Effie Eitam’s call for mass expulsion of Palestinian Arabs from the West Bank would be lamentable at any time and place. Coming at a pivotal moment in Middle East diplomacy, fraught with new threats and new opportunities, such a statement by an influential Israeli lawmaker constitutes a singularly mischievous assault on decency. At the same time, it can be seen as a moment of unique clarity. What, after all, are the alternatives?
Expulsion is one of the most explosive doctrines in the Israeli political lexicon. Introduced into the public discourse in the 1970s by Brooklyn-born Rabbi Meir Kahane, it was ruled “racist” by the Knesset in 1985. Kahane became a pariah, and his party was outlawed. But the notion reappeared shortly afterward in the slightly more respectable guise of “voluntary transfer,” championed by former general Rehavam Ze’evi, a certified military hero. Since then it has hovered at the edge of legitimacy.
Eitam has taken the notion back to its roots, calling not for the encouragement of mass emigration, as Ze’evi and his disciples have done, but for old-fashioned expulsion. Because he believes the West Bank must remain forever under Israeli control, and because he understands that the territory’s Arab residents will never reconcile themselves to Israeli rule, he draws the logical conclusion: Boot them out.
Eitam is no Kahane. A reserve brigadier general in the Israel Defense Forces and former chairman of the National Religious Party, he is one of the most charismatic figures on the current Israeli political scene. He’s also one of the most radical. His period at the helm of the National Religious Party, traditionally the standard-bearer of Israeli Modern Orthodoxy, represented a high point in that party’s identification with settler messianism. He left the party in 2005 when moderates tried to recapture control, and went on to join the extremist National Union. Now the two parties have combined, and Eitam is back in the center of things. His words must be taken seriously.
Israel, it should be remembered, captured the West Bank in 1967 in a defensive war that was imposed on it by its neighbors. It promptly announced that it would hold the territory as a bargaining chip, to be exchanged for a negotiated peace treaty. The unanimous reply from the Arab League was the famous three “no’s” of Khartoum: no recognition, no negotiations, no peace. Israel decided to sit tight. And while it waited, groups of Israeli citizens began setting up house — some with government blessing, others without — throughout the length and breadth of the West Bank. The government continued to state that future borders were negotiable, regardless of the settlements; the settlers made plain at every opportunity that they aimed to make any such negotiation impossible. Their hope has been that with enough time and determination, the Palestinians would be worn down and the rest of the world would come to accept Israel’s claim to the disputed land.
Instead, Israel’s presence in the territory has become steadily more untenable. Palestinian resistance has grown increasingly violent, forcing Israel to apply harsher and harsher methods of control. Bit by bit, the conflict has spread beyond the borders of Israel and Palestine, inflaming sentiments and violence around the world. Today it is the hard nut of what has become a global confrontation. The Muslim world seems determined as never before to wipe Israel off the map.
For many Israelis, this is a time of deep despair. Eitam’s message, though rooted in a form of messianic optimism, is directed at an Israeli public that sees no other way out.
But Israelis are not the only ones who are alarmed at the current state of global conflict. Much of the Arab world sees the rise of Islamic extremism as a threat to regional and world stability and fears it no less than Israel and the West do. As we’ve noted before, Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia have made extraordinary efforts in recent months to create an opening for new Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, hoping to deflate the radicals. Egypt has mobilized every tool in its arsenal to create a Palestinian negotiating partner with whom Israel can do business; the result is this week’s announcement of a Palestinian unity government, bringing Hamas and Fatah together in a framework that begins with acceptance of Israel’s 1967 borders. The Saudis have spearheaded a plan to sweeten a peace deal by promising full recognition from all 22 Arab states if Israel agrees to make a deal with the Palestinians — effectively reversing the 1967 “no’s” of Khartoum. Even Syria, the most intractable of Israel’s immediate neighbors, has signaled its willingness to come on board. That’s the most urgent meaning of this week’s firefight outside the U.S. embassy in Damascus.
There is an alternative to the current despair that grips so much of Israel and the Jewish world. It’s not without pain; many of us have grown used to an expansive Israel, with its ancient sites and holy places. Giving that up would mean the end of the 40-year dream of biblical fulfillment, championed by the settlers and cherished by religious Jews everywhere. But it would mean the fulfillment of the 100-year quest for acceptance and normalcy that was and is the living heart of Zionism. That’s what Eitam is afraid of.