Fate of Israel

11 January 2004

The Fate of Israel

By Gwynne Dyer

Jerusalem fell to the Crusaders in 1099. The subsequent battles swayed to and fro, but the Crusaders held most of the eastern Mediterranean coast (what is now Israel, Lebanon and Syria) for almost two centuries. Then the local people, overwhelmingly superior in numbers then as now, expelled them. It is an open question whether Israel will last that long.

Listen to Avraham Burg, speaker of Israel’s Knesset (parliament) in 1999-2003. “It turns out that the 2,000-year struggle for Jewish survival comes down to a state of settlements, run by an amoral clique of corrupt lawbreakers….A state lacking justice cannot survive. More and more Israelis are coming to understand this as they ask their children where they expect to live in 25 years. Children who are honest admit, to their parents’ shock, that they do not know. The countdown to the end of Israeli society has begun.”

Burg’s sense of panic is not misplaced. 760,000 Israeli citizens now live abroad (in a country with only about 5 million resident Jews), and that total has increased by 210,000 in just the past three years. The embassies of Eastern European countries whose citizenship will soon confer the right to live anywhere within the European Union now have long queues of second- and third-generation Israelis seeking to recover their ancestral passports just in case.

In November, four former directors of Shin Bet, Israel’s security service, condemned the government’s refusal to negotiate with the Palestinians: “It is clear to me that we are heading toward a crash,” said ex-director Carmi Gilon. But intelligence people deal in short-term risks like a full-scale Palestinian uprising or a Middle East war — nasty enough, but nothing that would actually endanger the survival of Israel right now. Israel also has a long-term problem, and that is much more serious.

Israel’s problem is not as acute as the one that faced the Crusader states, for at the moment it enjoys a huge technological and economic lead over the rest of the region. If there is still to be an Israel even two hundred years from now, however, then it must make its peace with its neighbours in the next few decades, while it still holds all the cards.

None of Israel’s current advantages — a monopoly on nuclear weapons, conventional military superiority over all its neighbours combined, and an unconditional US guarantee of its security — is likely to exist a hundred years from now. Some may be gone in twenty years. If Israel makes a deal with the Arabs while it still has the upper hand and creates trade and personal ties throughout the region, then it could become an established part of the neighbourhood and last a very long time. If not, then sooner or later it faces the fate of the Crusader states.

Palestinians are crucial in this context because there can be no lasting peace with the Arab world that does not reconcile the Palestinians. After thirty years when no Arab country would consider making peace with Israel (1948-1978), we have just passed through a quarter-century when several Arab countries did make peace and even the Palestinians were willing to recognise Israel’s right to exist in return for an independent homeland in what remained of their territory. That era may now be coming to an end.

Never mind who’s to blame. There were people among both the Israelis and the Palestinians who were willing to settle for a compromise peace based on the division of former colonial Palestine into two states, one Israeli and the other Palestinian, and there were others who were not. The rejectionists on both sides have won, and the compromise deal, packaged in half a dozen different ways from the 1992 Oslo accords to the recent ‘roadmap’, is fading away.

In Israel, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is building a wall that will leave the Palestinians with only 9 percent of colonial Palestine and no peace treaty. In the occupied territories Palestinians are abandoning the ‘two-state solution’ and adopting the goal of a single non-ethnic state within the borders of old Palestine that includes both Jews and Arabs. It means another generation of waiting, of course, but what attracts them to that one-state solution is that within fifteen years Palestinian Arabs will again outnumber Israeli Jews within the lands between the Jordan and the sea.

Professor Ali Jirbawi of Bir Zeit University in the West Bank put the new position very clearly in November: “We should say we accept a two-state solution, but that it means going back to the 1967 borders (before Israel conquered the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip) and a fully independent and sovereign Palestinian state. We should give them six months. If there is no decision we should say that Israel, by its own choice, doesn’t want a two-state solution. If Israel wants a one-state solution, we accept. But twenty years from now, we’re going to ask for one person, one vote.”

People like Palestinian Authority chairman Yasser Arafat still cling to the two-state goal, and Sharon stubbornly pursues his one-and-a-quarter state solution (which merely drives the Palestinians deeper into rejectionism), but the caravan is moving on. The notion of a second partition of Palestine that produces ethnically defined Israel and Palestinian states living side by side is sliding off the table, and that is not good news for Zionists. A united, democratic Palestine would not be a Jewish-majority country, so it will not happen. But if that is the only alternative to continued occupation and confrontation, then Israel is in big trouble in the longer term.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 4. (“Burg’s…serious”)