The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has proven stubbornly resistant to resolution. Israel is partly to blame for this, of course. Yet Israel’s mistakes and misdeeds, about which no Irish or European reader needs to be reminded, are not the only obstacles to peace in our time.
First, a hard truth: no Palestinian state can be established except through Israeli politics. The popular fantasy among too many supporters of a free Palestine that suggests Israelis can be brow-beaten into a prompt withdrawal from the West Bank is rooted in simple ignorance. Unlike other Arab peoples, the Palestinians are too weak, too close, divided by Israel into two indefensible territories, and are too entwined with the Israeli economy – even Hamas in Gaza uses Israeli shekels as its currency – to have any hope of a prosperous, free future without first achieving reconciliation with Israel.
Thankfully for the Palestinians, there is much support in Israeli politics for Palestinian statehood – sort of. Hundreds of polls (see The Israel Democracy Institute’s Peace Index) have shown Israelis now support independence for the Palestinians more than in the past, with those in favour exceeding 60 and even 70 per cent of the electorate. Yet Israelis tend to vote for right-wing politicians, many of whom openly reject Palestinian independence, and the Israeli left hasn't won an election since 1999.
Indeed, two American-funded polls published in December 2013 found fully half of the voters who vote for Jewish Home, a right-wing religious nationalist party that calls for Israel to annex the West Bank, actually support in principle the establishment of a Palestinian state in the vast majority of the West Bank.
What’s going on? Why are Israelis moving to the right at the ballot box even as they move measurably left in their views on the conflict? In two words: bitter experience.
Despite the successful early withdrawals from captured land in exchange for peace with Egypt and Jordan, the same formula has not worked with the Palestinians. Palestinian leaders demand not only an independent Palestine, but that Israel cease being the Jewish nation-state. To this day, the Palestinian Authority refuses to drop its demand for an unlimited number of descendants of Palestinian refugees to be allowed into Israel, rather than into the future state of Palestine. Negotiations on borders are fairly easy – Israel has already demonstrated it can surrender significant tracts of land and dismantle settlements. But the Jews will not easily give up their national identity or state by accepting a Palestinian right to Israel any more than Palestinians will accept some Israeli far-right leaders’ plans for them to surrender their distinct Palestinian aspirations and become Jordanian citizens or even Israelis.
With peace talks stymied by the vast gaps that separate the two sides, Israelis, eager to split from the Palestinians, have turned to unilateralism. Israel withdrew unilaterally from the Gaza Strip in 2005, forcibly removing the Jewish settlers there and officially renouncing any claim to the territory. The following spring, prime minister Ehud Olmert won an election after promising to withdraw the Israeli army and Jewish settlements from most of the West Bank. But it was not to be.
Olmert’s government took office in May 2006. On June 25th, less than a year after Israel left Gaza, the Palestinian group Hamas launched a cross-border raid from the territory and abducted IDF Cpl Gilad Shalit. As Israel-Hamas fighting escalated, another front opened. Lebanon’s Hezbollah launched a cross-border raid from southern Lebanon in July, killing three IDF soldiers and abducting two.
Just two months after taking office with the promise of a massive withdrawal from the West Bank, the Olmert government was dragged into a vicious war on two fronts – the two fronts from which Israel had most recently withdrawn.
The most promising moment for Palestinian independence in Israeli political history was shattered as an overwhelming number of Israelis, from right and left, drew the same conclusion from that fateful summer: when Israel withdraws, the vacuum is filled by the sort of radical Islamist non-state groups that increasingly characterise this region’s politics. Both Hamas’s Gaza and Hezbollah’s south Lebanon are now home to tens of thousands of rockets aimed at Israel’s cities, and to militias who have bent their local economies to a permanent war against Israel’s very existence.
Now look at a map. Trace your finger along the boundary between Israel and the West Bank. Notice that the distance between the Mediterranean Sea and the Palestinian city of Tulkarm is nine miles – that is the width of Israel at its narrowest point, a nine-minute drive from edge to edge. And along this edge lie the suburbs of Israel’s most populous metropolis and economic heartland.
If Israel withdraws from the West Bank as it did from Gaza, there is a real danger – and too much tragic precedent – Hamas will take over there as it did in Gaza. And if the West Bank turns into a Hamas rocket base, as happened with Gaza, then its mortars and attack tunnels will now be in range of a majority of Israel’s population.
With the intransigence of Palestinian negotiators on matters such as the entry of refugees into Israel, and after the devastating failure of the Gaza withdrawal, Israelis’ trust in Palestinian intentions has all but evaporated.
Most Israelis no longer believe the Palestinians seek independence alongside Israel, but rather a reversal of the nakba, or “catastrophe” in Arabic – a Palestinian euphemism for the founding of Israel in 1948. The memory of Palestinian displacement by Israel’s birth remains and for many Palestinian leaders, its reversal is the only legitimate goal of Palestinian politics. Israelis don’t need to be convinced that occupation is immoral. They live in a democracy bordered by dictatorships and are not blind to the fact that the Palestinians of the West Bank don’t elect the Israeli military governor who rules there. Yet recent elections have shown that Israelis are only willing to pull out under one condition: a convincing guarantee that it can be done safely.
Palestine will not gain its independence until the Israeli electorate’s concerns are seriously addressed. Israel is not the fragile political structure that Palestinians or their supporters imagine. It is a nation, a distinct culture and identity, speaking a language spoken nowhere else. It has two million schoolchildren, and it is grimly determined to fight any war it must in their defence. Whatever its mistakes, Israel isn’t going anywhere. It can afford to be disliked, and even boycotted, when the alternative is Hamas controlling the highlands that loom over its tiny but densely populated heartland.
Haviv Rettig Gur is the Times of Israel's political analyst