Israel – A “Hard Shell, Soft Centre” Solution?

The other day, after some of the worst news yet from Gaza, I overheard an English woman say “Why can’t the Arabs and Jews just stop this dreadful killing and learn to live together?”. Her companion rolled her eyes, shook her head and snapped “Dream on…” The first woman gave a sheepish grimace, clearly humiliated by her apparently banal suggestion. And yet living together (fairly) happily is what 1.7m Arabs do everyday within Israel. These are the Israeli Arabs who make up a fifth of Israel’s citizens. There are nearly twice as many Arabs living in Israel now as there were in 1947 before modern Israel was established. There are more Israeli Arabs than there are Gazan Arabs. One of the most interesting, if inevitably controversial, voices to emerge from Israel in recent years is Ishmael Khaldi, who in “A Shepherd’s Journey” tells of his rise from a poor Bedouin family in Galilee to become a prominent Israeli diplomat. Like many Bedouin of his generation in his youth he volunteered for the Israeli army. In 2009, Khaldi caused a stir when he said “By any yardstick – educational opportunity, economic development, women and gay rights, freedom of speech and assembly, legislative representation – Israel’s minorities fare far better than in any other country in the Middle East”. Khaldi is forceful on the need for Israeli minorities to have much stronger rights. But his sentiment is similar to that of one of the most prominent Israeli Arab journalists, Khaled Abu Toameh, who in 2009 said “Israel is a wonderful place to live and we are happy to be there. Israel is a free and open country. If I were given a choice, I would rather live in Israel as a second class citizen than as first class citizen in Cairo, Gaza, Amman or Ramallah”. Three-quarters of Israeli Arabs identify as Israeli and less than a quarter say they would be willing to move to a Palestinian state. Indeed, when Israel recently proposed transferring the Triangle Area (home to 300,000 Israeli Arabs since 1949) to the Palestinian Authority in exchange for settlements in the West Bank, there was overwhelming resistance from Israeli Arabs. Whilst in law, Israeli Arabs and Jews have equal rights, in practice there is significant discrimination against the Arabs. This is a mix of budgetary discrimination (e.g. Arab schools receive much less funding), unfair access to land (n.b. the Israeli state controls 93% of land and is not even handed) and asymmetric immigration rights (i.e. any Jew anywhere in the world can immigrate, whereas Palestinians abroad have extremely limited rights of return). Because Israeli Arabs are, mostly, exempt from conscription, they do not enjoy the substantial rewards (e.g. scholarships and housing loans) on offer to those who complete military service. However, the Druze, who form 10% of the Arab population, are an exception. They play a distinct role in Israel, being subject to military conscription, having substantial autonomy in running their won affairs and achieving high profile success in the army and in government. Another minority is the 10% of Arabs in Israel who are Christian, who are distinguished by success in education. However, the 80% of Israeli Arabs who are Muslim do less well than Jews on most measures. Their poverty levels are similar to the Ultra-Orthodox Jews. Some of the reasons for the relative poverty are similar to the Ultra-Orthodox -e.g. a low proportion of women working and large families. But it is important to remember why Israeli Arabs want to stay Israeli. And why 85% of them believe in Israel’s right to exist as an independent state. Compared to other Arab countries, Israel offers its Arabs higher incomes, utilities that work, democracy, stability, freedom from corruption and better access to welfare services. Just one fact amongst many that tells the story – Israeli GDP per capita is more than $36,000, compared to the West Bank & Gaza with less than $3,000 per capita. Israeli Arabs live on the side which is twelve times richer. But particularly since the Arab riots of 2000 in the Second Intifada, the Jewish population is frequently wary of its Arab citizens, fearing betrayal and entrenching segregation. The current conflict in Gaza is inflaming these fears and reinforcing dividing lines. Loyalties are polarised. As Abed al-Aziz Zoabi (the first Arab to serve as an Israeli deputy cabinet minister), famously said in 2000 during the Second Intifada “My country is at war with my people”.

