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Why Pick on Israel’s Foreign Minister?

by Michael Lame, posted on October 4, 2010

Israel’s Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman gave a provocative speech to the UN General Assembly last Tuesday, September 28. He was immediately condemned for presenting the illiberal idea that the best way to address the issue of borders for a two-state solution is 1) by leaving most Jewish West Bank settlers in place on land annexed to Israel, in exchange for 2) re-allocating a number of Arab communities currently in Israel to the new Palestinian state.

Since Lieberman’s words have already been twisted into something else entirely, let’s allow the foreign minister to speak for himself:

“[T]he guiding principle for a final status agreement must not be land-for-peace but rather, exchange of populated territory. Let me be very clear: I am not speaking about moving populations, but rather about moving borders to better reflect demographic realities.” 

The normally reliable Israeli newspaper Haaretz horribly mangled Lieberman’s statement, presenting this headline and subheading for the article on its website:

Lieberman presents plan for population exchange at UN

Controversial scheme would see part of Israel’s Arab population moved to a newly created Palestinian state, in return for evacuation of Israeli settlements in the West Bank 

The term in the article’s headline, “population exchange”, summons up images most readily associated with Turkey and Greece following World War I or Pakistan and India after partition and independence, when millions of people were uprooted from their homes and resettled hundreds of miles away to make room for more homogeneous nation-states.

In stark contrast to such forced migrations, Lieberman does not propose that people leave their homes at all but rather that the borders be redrawn. The Haaretz sub-heading is misleading in its first half and flat-out wrong in its second half. No Israeli Arabs would be “moved”, though many of them, based on geography and demography, would be re-designated as Palestinian citizens living in Palestine rather than as Israeli citizens living in Israel. That change of boundaries and citizenship in favor of Palestine would be arranged “in return for” allowing many Israeli West Bank settlers to stay where they are. They would not be evacuated as the subheading erroneously states. A week after the speech was delivered, this highly inaccurate Haaretz article heading has neither been deleted from the website nor corrected.

Around the world, voices clamor for Lieberman’s head, claiming that his views are beyond the pale, but are they?

Some time ago I had lunch with a friend who is a Middle East scholar and peace activist. He supports a two-state solution, and he knows that I seriously question its practicality. After explaining why he believes that Israel must give up most of the West Bank settlements to the new Palestinian state, he asked about my view of alternative solutions: What should be excluded from consideration? I responded that any option could be considered that was not genocidal, to which he objected that ethnic cleansing should also be eliminated from consideration, that any solution which removed the Palestinians from their homes was unacceptable. Now it was my turn to ask a question: Isn’t clearing out all the Jews from the West Bank also a form of ethnic cleansing?

Of course it’s more complicated than that, and certainly one should not equate the Arab communities in the West Bank with Jewish ones. The current Jewish presence there was established far more recently and under highly dubious circumstances. That presence has been maintained and extended through the use of state power and military force, often cruelly exerted against the surrounding Palestinian population. But even if one concedes that the Israeli settlement enterprise continues to ride roughshod over the rights of people it dispossessed and of those who remain, the moral dimensions of a proposed mass eviction of Jews from the West Bank must give us pause. How can such an expulsion be explained? Payback for ’48? Perhaps. Justice? Maybe. The only viable option? That’s worth examining.

Some of Lieberman’s attackers are the same people who support bringing Hamas into the negotiating process (e.g., Peter Beinart, Ali Abunimah, J Street). They seem to be bothered more by Lieberman’s populated land swap idea than they are by Hamas’s words and deeds – that same Hamas whose leaders repeatedly declare they will never recognize Israel, the same Hamas that only a month ago publically took responsibility for the murder of four Jewish civilians in the West Bank.

