Back then — “then” meaning 1967, in the immediate aftermath of the Six-Day War — all the talk about long-range solutions to the chronic Israel-Arab crisis involved a return of the West Bank to Jordan. The intention was to initiate an era of peace and security, and it seemed clear that one precondition for such a happy state of affairs would be a favorable disposition of the West Bank and Gaza, the territories and their inhabitants.
But the Israelis were hesitant advocates and the Arabs obdurate naysayers, and so the matter of the captured territories has not been resolved; instead, it has swelled. Two major wars and two intifadas later, the “Jordanian option” has, of course, given way to a “two-state solution.” That is where Israeli mainstream opinion, as also Arab mainstream opinion, as also the international community, now finds itself. That is the idea to which all of them, through all the setbacks, tenaciously hold on.
Nearly all the Jewish politicians in Israel who favor a two-state solution lean heavily, as justification for their views, on the issue of demography — that is, on the imminent prospect that a majority of the people who live between the Mediterranean Ocean and the Jordan River will be Palestinians, that Jews will become a minority in their own land. Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert often refer to this prospect as if they have come upon it only in recent months.
But that isn’t so, not at all. Here I cite myself, since, as it happens, a new edition of my book, “Israel: Politics and People,” appeared just months after the Six-Day War with a new final chapter called “Postscript, 1967.” There I wrote, “If the Gaza Strip presented problems, they were dwarfed in comparison to those raised by Israel’s control of the West Bank…. To retain control [of the West Bank] aside from the diplomatic problems that would be raised, would be to create an Arab minority in Israel not of the current 12% but of better than 30%. It would radically alter the demography of the country, creating immediately a problem that otherwise might be postponed indefinitely: the problem of Israel’s future as a Jewish state with a substantial (and expanding) Arab minority.”
Now Sharon and Olmert may well have missed my book. Still, while my analysis may have been unusual, it was hardly unique. The West Bank and Gaza were no more mysteries back then than they have since become.
Annex the territories and refuse to allow the Palestinians to vote, the solution favored by then opposition-leader Menachem Begin? Cause such distress to the inhabitants that they would flee, a solution favored back then by Sharon?
The first of these solutions is called “apartheid”; the second, “ethnic cleansing.” Neither, even if feasible, is a welcome solution. The of annexing the West Bank and giving its residents citizenship in Israel — essentially, the one-state solution — is no better; indeed, it is not discussed much, since it is obvious that such a “solution” would mark the end of the Jewish state.
The end of the Jewish state as a Jewish state. And while many Israelis, perhaps even most, can only stammer a definition of just what “Jewish state” means, they are unanimous in rejecting the idea of living with others — any others, but perhaps especially Muslim others — in charge. A one-state solution lies well outside the boundaries of mainstream discussion.
Outside those boundaries for now, but not forever. Already there are “one-state” stirrings in Palestinian society. As Yasser Arafat is described as having said, the ultimate solution to the problem of Israel lies in the Palestinians’ secret weapon — to wit, the womb.
If a two-state solution that includes Israel’s withdrawal from most of the West Bank — not just from four isolated outposts — is not agreed on in the years immediately ahead, pressure within Palestinian society — and in all likelihood from other nations, as well — will be in the one-state direction. Even now, far more than in the past, serious people raise the matter, and we are bound to assume that Sharon and his people are following the debate and that their actions are intended, as least in part, to forestall Israel’s movement from the outermost fringes of the ongoing discussion to its center.
Thus, late in 2003, New York University history professor Tony Judt wrote in The New York Review of Books: “The problem with Israel is not — as is sometimes suggested — that it is a European ‘enclave’ in the Arab world; but rather that it arrived too late. It has imported a characteristically late-nineteenth-century separatist project into a world that has moved on, a world of individual rights, open frontiers and international law. The very idea of a ‘Jewish state’ — a state in which Jews and the Jewish religion have exclusive privileges from which non-Jewish citizens are forever excluded — is rooted in another time and place. Israel, in short, is an anachronism.”
Does anyone read the New York Review of Books? Judt’s article is said to have prompted more than 30,000 letters to the editor. Suddenly, and potentially perniciously, the criticism of Israel from the left has found a solid intellectual foundation: Israel? Of course. But as a Jewish state? No.
Israel’s own definition of itself as a Jewish state, though an ongoing source of considerable confusion, is not for a moment in doubt. But now the demographic clock is ticking loud: The Palestinian womb remains fecund; the Jewish Diaspora barely trickles homeward.
Soon it will be too late. Soon Israel’s definition of itself may be rendered, as Judt would have it even now, an “anachronism.” Accordingly, if the time for two states is not now, it may be overtaken by events. And then what?
Leonard Fein is the author of “Against the Dying of the Light: A Parent’s Story of Love, Loss, and Hope” (Jewish Lights).