When Avigdor Lieberman Takes Your Idea

The Strategic Interest

By Yossi Alpher

Published March 25, 2009, issue of April 03, 2009.
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I’m no fan of Avigdor Lieberman. I find his gutter rhetoric and talk of loyalty oaths repugnant. Still, I confess that there is one aspect of the criticism of Lieberman from which I dissent: his proposal to adjust the 1967 Green Line border within the framework of a two-state solution so that certain Israeli Arab villages and towns become part of a future Palestinian state. After all, I first proposed the idea.

I did so back in 1994, in a study published by the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies on borders and settlements in final-status negotiations. The compromise two-state solution map I drew then (which does not deal with Jerusalem) attaches the major West Bank settlement blocs that are near the Green Line to Israel. That concept has been the basis for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations ever since, just as it dictates the current route of the West Bank security fence.

Moving the Green Line to encompass the settlement blocs raises the question of compensating the Palestinians territorially. Even in 1994, before final-status talks had begun, it was clear that the Palestine Liberation Organization would not budge from its narrative that sanctifies the pre-1967 borders as the basis for any agreement. Thus, if we want an agreement, any West Bank land annexed by Israel would have to be balanced by appropriate compensation, probably in the form of land from within pre-1967 Israel. I suggested Israeli lands in the Wadi Ara and Triangle regions, all adjacent to the Green Line and populated overwhelmingly by Arab citizens of Israel, as one of several swap options.

My reasoning predated Lieberman’s: Israeli Arabs increasingly reject Israel’s identity as a Jewish state and insist on a Palestinian national identity; Israel has a right and an obligation to protect its Jewish identity at the demographic level (as Hebrew University demographer Sergio DellaPergola argued on these pages last week). Interestingly, the Israeli areas in question were only attached to Israel toward the conclusion of armistice talks with Jordan in 1948 and 1949. At the time, Israel threatened to renew the fighting unless Jordan ceded the lands, with their Arab population, because they sat on high ground that guarded the coastal strip and linked it with the Galilee. Back in 1948, geography was the dominant strategic consideration. Today it is increasingly demography: Israel would have no problem defending itself against a demilitarized Palestinian state in the West Bank, no matter where the border is fixed.

Border alterations that change the nationality of a slice of territory and its population were done all the time in Europe after its wars: Alsace-Lorraine and Transylvania come to mind. This is not the justifiably maligned “transfer” concept, in which a population is uprooted and forced to migrate (also a postwar European solution, e.g., the Germans expelled from Poland and Czechoslovakia). This is attaching ethnic Palestinians, with their land and homes, to the Palestinian state.

There is, however, one likely problem, as I quickly realized after proposing the idea and as Lieberman — a West Bank settler who, to his credit, supports a two-state solution — prefers to ignore. While a sizable minority of Israel’s Arab citizens supports the idea of becoming Palestinian citizens, the majority opposes it vehemently. Some sincerely prefer Israeli democracy and the Israeli standard of living to taking their chances in a sovereign Palestinian state. Others perhaps insist on remaining Israelis living in Israel in the hope that, over the long term, they will contribute to the demographic overwhelming of Jews by Arabs. Whatever their reasons, they would undoubtedly appeal a decision to move the border and “Palestinize” them to Israel’s High Court of Justice.

And the High Court, in this age of collective and individual human rights, would almost certainly rule that no citizen of Israel can be deprived of his or her citizenship by an arbitrary act of state. This is entirely fitting. This is what makes Israel an enlightened country. (Lieberman, by the way, would prefer to neutralize precisely these review powers of the High Court; this is perhaps his most dangerous design.)

Still, there are ways in which a two-state solution can be used to alleviate the Arab demographic threat to Israel without violating fundamental human rights. Certainly Israeli Arabs can be given the option of adopting Palestinian citizenship and renouncing Israeli citizenship even if they choose to live out their days in Israel. As DellaPergola pointed out, the 250,000 Arabs of East Jerusalem, who in any case are not for the most part Israeli citizens, would be removed from the demographic balance by a mere restoration of the 1967 border. And the Green Line border can be moved in the Wadi Ara and Triangle areas, while allowing area residents to keep their citizenship, conceivably with provisions that those who do not exercise their right to move back into Israel but insist on retaining Israeli citizenship cannot pass it on to children born in Palestine.

These are promising ideas. Let’s not let Lieberman give them a bad name.

Yossi Alpher is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University. He currently co-edits the bitterlemons.org family of Internet publications.

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