The Jewish people should be able to determine their own future…writes Ron Weiser
This year we will celebrate the 120th anniversary of the First Zionist Congress which took place in Basel in 1897 to consider Theodore Herzl’s plans to guide the re-establishment of the Jewish State. The third Jewish Commonwealth.
The final language of the Congress was very specific and whilst other wording was hotly debated in those days in late August, through various committees headed by people such as Max Nordau and with many vocal delegates including Leo Motzkin, one cornerstone principle did not change and emerged intact – the declaration that:
“Zionism seeks to establish a home for the Jewish people in Eretz Yisrael”.
It was clearly recognised that the Jewish State had to be in the Jewish homeland, whilst adhering to the rule of law and democracy. At the same time, it was also well understood that how large the Jewish State would be and how much of Eretz Yisrael it included, was a question to be influenced by a number of very important factors both internal and external.
The main principle underpinning and behind the whole enterprise, the actual purpose of the establishment of the Jewish State, was that after millennia of powerlessness, the Jewish people should finally be able to determine their own future.
For that to happen whilst maintaining Zionism’s founding principles, in order to have the ability for Jews to shape their destiny, all Israeli Prime Ministers have understood and aimed for a sufficient Jewish majority inside the State of Israel, to be able to do so.
Now nobody knows what that magic figure is, but more or less since her founding there has been a remarkably stable demographic where approximately 70 to 80% of Israel’s population is Jewish.
Therefore the challenge that has faced all of Israel’s leaders is how to achieve the twin and competing aims of demographic and physical security.
Demographic security to retain the ability to determine the Jewish future and the physical security to be able to survive to do so.
On the one hand, whilst people are wary of the two state solution because of physical insecurity, others oppose a one state solution on the basis of demographic insecurity.
If we move across the spectrum from one side to other, we can begin with the virtually sole Jewish voice of President Ruby Rivlin.
Speaking on the 13th of February this year President Rivlin said he supports the full annexation of the West Bank in exchange for complete Israeli citizenship and equal rights granted to Palestinian residents.
“It must be clear: If we extend sovereignty, the law must apply equally to all. Applying sovereignty to an area gives citizenship to all those living there.”
This of course is the ultimate one state position, but because of the demographic danger is not even supported by Naphtali Bennett or any other significant leader.
Bennett looks at the map of the West Bank, which is divided into Areas A, B & C and wants to prevent an additional state between Israel and Jordan for reasons of physical security.
Area A is under Palestinian civil and security control and Area B is under Palestinian civil control and joint Israeli/Palestinian security control. No Jews live in these areas.
All of the Jews who live in the West Bank do so in Area C. As well, there are about 50,000 Palestinians in Area C by Bennett’s calculations.
According to Bennett, Israel should ultimately annex Area C, giving Israel physical security and causing minimal damage to Israel demographic security by having to give full citizenship to the 50,000 Arabs therein, absorbing them into a population of over 8 million Israelis.
So this is not a one state solution, but almost certainly blocks the two state solution.
Prime Minister Netanyahu, Defence Minister Lieberman, Lapid, Herzog et al – that is the vast bulk of Israel – remain very clear about the demographic security aspect and for that reason still adhere to the two state solution. In the US for his various meetings Netanyahu said:
“I said it before, and I will repeat it here again: I don’t want to annex close to 2.5 million Palestinians to Israel. I do not want them to be our subjects.”
But on condition that Israel’s physical security can be ensured.
And that is the sticking point. The Palestinians, by not being willing to accept Israel as a Jewish State and all of the ramifications flowing from that – as well as bitter experience – have convinced almost the entire spectrum across Israel, that physical security cannot be achieved at this point in time with/by a two state solution.
Netanyahu’s meeting with Trump produced a changed dynamic in a number of critical ways.
1 – If we weave in and out of what President Trump said, and if he remains consistent, Trump has put the onus back on direct negotiations between the two parties:
“I’m looking at a two state and one state, and I like the one that both parties like. I’m very happy with the one that both parties like. I could live with either one. I thought for a while the two state looked like it may be the easier of the two, but honestly, if Bibi and if the Palestinians, if Israel and the Palestinians are happy, I’m happy with the one they like the best.”
This means that whilst the two parties need to agree on the solution, there will be no outside imposition of a resolution as the Palestinians had been hoping for. The Palestinians will actually have to do what they have forever been avoiding – sitting down with Israel and negotiating on the key issues with the aim of ending the conflict.
Trump put the ball back in the Palestinians’ court – negotiate or not, up to them. But if not, the US will not pressure Israel to make further one-sided concessions.
2 – During their joint press conference Trump light-heartedly teased Netanyahu and said that Israel:
“would have to hold back on the settlements for a little bit and would have to compromise too.”
“You realise that, right?”
Which presents us with the second change. Whilst settlements are no longer considered the impediment to a resolution, Trump considers any new settlements or the expansion of settlement footprints to be a hindrance.
This is a return to the Clinton/Bush policy – unlike Obama who opposed building even in the blocks – and something that Israel has in the main adhered to in any case for years and years.
The irony is that those who claimed that Israel was building new settlements during Netanyahu’s term are now shouting that if Israel sets up a new settlement for the evicted residents of Amona it will be the first for 25 years. That is, despite the noise, the reality is that Israel has not built a new settlement in the West Bank for decades.
But again the onus is thrown back on to the Palestinians by Trump.
Trump will ask Israel to continue to show restraint on settlements for a while, but if the Palestinians refuse to negotiate, well then they may lose the lot says Trump – up to them.
3 – A recognition that the ills of the Middle East do not stem from the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and that whilst it needs resolving, a regional plan may be the better way forward.
By refocussing on Iran and how she fosters terrorism and the wide spread destabilisation of Arab regimes as the central issue – leaving the hope for an alignment of interests between Israel and the moderate Sunni regimes to push the Palestinians to come to the table as part of a regional deal.
All three of these points lead the Palestinians in one direction. As far as the US is concerned, the Palestinians are no longer the central issue, Israel is no longer the main obstacle and the two state solution is preferable but no longer imperative.
And time is not on the side of the Palestinians.
It may be that in his own way, Trump may actually have hit on a way to force the Palestinians to come and face reality.
As far as Israel is concerned Netanyahu and Lieberman are doing what they can to hold the two state solution open but are no longer pressured to compromise physical security.
If there is no resolution then the debate in Israel about demographic and physical security and the appropriate balance between them, will heat up.
Ron Weiser is a Past President of the Zionist Federation of Australia and Hon Life President of the Zionist Council of NSW.