Thursday, March 26, 2015

Israel, Palestine and the US

U.S.-Israeli relations are in crisis, and it seems they could possibly be on the verge of a fundamental shift, insofar as the U.S. may abandon its defense of Israel in international forums, based on the Israeli government's failure to pursue a two-state solution in general, and Benjamin Netanyahu's explicit repudiation of it during the campaign in particular.  In an effort to make sense out fo the situation, I decided this morning to put together some facts and figures, and I must say I am rather surprised by what I have found.  Let me begin, though, with some basic historical background.

Since the founding of the state of Israel with President Truman's enthusiastic support in 1948, only once has an American President used his leverage to stop Israel from doing anything it wanted to do.  That was in 1957, after the Israelis, for the first time, had occupied the Sinai peninsula after starting a war with Egypt together with Britain and France.  The original leadership of Israel had never been satisfied with the borders it established in 1949, and this was their first chance to expand.  In order to force Israel out of the Sinai, President Eisenhower threatened to end the charitable contribution deduction for donations by American Jews to Israel.  In an age of 90% marginal income tax rates, this was no idle threat.  Tel Aviv yielded.  Nothing like that has ever happened again, and the American pro-Israel lobby, headed by AIPAC, has exploited our political system to make sure that it does not.  Thus in 1980 it was fairly clear that Jimmy Carter, if re-elected, would probably have used the threat of withholding American aid to force the Israelis out of the West Bank, but Ronald Reagan defeated him in a landslide, and the threat passed.  The decision in the 1990s by the Israelis to let the Palestinians establish a governing authority in the West Bank was an American one, not an Israeli one, as was the subsequent decision to withdraw from the Gaza strip.

Yitzhak Rabin seriously wanted peace withe Palestinians, and was assassinated by an Israeli as a result.  Ehud Barak in 2000 also made a serious peace offer, although we will never know if he could have gotten the whole Israeli government to accept it, because the Palestinians did not accept it at the time.  Not too long after, George W. Bush officially endorsed a Palestinian state, although he also announced that Israel could not be expected to return to the 1967 borders because of the "facts" that had been created "on the ground."  Since then, Presidents Bush and Obama have defended whatever the Israeli government has chosen to do, including repeated invasions of the Gaza strip and Lebanon, while arguing that that government had to work for a two-state solution.  Yet no Israeli government, since Barak, has made a real effort to reach an agreement along those lines.  Until now, two US Presidents have been content with lip service and continued to oppose attempts by the Palestinians to declare themselves a state, or to join various international organizations, including the UN itself.  The Palestinians, almost uniquely among the peoples of the world, remain a people without full legal status in any state.

Now let's look at a few population figures, courtesy of well-sourced Wikipedia articles.  We'll begin with the most controversial numbers, the number of Israelis who have settled in the West Bank and East Jerusalem since 1967.  The number of settlers in the West Bank was 17,400 in 1980, the year after the Israeli Government signed the Camp David accords with Egypt.  It was 112,000 in 1993, when Rabin and Arafat began their negotiations for a Palestinian state.  But by the end of that decade the number of settlers had approximately doubled, and it reached 234,500 by 2004.  It has now nearly doubled again--it is estimated at 400,000 as of last year  These figures do not include East Jerusalem, where the growth of the Jewish population has been equally dramatic.  It was only 76,000 in 1980, but reached 152,800 in 1993, 182,000 in 2004, and between 300,000 and 350,000 as of last year.  Jews now outnumber Arabs in East Jerusalem by a ratio of about 3 to 2.  Nothing, in short, has stopped successive Israeli governments and the settlement movement from increasing the Jewish population of the occupied territories in the 48 years since the Six Day War.  But the settler population has not increased faster, in absolute terms, than the population of Israel as a whole.  That population has grown from about 2.5 million in 1970 to 4.4 million in 1995 and over 6 million today.  To put it another way, out of the 3.5 million in new population that Israel has added since 1970, less than a million live in the West Bank or East Jerusalem.

