by Mitchell Plitnick
Last week, just ahead of the failed “Unite the Right” rally in Washington, Fox News commentator Laura Ingraham spewed some venomous anti-immigrant statements. She said that “in major parts of the country, it does seem that the America we know and love doesn’t exist anymore. Massive demographic changes have been foisted on the American people and they’re changes that none of us ever voted for and most of us don’t like.”
In about a decade, the Arabs between the Jordan and the Mediterranean will be a majority and the Jews a minority. The Jewish national home will become the Palestinian national home. We will be again, for the first time since 1948, a Jewish minority in an Arab state. I want to separate from the Palestinians. I want to keep a Jewish state with a Jewish majority. I don’t want 61 Palestinian MKs in Israel’s Knesset. I don’t want a Palestinian prime minister in Israel. I don’t want them to change my flag and my national anthem. I don’t want them to change the name of my country to Isra-stine.
Those remarks were made in June 2015, at the annual Herzliya Conference in Israel. Who made them? Benjamin Netanyahu? Or perhaps one of the far-right figures in his government such as Ayelet Shaked, Miri Regev, Avigdor Lieberman, or Naftali Bennett?
No, those words were uttered by Isaac Herzog, who was, at the time, the opposition leader and chair of the Labor Party, the largest part of Zionist Union coalition. He was the leader of the center-left in Israel. Notably, his words drew little attention. Laura Ingraham would wish for such indifference.
Israeli leaders, right and left, have long warned of a “demographic threat.” Palestinians, by their very existence, threaten not just the existence of Israel, but the very lives of Israelis.
Herzog is doing us a favor by making it clear that the issue does not lie specifically with him, or even Netanyahu for that matter. The consensus worldview in Israel—which has historically been propagated by the Zionist Left—is one of separation between Jews and Palestinians. This is not because Israelis and Palestinians “need a divorce” as famed Israeli author Amos Oz, a prominent voice of the Zionist Left, has stated on numerous occasions. It is because the Jewish majority cannot abide any real Palestinian power—political or demographic—in the Jewish state.
Indeed, that point recalls Netanyahu’s words, back in 2003, when he was minister of finance in Ariel Sharon’s government: “If there is a demographic problem, and there is, it is with the Israeli Arabs who will remain Israeli citizens.” Whether it is Palestinians living under occupation or Palestinians who are citizens of Israel, the existence of Palestinians is seen as threatening. If the numbers can be kept low enough, Israel can live with that, as they will be powerless. But if they grow too numerous, it is the end of Israel, and the end of Israel means that the Jews get pushed into the sea.
“But Israel Is Not the Same as the United States”
Granted, the situation of the United States regarding immigration is very different from that of Israel vis a vis the Palestinians. But many of those differences don’t work in Israel’s favor.
The most obvious is the fact that Palestinians are not coming from a foreign shore to find asylum or a better life in Israel. They may be refugees but they are not immigrants; they are the native inhabitants of the land in question. The Jewish connection to the land may be very real, but so is the Palestinian one. Aside from a few long-since debunked propaganda pieces, no one seriously argues that the Palestinians were not the inhabitants of the land for many centuries before Zionist immigration began. This, however ,is hardly an argument for giving Israel a pass.
Moreover, the United States is not in a long-term conflict with the refugees coming to our borders from Latin America, while the Palestinians have been fighting Israel since before the country’s birth. But a basic principle of the rule of law, and of any legitimate ethical system, is that people are not illegal, actions are. An attitude that sees Palestinians as a threat merely by virtue of their being Palestinians is not only wrong, it prevents any kind of meaningful progress toward peace.
Even setting aside the cruel and blatant injustice that this must inevitably bring upon the Palestinians, it is a formula for perpetual conflict.
How to Move Forward
The conventional wisdom has long held that the two-state solution is the only viable one. With massive settlement expansion and the added obstacle of Donald Trump’s presidency, more and more people are embracing the idea of a single democratic state. But neither of these scenarios can come about if Israeli Jews see the very existence of Palestinians as a threat. A one-state reality will devolve into communal violence in such a case. Indeed, this has been the case for many years, and it would only get worse.
A two-state solution also cannot work on that premise. The Oslo concept of, as Yitzhak Rabin put it, “Us here, and them there” was always doomed to failure. Beyond the injustice of such a formula, the years of dispossession of the Palestinians and the decades of occupation made it impossible for a viable Palestinian state to emerge, with or without Israeli good will.
Ironically, the Israeli right wing demonstrated the failure of this thinking. Consider the words of Avigdor Lieberman, a man who has repeatedly tried to remove Palestinian citizens of Israel from the country. Speculating on “allowing” an independent Palestinian state to offer return to all refugees who want to accept it in 2014, Lieberman used a common right-wing argument:
What would happen…Will the economy in Judea and Samaria, which is not the economy of Norway or Switzerland, be able to absorb 3 million additional Palestinians? Where will they live? What will they eat? Where will they work? And how will that impact on Israel? Will an agreement with the Palestinians bring an end to pressure on Israel from the international community?
Although the argument is blatantly self-serving and meant to promote, at best, a Palestinian state that was still under effective Israeli control, it reveals the inadequacy of a vision of separation rather than cooperation. It is the weakness of a vision that remains rooted in the principle of the Palestinians’ very existence being a threat to Israel.
The questions Lieberman raised need to be addressed. How could a Palestinian state make its way in the world? Gaza may be able to function as a transportation hub and port, but it is resource-poor, and the West Bank would need considerable investment and support for many years to stand on its own two feet after years of occupation and de-development of its economy. Only in partnership with Israel could it possibly become viable. This would be the case whether or not it had to bear the brunt of millions of refugees returning to the 22 percent of historic Palestine that was envisioned as the new state in the Oslo agreements.
Peace activists will continue to argue about whether two states or one is the appropriate solution to this conflict. I have been arguing for over two decades that this is the wrong question.
It has never been clearer that the issue is equal rights. Are Palestinians entitled to equal rights? Are both Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs, through the vehicles of their individual nationalist movements—which are not going to disappear in the foreseeable future and so must be dealt with by both sides as permanent realities—entitled to self-determination? Can those paths be reconciled with cooperation, which is the only way out of conflict and away from bloodshed?
Answer those questions affirmatively and all the other issues—Jerusalem, settlements, refugees, water, borders or the absence of them—become far easier to work out. The process begins with ceasing to hold the Herzogs of the world to a lower standard than racist Fox News pundits.