What makes the leaders of Hamas acceptable partners for peace but Lieberman unacceptable? Perhaps the answer is realpolitik, masquerading as morality. Hamas runs Gaza. It won the last round of parliamentary elections and represents a large percentage of the Palestinian people, both in Gaza and the West Bank. Moreover, it is willing and able to employ lethal violence to disrupt if not derail negotiations which it opposes. Some analysts and activists conclude that America and eventually Israel must talk to Hamas because of that organization’s power. Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu party, on the other hand, represents a relatively smaller (though still significant) proportion of the Israeli electorate, having come in third in the last Knesset elections. Since it doesn’t control any territory and it doesn’t threaten to kill anyone if it doesn’t get its way, it can be ignored more easily than can Hamas.

Setting Hamas aside, the more important comparison to be drawn is that between the future of Arabs in Israel and Jews in the West Bank. What is the moral calculus which allows one to consider the wholesale removal of two generations of Israelis from their homes in the West Bank as an acceptable price to pay for peace while the very idea of redrawing the border in order to include Arab population centers inside the new Palestine is deemed morally reprehensible?

A brief bit of history should be brought to mind. The Wadi Ara region or the triangle is the area most frequently discussed for a possible “exchange of populated territory.” In early 1949, during armistice negotiations between Jordan and the new state of Israel, both sides pressed for modifications to the cease-fire line. Following Israeli threats to reopen hostilities, and in exchange for some modifications to the border southeast of Hebron, Jordan agreed to transfer to Israel what was then called “the little triangle”, an area of Arab villages and towns with some 20,000 inhabitants. Nowadays “the triangle” is the common name given to this predominantly Arab area of central Israel situated near the green line, which includes Umm al-Fahm and Tayibe. In the last sixty years, the region’s population has grown to six figures.

In 1949, residents of the triangle were not asked what they wanted. Two sovereign states determined their fate, and the world did not object. For thousands of years, nations have fought over and reached agreements on the disposition of borderlands and border populations, without ever consulting the local inhabitants as to their wishes. One might assume those days are long gone, but they’re not. In the Caucasus today, former soviet republics dispute their boundaries without any serious question being raised of a referendum to settle the case. In south Asia, India and Pakistan have repeatedly come to blows over the fate of Kashmir, yet allowing the Kashmiris to decide the matter for themselves has never been the position of India, the U.S. or the U.N. And apparently international law does not prohibit states from cutting deals that reshape borders regardless of the desires of the local populations most directly affected.

Of course, there are reasons to say that one should not redraw a border and change people’s nationality once these matters have been firmly established. But concerning borders and citizenship, Israel/Palestine is a special case, as it is with regards to so many issues.

One obvious asymmetry of the situation is that the Jews of Palestine want to be residents of Israel; the Arabs of Israel don’t want to be residents of Palestine. West Bank settlers are getting what they want if their communities are included within Israel’s borders. Why don’t the Arabs of Israel want to be citizens of Palestine residing in Palestine? Polls conducted over the last decade have repeatedly confirmed that Israeli Arabs strenuously object to having borders redrawn so as to include their homes within the boundaries of the new Palestine.

Polls also show that Israeli Arabs consider themselves to be second-class citizens in Israel, regularly discriminated against in housing, employment, economic development, allocation of government resources, and in many other ways. Yet they don’t want to leave their homes nor have their homes re-designated as part of a Palestinian state. Why not?

No doubt part of the answer is based in practical financial, educational, and even security concerns. Arab Israelis enjoy a higher standard of living than do West Bankers or Gazans. They benefit from the national health insurance system, social security, and other long-established governmental services provided by the state of Israel. They can travel abroad with relatively minor inconvenience. They may live in self-contained Arab communities, but many commute to work in Israel’s major cities. If their Israeli citizenship were replaced by Palestinian citizenship, they could lose their jobs inside Israel.

Since it was founded more than sixty years ago, Israel has been a democratic state. It has a reputation, though far from perfect, for free speech and civil liberties. Politically-aware Israeli Arabs cherish the political rights they have fought for and obtained in Israel. Giving them up for the uncertainty of life under an unstable Palestinian government is unappealing.