For the last 15 years the US government has effectively agreed to tolerate the expansion of settlements, for the most part, in exchange for some kind of fig-leaf peace process that offers a theoretical hope that it might come to an end.  Occasionally the Israeli government has been willing to offer some kind of temporary freeze or slowdown, but it never lasts for very long--and occasionally the US government expresses hostility when the Israelis make a particularly provocative announcement of a new settlement.  The Israelis who are now complaining that Obama will not accept Netanyahu's retraction of his rejection of Palestinian statehood are in effect asking that we go back to business as usual.  But the question is where the Israelis are actually trying to go.

I have often wondered whether the extremists in the settler movement and politicians like Avigdor Lieberman and Naftali Bennett dream of the actual ethnic cleansing of the West Bank, removing essentially all the Arabs and turning it into completely Jewish territory.  The historian Benny Morris, about whom I have blogged in the past, speculated that the West Bank population might have to be removed if an Islamist government took power in Egypt or Jordan some years ago, and other Israelis have spoken of the "transfer" of the population.  Yet what I did not realize until I looked into this today ios that such a project seems quite hopeless.  Although the Israelis have expanded their settlements and taken more and more land in the West Bank, the Palestinian population in both the West Bank and Gaza has grown much more quickly than the Jewish population of Israel.  The following table tells the story,. looking at the whole last century.

 Arab jewish population in Israel Palestine 1914 to 2005

Current figures show the trend has continued, although the Jewish population remains barely higher than the total Arab population within Israel proper and the occupied territories.  The Arabs have used the eternal weapon of poorer, oppressed minorities: their birth rate.  The number of Palestinians without citizenship rights continues to increase.  They may be getting squeezed into smaller areas on the West Bank--as they have been in Gaza--but they are not getting pushed out. Even in East Jerusalem, where Jewish population growth has been most dramatic and Jews are now in the majority, the Arab population still seems to have increased.

It seems to me that the Palestinians' failure to achieve statehood, combined with their shrinking territory and extraordinary population growth, certainly explains their increasing radicalization.  But more importantly, it is clear that the Palestinian problem is not going away. Netanyahu and the current Israeli government seem to think that the increasing radicalization and chaos in the Arab world, combined with the US's continuing obsession with the "war on terror" that is leading us into more and more Muslim nations around the world, will allow them to continue building settlements and denying the Palestinians any political status.  Many right-wing Israelis are now talking about the "one-state solution," which in the nature of things cannot be anything but an apartheid state, in which Jews with rights control the destiny of Arabs who do not have them.

It is in this context, it seems to me, that an American decision to endorse Palestinian admission into the UN might make sense.  It would recognize the reality that between 5 and 10 million Palestinians in their own homeland cannot be denied political rights forever.  But this would lead to an all-out battle between AIPAC on the one hand and the Administration on the other. The attack could include a Congressional move to de-fund the UN if the Palestinians are admitted, and would surely include attempts to get Hillary Clinton to repudiate Obama's move (which she may do anyway, given her own history), and all-out support for the Republican candidate in 2016.  AIPAC's leadership is however far more conservative than American Jews as a whole, and there is no way to know how many voters they might sway.

I am an idealist of a peculiar kind: I think that strategy and foreign policy must be based upon reality.  I do not, frankly, think that current Israeli strategy is, because given demographic trends I do not see how it could possibly lead to a good outcome.  And I do not like to see my own government in Washington in thrall to the mistakes of another government. With Israel moving increasingly to the right, it is time for the United States government to show some real independence.  I think John Kerry and Barack Obama would like to do so, and I hope that they will.



Bozon said...


great stuff.

The modern state of Israel has never been one of my pets.

One can go back and see, in 1917, some of the wartime reasoning that entered into its first tentative establishment.

Really, a military, strategic, decision at that time, in great part to try to keep Russia in the war against Germany, as I recall.

all the best

Gloucon X said...

“...other Israelis have spoken of the "transfer" of the population. Yet what I did not realize until I looked into this today is that such a project seems quite hopeless.”

Hopeless because an inconvenient indigenous population could not be transferred, killed, or outbred into insignificance -- at least not in the 20th- 21st c with the cameras rolling. A Jewish colony in Palestine was a bad idea from the start. Colonization only worked in the New World because disease wiped out much of the indigenous population. The idea of a Jewish nation state for Jews only was a mistake at partition, a mistake at conception -- and definitely a mistake to wait until today to realize its hopelessness.