This week President Bush will convene an international conference in Annapolis, Md., to promote the "two-state solution" for Israelis and Palestinians. The meetings and noble proclamations toward that goal, however, will bear little relation to reality here in the Middle East. Essentially, Bush is too late. For most Israelis, the two-state solution already exists.
President Bush’s peace summit for Israelis and Palestinians ignores a painful truth — one that we are already living in the Middle East.
Photos: AP/Anja Niedringhaus
Nov. 26, 2007 | TEL AVIV, Israel — This week President Bush will convene an international conference in Annapolis, Md., to promote the “two-state solution” for Israelis and Palestinians. The meetings and noble proclamations toward that goal, however, will bear little relation to reality here in the Middle East. Essentially, Bush is too late. For most Israelis, the two-state solution already exists.
When I grew up near Tel Aviv in the 1970s, Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza were an indispensable part of the environment. Many of them worked in construction sites, laboring to turn my hometown’s strawberry fields into a modern suburb. Others stood every morning in line at the town’s highway intersection — a common sight in Israeli cities then — waiting for their chance to get a day job. Luckier Palestinians got jobs filling gas at service stations, washing dishes in restaurants and bars, or fixing cars. They served Israeli customers, and were even given Hebrew aliases by their employers. Thus, Ghazi became “Roni” and Mustafa turned into “Moti.” Despite a class system problematic in its own right, many of these workers experienced at least a measure of integration.
“The Arabs,” as they were called then, manned our country’s service sector for two decades after Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza in June 1967. But lacking civil or political rights, this underclass rebelled in December 1987. Termed the first intifada, the Palestinian uprising abruptly changed Israel’s reality. Palestinian workers disappeared from sight, first the young ones, then the elders.The truth is, the popular divorce that has hardened in place between Israelis and Palestinians has an acute political meaning. If you don’t ever go to the West Bank or Gaza except for military duty, then for all practical purposes those places lie across the border. Official state or not — it doesn’t matter. Only diehard leftists and peace process buffs here still talk about “the occupation.” The majority of Israelis, who never witness its ugly expressions — the checkpoints, the travel bans, the house demolitions — hardly bother to think about the occupation anymore.
This political parallax explains a paradox with Israeli public opinion. Polling data indicate strong support among Israelis for the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. Yet, this majority support has not translated into action. The last three Israeli prime ministers — Ehud Barak, Ariel Sharon and the incumbent Ehud Olmert — have declared that Palestinian statehood is in Israel’s interest. In reality, however, its establishment appears as remote as ever. The West Bank is ruled by an ad hoc hybrid: Israeli security forces, who also control the external borders; Israeli settlers and their municipal organs; the dysfunctional Palestinian Authority, which delivers civilian services; and Palestinian terrorist groups. Gaza is now controlled by Hamas, but with Israel essentially controlling basic services like food and electricity. It’s a complicated mishmash, a patchwork of authorities and responsibilities. But, as destitute as parts of the Palestinian areas now are, to most Israelis the situation appears to be working somehow.
From the perspective of most Israelis, then, “if it ain’t broken, don’t fix it.” Supporting Palestinian statehood in principle, and voting for it in public opinion polls, cost nothing. But why bother paying the costs of actually implementing the two-state solution if it already exists de facto? An Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, a prerequisite for a Palestinian state there, mandates the relocation of tens of thousands of resistant settlers, who could disrupt public order and even turn to violence. It also means that the Israeli military would have to cede control of hills overlooking Israeli population centers and an international airport, exposing them to Palestinian militants’ rocket fire and suicide bombers.
Under these circumstances, changing the status quo is hardly appealing, for better or for worse.
The detachment of Israelis from the occupied territories has not been only a voluntary reaction to Palestinian anger, violence and deadly terrorist attacks. It has been a deliberate government effort. In the past 15 years, all Israeli governments have implemented a policy of “separation,” aimed at distancing and shielding the bulk of Israeli society from the unpleasant reality beyond the Green Line.
On May 24, 1992, Fouad el-Umarin, an 18-year-old Palestinian from Gaza, attacked Helena Rapp, a 15-year-old Israeli student on her way to school in Bat Yam, near Tel Aviv, stabbing her to death. At the time, Israel was only weeks away from a crucial election, in which Labor leader Yitzhak Rabin challenged the incumbent prime minister, Likud leader Yitzhak Shamir. Rabin pledged to create Palestinian “autonomy” in the West Bank and Gaza, while Shamir, the last believer in Greater Israel, favored keeping the territories under full Israeli occupation. His idea of responding to the first intifada was to build more Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
The murder of Helena Rapp was followed by three days of violent anti-Palestinian protest in Bat Yam. Mobs destroyed property and beat passersby who looked like Arabs. This gave the Rabin campaign an ace card. “We should take Gaza out of Tel Aviv,” declared the former military leader, who held the respect of Israelis as “Mr. Security.”