My reason for reminding you that one-fifth of Israelis are Arabs? Because the most pressing issue is to decide whether a One State Solution can work for Israel – one which stretches from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River, a country in which the Jews retain a majority but a much smaller majority. Until recently, this One State proposal has been largely associated with the extreme right-wing in Israel, based on simply annexing the Palestinian territories and facing down world-wide protests. Instead for the last 40 years, the Western led peace process has been based on a two-state solution – with separate nations for the Palestinians and Israelis, living as friendly and respectful neighbours. However, this solution is clearly not going to happen. Continuing to pretend that it is a feasible solution fuels the ongoing conflict in the region and excuses the dreadful progress in improving the lives and prospects of Palestinians. The last 40 years of the peace process has been like an endless and painful pregnancy, expected to deliver the twin babies of the two states – with all those echoes of Abraham and Sarah for both Jews and Muslims. But no successful pregnancy goes on indefinitely. If the peace process was subject to a scan, it would reveal that if there are still any live twins in the belly of the peace process they are at best Siamese. But instead, I think a honest scan would show that the second, smaller twin has either died or would not survive. To put it starkly, the West should accept that the Oslo Accords have gone the same way as Monty Python’s Norwegian Blue.

Any search for a solution needs to set aside the desire for historical justice, on either side. Both sides have suffered badly in the last 80 years, both within Israel / Palestine and internationally. There is no solution which can mutually satisfy the full yearning for historical justice. Nor is there any solution which gives each side a future free of the other. Both sides are there to stay and their future security and prosperity are inseparable. Finding the least worst option for both sides requires three bold steps. The first step is the Palestinians embracing Israel’s right to exist and its need to defend itself vigorously against its enemies. The second step is the Jews embracing the absolute entitlement of Palestinian Arabs to equal civil rights and shared prosperity. The third step is committing to a One State Solution which gives Israel the national security it needs and the Palestinians the civil rights and prosperity they deserve.

Given the balance of power, it is for the Israelis to take the lead on proposing a new solution. I think they could devise a “Hard Shell, Soft Centre” solution, which passes two tests:

(a) The first test is that a viable solution has to offer Israel the greatest guarantee of national security – in the eyes of the Israelis. That is a high bar. If a proposed solution doesn’t pass this test, there will be no sustainable progress. Israel will not play. It has shown that it cannot be made to play. Any progress, therefore, requires Israel being made (and perceiving that it is being made) as strong in the region as possible. This precondition may be unacceptable in principle to many in the region and around the world. But in practice it cannot be avoided. I don’t see how Palestinian independence (however attractive it is for other reasons) can pass this test. Israel will not tolerate the security threat of a weak and unstable Palestinian nation on its doorstep. It will want to vigorously control the security of the second state. It has bitterly regretted losing control of the Egyptian border with Gaza after it withdrew its military and settlers. It continues to tighten its grip on the West Bank and hasn’t been afraid to militarily intervene in neighbouring independent states like Lebanon to aggressively tackle security threats. There is little point in liberal protests that Israel should keep its nose out of the Palestinian areas. It won’t. And to be fair to the Israelis, their region is full of threat and uncertainty. Let’s remember that 32 nations don’t recognise Israel’s right to exist, that Israel has experienced full on wars with its neighbours and the threats of annihilation from Iran still echo around the region. And the level of regional uncertainty is getting worse everyday. This is a region in which nation states are collapsing – just look at the recent demise of Syria, Iraq and Libya. It is a region where the demographics of countries can change entirely almost overnight due to the movement of millions of refugees – e.g. Lebanon and Jordan are unrecognisable demographically from two years ago. And it is a region in which weak countries, as Palestine would inevitably be, suffer endemically from proxy wars between the richer or more powerful nations, e.g. the sponsorship of Hamas and Hezbollah. So, it is inevitable that Israel will insist on total security control of any Palestinian state and, more likely, it will prevent the birth of any such state and the risks it perceives it will bring. Therefore, a meaningful Two State solution has no foreseeable future. In terms of the options to maximise Israeli security, real and perceived, one that is often discussed is the Three State solution, in which the West Bank returns to Jordan and Gaza returns to Egypt. That is essentially the 1947 split of Palestine which lasted until the 1967 War. There have been times when such a solution would have looked attractive to Israel, when both Jordan and Egypt have been strong and respected neighbours. But, the point is that there have been times when this has not been true, e.g. when Hamas’ ally the Muslim Brotherhood was elected into power in Egypt in 2011. Whilst Egypt could absorb Gaza (and control of Gaza would help it tackle extremism in Sinai), it far from clear that Jordan could (or would be prepared to) take on the West Bank. There are of course 500,000 Jewish residents in the West Bank who are unlikely to want to become Jordanian. Even if those countries wanted to take back the Palestinian areas, it is hard to believe that Israel would feel at peace with two potentially hostile countries close up to their major urban areas, as they were in 1967. The One State Solution would mean that Israel could extend and deepen its security control to the external borders of the Palestinian territories. This would give it a Hard Shell. The major security question would be whether with One State from the River to the Sea it could secure internal control within those territories, which brings us to the next test.