Another part of the answer lies in identification with the land, the community, and even with the state. As recently as 2008, one poll found that 77% of Israeli Arabs would rather live in Israel than in any other country.

If a Palestinian state is brought into existence alongside Israel, then the green line, i.e., the 1949 armistice line, need not be held sacrosanct. In moving towards a two-state future, Israelis and Palestinians, as the two sets of claimants, should be free to offer whatever border proposals they see fit and to establish whatever borders they can agree upon.

Moralizing labels are frequently slapped on controversial proposals for the purpose of scaring people away from taking the proposals seriously – labels such as racist, anti-Arab, anti-Jewish, anti-democratic, hateful, fascist. Sometimes that tactic succeeds, and we fail to look anew at what might work. Once we leave the labels behind, we can better assess, both practically and ethically, the pros and cons of each new idea. Lieberman’s Plan is flawed, as are all the plans for resolving the conflict. One reason to examine his plan rather than to dismiss it out of hand is that it resonates with a large percentage of Israelis. It reveals an underlying mutual discomfort and distrust between Arabs and Jews in Israel which has only deepened in the last decade, since the outbreak of the second intifada.

An open discussion of Lieberman’s ideas could lead to a better understanding of what Arabs and Jews want from each other as fellow citizens of Israel. If we demonize rather than discuss, an opportunity for honest and straightforward dialogue may be lost.

Note: Comments are moderated and generally will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive.

2 responses so far

2 Responses to “Why Pick on Israel’s Foreign Minister?”

  1. Thomas Mitchell, PhDon Oct 4th 2010 at 7:58 pm

    Michael,
    Precisely because it isn’t voluntary on the part of Israeli Arabs, any change of borders should be for the sole purpose of territorially compensating Palestine for territory lost by incorporating settlement blocs into Israel. It should not be done for the purpose of ridding Israel of Arabs. And the Arab citizens that are put out of the state should retain their citizenship and be given the option of moving elsewhere.

    Borders in Central and Eastern Europe moved repeatedly after the First World War especially those of Poland, Ukraine, and Russia. Inhabitants of Brest Litovsk went from being Russians to being Polish citizens and then Ukranians after World War II.

    Israeli Arabs should understand that if they want to remain as citizens of Israel they will be remaining as citizens of a Jewish state, although at least in theory with equal rights. They should struggle to actualize that potential equality. Struggling to turn the state into something other than a Jewish state will only delay their acceptance as equal citizens. The UN Partition called for two states, one Arab and one Jewish.

    Michael, don’t forget–you still owe us the second part of your critique of the two-state solution.

  2. Michael Thomason Oct 6th 2010 at 11:52 am

    Of course, Palestinian Israelis overwhelmingly reject Lieberman’s idea of land swaps. That is not analogous to settlers “rejecting” the idea of losing the power to colonize — their growing presence in occupied territories violates international law and threatens to eliminate the leading (if not only) choice for a way forward. They have built a network of “Jews-only” communities knowing full well that the international community believed it to be an illegitimate undertaking, and that Israeli governments have at various times solemnly promised to slow or stop it, and to negotiate Palestinian control of much of the territory in question. None of those things are true of Arab towns in Israel. And also of course, Lieberman’s speech was inconsistent with the announced policy of the GOI, and “not cleared by” the PM’s office. So, you can argue that Lieberman’s idea of swaps deserves consideration as an intellectual construct, but what it mostly represents at this point is a fairly overt and belligerent attempt to derail talks he doesn’t believe in.

    You have to take Lieberman whole. He also says that settlements (including the one in which he lives) should proceed apace, and that permanent arrangements with the Palestinians will take decades. His mental map, then, leaves very little over which the parties could haggle. That makes his suggestion of swaps look less like a proposal to negotiate a good faith settlement satisfactory to the parties, and more like the last piece of a mosaic unilaterally assembled by Greater Israel Zionists. I wonder — would he give back the rest of Hebron?