Analysis from Israel

The Fikra Forum published a fascinating poll last week that asked Palestinians for their preferred solution to the conflict with Israel over three different time frames. Queried about the next five years, a plurality chose “reclaiming all of historic Palestine from the river to the sea” as the “main Palestinian national goal”; the two-state solution placed second and the one-state solution third. Moreover, while Palestinians don’t expect this goal to be achieved within five years, they do consider it achievable in the medium to long term: In 30 to 40 years, only a quarter of respondents expect Israel to “continue to exist as a Jewish state,” and in 100 years, only 12 percent of West Bankers and 15 percent of Gazans believe the Jewish state will still exist.

That Palestinians aren’t keen on the two-state solution isn’t exactly news; a poll commissioned by The Israel Project four years ago found that a hefty 66 percent viewed two states as a mere stepping-stone to a single Palestinian state encompassing all of Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. Nor is this attitude surprising, given another enlightening nugget from the Fikra poll: Fully 81 percent of West Bankers and 88 percent of Gazans asserted that all this territory “is Palestinian land and Jews have no rights to the land.”

If Palestinians truly believe Jews have no rights anywhere in the land where a Jewish commonwealth existed for more than a millennium, their aspiration to eradicate the Jewish state and replace it with their own is natural: Who would agree to permanently cede half his house to a squatter? The logical response in that situation is to play for time, perhaps even by signing agreements you don’t intend to keep, while seeking a way to evict the squatter completely. And that’s precisely what Palestinians have done, and still are doing.

This, however, has serious implications for how Israel should be handling the Palestinian issue. And on this score, the conclusion reached by Fikra Forum director David Pollock falls far short.

“Given these attitudes about the long-term future, there is good reason to wonder if any ‘final status’ agreement will ever truly be final,” Pollock wrote. Therefore, “in applying the widely accepted principle of ‘land for peace,’ responsible policymakers should pay at least as much attention to practical ways of keeping the peace.”

But that prescription ignores three crucial problems. First, experience shows that once you’ve ceded strategic territory, there are no “practical ways of keeping the peace” if the other side doesn’t want to do so. The peace with Egypt held because Egypt chose to keep it. In contrast, Israeli withdrawals over the last 20 years from Gaza, parts of the West Bank and south Lebanon have produced serial wars, because neither Hezbollah nor the Palestinians had any desire to keep the peace.

This experience leads directly to issue number two: Land-for-peace deals shouldn’t be made at all unless your enemy genuinely wants to make peace, because ceding strategic territory simply makes it easier for the enemy to attack you, and territorial concessions are usually irreversible. So the fact that most Palestinians still aspire to Israel’s ultimate eradication actually makes “the widely accepted principle of ‘land for peace’” completely inapplicable.

Third, however, there’s no reason to think Palestinians would even agree to a final-status deal under these circumstances. After all, there’s no final-status deal now, yet the poll shows an overwhelming majority of Palestinians think they’re on track to achieve their goal of eradicating Israel within a few decades. In other words, they think their current strategy of refusing to sign a permanent peace deal is working, so why would they want to change it?

Indeed, that’s precisely why Palestinians have rejected repeated Israeli offers of a state on most of the West Bank and Gaza: Not only isn’t this their ultimate goal, but they don’t even think it’s conducive to their ultimate goal. The only way they would sign such a deal is if they change their minds and conclude that it would actually further their goal of destroying Israel – in which case Israel clearly shouldn’t be signing it.

All this means that there will not and cannot be a final resolution of the conflict in the foreseeable future. Consequently, Israel urgently needs a long-term strategy for coping with a conflict that has no end in sight.

In an essay in Mosaic earlier this month, I described in detail what such a strategy might look like in four different areas:  negotiations, public diplomacy, military action and the home front. But one element of that strategy is particularly relevant to the Fikra poll’s findings: the crucial importance of tirelessly explaining Israel’s legal and historical rights to this land.

As the poll shows, the crux of the conflict is the Palestinian belief that “Jews have no rights to the land.” Palestinians also believe they are succeeding in converting the rest of the world to this view, which merely fuels their conviction that they will ultimately succeed in destroying Israel.

Until both these beliefs change, no solution to the conflict will be possible. And only Israel can make the case for its own rights; nobody else will do so in its stead.

Originally published in Commentary on September 7, 2015

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Israel’s unity government may prove a constitutional time bomb

That Israel will soon have a government is good news; almost any government would be better than the political dysfunction that has produced three elections in the past year. But aside from its existence, there’s little to like about this “unity” government.

The biggest problem isn’t that many important issues will perforce go unaddressed, though that’s inevitable given the compromises required when neither bloc can govern on its own. Nor is it the risk that the government will be dysfunctional even on “consensual” issues like rescuing the economy from the coronavirus crisis, though this risk is real, since both sides’ leaders will have veto power over every government decision.

Rather, it’s the cavalier way that Israel’s Basic Laws are being amended to serve the particular needs of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his new partner, Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz.

Though Israel’s Supreme Court wrongly claims the Basic Laws are a constitution, they were never intended as such by the parliaments that passed them. Indeed, some were approved by a mere quarter of the Knesset or less.

But they were intended as the building blocks of a future constitution should Israel ever adopt one. That’s why this handful of laws, alone of all the laws on Israel’s books, are deemed “Basic Laws,” and why each addresses a fundamental constitutional issue (the executive branch, the legislature, the judiciary, human rights, Israel’s Jewish character, etc.).

In other words, though they aren’t a constitution, they do serve as the foundation of Israel’s system of government. And tinkering with the architecture of any democratic system of government can have unintended consequences, as Israel has discovered before to its detriment.

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