimination all over the place, even when I visit my family up north and walk into my village. I sense the density of the Arab population, and I look up and see the moshavim surrounding Sha’ab. I see Jewish communities spreading disproportionately, expanding into Arab villages’ land. I see discrimination in budget allocation in every area. From a psychological perspective, Israel’s discrimination toward its Arab citizens is very much like its occupation of the Palestinian people. When you discriminate blindly, you cannot trust. And if you can’t trust us, we can never reap the benefits of living and working together. The right moral and even Jewish thing to do is to reach out to the Arab population and engage them so that they become an asset to the country, not a perceived threat. So the hypocrisy comes from Jewish leaders not living up to their own Jewish values.

But Israel is also missing a huge opportunity — economically, socially, culturally, and even politically — by isolating the Arab population. Israeli Arabs can be the perfect bridge between Israel and the rest of the Arab world, but unfortunately Israeli Jewish policy and policymakers must have a paradigm shift toward the Arab population. Imagine if a million and a half Israelis who are not Jewish could call themselves Israelis with pride. Imagine what a change such a minority could bring to the image of Israel in other Arab countries and populations throughout the Middle East.

AVISHAI: I want to turn to Bassim and Khalil. I want to ask you whether you believe that, in your own national communities — that is to say the community that still believes in a national solution as opposed to the Islamists that you were describing — there is sufficient honesty about the need to work with Israel, about the importance of proximity to Israel and Israel’s intellectual capital in order to succeed? Or you can turn it around. Can you imagine a Palestinian state succeeding in the absence of the kind of partnerships that we’ve been describing?

KHOURY: I thought the purpose of today’s meeting was to think about the future. So without treading too much into the past, let’s briefly consider the year 1987, when the First Intifada started. Statistics indicate that it was the best time for Palestinians economically. The Intifada did not come about because of economic issues. It was a cry for a national identity.

Up until the Second Intifada, we had a budget surplus in Palestine. There is so much potential in Palestine, given the chance to break free of Israeli control. Through the wall and the colonial infrastructure, Israel imposes a complete matrix of control on Palestine. Whether it is on movement, on water, on electricity, telephones, you name it — with literally a click of a button, Israel controls what happens in occupied Palestine. I believe that when we get our freedom, this country has huge potential. There are so many interesting projects that we can develop, not just gas. Tourism is one. Small agribusiness is another. Of course being close to a strong economy like Israel’s, if there is the goodwill of working together, will make our life easier. But to be honest, we have to divorce before we can think of the good things that might have been in the relationship when we were together.

SHIKAKI: In a context of progress at the political level, Palestinians support a significant amount of economic and social integration with Israel, with open borders.

But the idea that you can improve things economically without ending the occupation is simply not viable. Palestinians know that everything in Israel is dependent on security, and that as long as the occupation is here, there will be resistance. There will be violence. The Israeli reaction is to destroy the economy as a punishment for Palestinians. So the idea that you can use economics alone is unrealistic.

But Palestinians fully support the idea of some form of future cooperation as a confederation of some sort or just one economic union between two states. Here is another surprising thing about how Palestinians perceive Israel: When we ask people to tell us how they perceive Israeli democracy versus, say, American, Jordanian, or Palestinian, Israel’s democracy comes out on top. Despite the discrimination against Israeli Arabs, the Palestinians still consider Israel’s democracy to be the best democracy in the world. And they want a democracy for themselves just like that.

HUSSEIN: Okay, so maybe this is the beginning of thinking outside the box and realizing, “Hey, there are some things that we could do today.” So if we all agree that in the future there will be peace, and part of the issue now is maybe the right-wing Israeli government, maybe the weak Palestinian leadership — and it is an issue of leadership — then maybe what we’re not doing today is the right thing for the future generation.

If we continue to be stuck in this leadership obstacle, maybe we start moving things on the ground. Maybe Israel should decide, “You know what? Okay, this is the time for Israeli Arab school systems to also learn about their own history,” because it is important not just to learn about the Jewish narrative. Maybe it is the time to start thinking in the Palestinian Ministry of Education, or —

SHIKAKI: You cannot do this simultaneously with the Israeli occupation continuing the way it is today. For most Palestinians, the Israeli occupation is about destruction. It’s about destroying their livelihood, destroying their aspiration for independence, stealing their land and water, demolishing their homes, preventing their free movement. Unless you give them hope that there is a political solution, these things that you’re talking about would be meaningless.

DAYAN: I am quite depressed, I must say, by the discussion. I am depressed because in the choice between the most important but unattainable and the important but attainable, we choose to talk about the most important but completely unattainable. And that’s a tragedy.

MARGALIT: You should add, “in my view.”

DAYAN: Everything everyone says here is his view. And that’s a tragedy because we will keep being engaged, in the coming decade, in futile processes instead of processes that are less important, less glorious, less heroic, do not resolve the conflict, but can change the lives of people.

KHOURY: The farce of a benign occupation.

DAYAN: Let me ask you something, Bassim. The option for what you call benign occupation — I reject the term, of course, but let’s use it for a second. Would you rather have an occupation that is not benign? What is the alternative?

KHOURY: Pack and leave. Dismantle your colonial infrastructure and go back a few miles west, to your country. Live within a recognized and secure Israel.

DAYAN: We will not pack and leave. Certainly not without peace. So this is exactly the tragedy, that you are replacing reality with wishful thinking. The reality is that the negotiated agreement is not achievable in the foreseeable future.

MARGALIT: On what basis?

DAYAN: My analysis of the current position of the mainstream Palestinians and of the mainstream Israelis. Okay? Now, given that, Forsan has talked about the hypocrisy of the Israeli society. And I agree with you. In Israeli society, there is a lot of hypocrisy regarding the Israeli Arabs for sure — not only on that. But let’s talk for a second also about other types of hypocrisy that we saw here at this table. For instance, in my plan I suggested opening Hebron for every human being, without any barrier. And Bassim calls it a farce.

KHOURY: Dismantling the cages you force Palestine to live in is a step in the right direction. I’m not telling you not to do it.

DAYAN: I’m quoting you.

KHOURY: Do it. Open the gates and dismantle the wall. I’d be very happy if you did. But to do that while retaining a cancerous occupation and believing it is a long-term solution is a farce!

DAYAN: I don’t understand what’s farcical about it. I suggested very explicitly to live normally under those very abnormal conditions, as normally as possible. I’m suggesting freedom of movement. I am suggesting rehabilitating . . .

SHIKAKI: What will you do when the next bomb goes off?

DAYAN: That’s a great question. If my plan is accepted in Israel, then the Palestinians will be again confronted with a moral and political dilemma. A dilemma — a dilemma is between two hard choices, by the way. It’s not between a good one and a bad one. It’s between two hard choices. Otherwise, it’s not a dilemma. The dilemma is whether to live until a resolution of the conflict is reached, in better conditions without limitations of movement.

SHIKAKI: I’m asking you what you will do when the violence comes. Because if there’s an occupation, there will eventually be violence.

DAYAN: That depends on your choice. If your choice is a better life, if your choice is a better quality of life, if your choice is coexistence, a peaceful non-reconciliation, then we will go along with that. If your choice is to resume homicide bombings — and homicide bombers can thrive only if they have the support of the people and the establishment — then you will again pay a price.

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