(b) The second test is finding the solution which would maximise the civil rights and prosperity of the Palestinians. This would give the “Soft Centre”. Recently, Tareq Abbas (the 47 year old son of Mahmoud Abbas, head of the Palestinian Authority) declared himself in favour of the One State Solution, stating to Israel: “If you don’t want to give me independence, at least give me civil rights. That’s an easier way, a peaceful way… I don’t want to hate anybody. I don’t want to shoot anybody. I want to be under the law”. His 79 year old father acknowledged that support for the Two State solution is dominated by older Palestinians. Polling shows that whilst two-thirds of those over 50 support a Two State solution, less than half of 18-34 year olds support it. In exchange for the strengthening of its security in a One State Solution, Israel needs to respond with the maximum offer of civil rights and prosperity for the Palestinians. Creating One State will boost prosperity through removing internal restrictions. The World Bank has shown that Israeli restrictions reduce the West Bank’s GDP by 35%. The blockade of Gaza has crippled the country’s economy, where four out of five Gazans depend on foreign aid. But sharing prosperity will also cost Israel money – a lot of money. There is a massive need for investment in infrastructure and education. For example, Israel has nearly 1,000 kilometres of railways. The Palestinians have none. Palestine has already had far more aid than the Marshall Plan gave to Europe. But any political settlement must include a clear and massive investment plan, with an equal commitment of Israeli and international funding. In the context of One State, the granting of most civil rights (freedom of expression, freedom of internal movement, equitable funding in education, equal access to land and building permits, etc) should be straightforward and immediate. Israel should have to put these equal rights into its Base Law. There are a variety of options about military conscription (e.g. continuing the exemption of Israeli Arabs or extending the community based agreement to conscription of the Druze). The most difficult issues will be those which undermine Israel’s ability to remain a Jewish state, whilst being a democracy. That comes down to demography. Whilst polling amongst Israeli Arabs has shown that three-quarters would accept “A Jewish democratic state with equal rights for all minorities”, this is clearly much less attractive to the Palestinians. For a long time Israelis rejected a One State solution because of fears of the “demographic time bomb”, in which Arab population growth was outstripping that of the Jews. But those trends have turned. Fertility rates are now similar and migration has favoured the Jews. There is much dispute about the actual population of the Palestinian territories. But if we accept the official figures, a One State solution would increase Israel’s population from 7.8m to 12.1m, with the Arab percentage rising from 20% to 45%. (If just the West Bank joined Israel the figures would be 10.5m and 37%). A lot of the political issues could be addressed by decentralising power within the country, given that populations (even within the current Israel) are highly segregated. But at a national level, Israel would face the choice of either staying a Jewish country or becoming secular and multi-cultural. Ideally, the Greater Israel could be a regional beacon of a multi-cultural, liberal and secular democracy. That should be the ask of the international community. But I suspect that Israel is not going to accept that in the foreseeable future. So we need to find a less than ideal solution. Israel could protect, or even extend, the Jewish majority (as it does now) by controls on immigration, with discrimination in favour of Jewish immigrants. This would be highly offensive to the Arabs, but no worse than the status quo. It could also vary the electoral franchise to manipulate a Jewish majority, e.g. with differential voting ages. Again, this offends all our liberal sensibilities. But compare it to what is happening in the murderous chaos across the region and more particularly within Israel / Palestine and ask if it is a price worth paying?

The worst thing about the current troubles in Israel / Palestine is the sense that there is no better future on offer, just a state of permanent war and an international community unable to accept the death of its preferred option of Two States. Instead this “Hard Shell, Soft Centre” strategy offers Israel much greater control of its security in exchange for offering near-equality to the Palestinians. It accepts the power which the Israelis insist on having over the Palestinians, but in exchange it requires them to take responsibility too. It is far from perfect as an option and will be offensive to many on both sides. But with the Middle East imploding, a new future has to be found – not just for those living in Israel and Palestine but to inspire people across the region that liberal multicultural democracies are the route to peace and prosperity. Thinking of another time when necessity required action not perfection, I am reminded of Sir Robert Watson-Watt, whose invention of radar turned the tide in Britain’s fight agains the Luftwaffe in the Second World War. Watson-Watt fought for the “cult of the imperfect” and famously told the Government to get on with his solution – “Give them third best to go on with; the second best comes too late; the best never comes”.

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