No More Illusions - the Status Quo Must Change

After so many years in which almost nothing changed in the relationship between Israel and the Palestinians, it is clear that a radical transformation is upon us.

A protester chants slogans near a banner reading "Boycott Israel" during an anti-Israel march in Malmo, Sweden.
A protester chants slogans near a banner reading "Boycott Israel" during an anti-Israel march in Malmo, Sweden. Credit: Reuters

Born in 1967, I often introduce myself as a “child of the occupation.” It naturally gives me a clear perspective on Israel’s control of the territories: 48 years exactly. The jubilee year is just around the corner.

Psychological studies show that the ninth year of each decade – age 29, 39, 49, etc. – is usually a significant year in a person’s life, because it arouses thoughts of “Where am I headed?” and spurs people to change course.

Next year, Israeli control of the territories will turn 49. But it doesn’t seem as if anyone expects anything significant to happen in our relationship with our Palestinian neighbor in this symbolic year. The many years that have passed with hardly anything changing – apart from the one change that occurred after the Oslo Accords – have given rise mainly to a sense of dystrophy and stagnation, business as usual. The world keeps on spinning, and Israeli control of the territories looks set to continue for another 48 years at least.

But is that really it? The deadlock is one of the biggest illusions that prevails in the internal Israeli debate regarding our control of the territories – the illusion that the occupation has worked out okay for us until now, so the same will hold true in the future.

Growing signs suggest that things will not remain the same, and anyone who thinks that Israel can simultaneously continue to rule the territories, keep some four million people under occupation, maintain a democracy, be a member of the world’s enlightened nations, enjoy the support of the civilized world and prosper economically is fooling himself. It just won’t happen, because the world won’t let it happen – and also because we won’t be able to sustain the internal contradiction of being a “democratic and occupying state.”

Losing worldwide support

Signs of the deterioration are everywhere: the growing boycott of Israeli goods and institutions; the erosion of Israel’s public image in the world; the cold shoulder from an increasing number of Israel’s historic allies. Even American support, as we’ve learned in the age of Obama, is no longer assured.

Israel is clearly on a historic trajectory of losing worldwide support for its policy in the territories. As a small nation surrounded by enemies, Israel must rely on the world’s support for its defense – and by retaining its grip on the territories, it risks losing it.

Moreover, the general public in the West isn’t so familiar with the details of the conflict, and doesn’t particularly distinguish between Israel within its 1948 borders or 1967 borders. At some point, the damage to Israel’s reputation could become so severe that Israel would risk losing legitimacy for its very existence. Add to this the near-certain blow to Israel’s economic prosperity that its worsening global image will bring – bear in mind that half of Israel’s GDP comes from exports: without successful exporting, what real future is there for Israel’s economy?

And of course, it’s very difficult to see how Israel will be able to reconcile the contradiction between being a democratic country and its endless occupation of the territories. No democratic country has ever acted as an occupier indefinitely, and it’s unclear how Israel will be able to do so without losing its democratic character.

The illusion of “what has been is what will be” has to burst at some point. It’s only the shallowness of the Israeli debate over the territories that has enabled this illusion to last as long as it has. Sadly, this shallowness shows no sign of letting up. Just witness the second big illusion: The “happy ending” illusion – the notion that “if we just withdraw from the territories, everything will be fine.”

It’s not clear what this illusion is based upon – after all, Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, only to see Hamas take control and launch relentless rocket fire. Israel also withdrew from Lebanon in 2000, only to get the Second Lebanon War with Hezbollah in 2006. Meanwhile, the stance of the Palestinian public is still not in favor of recognizing Israel. The likelihood that a withdrawal from the territories won’t eventually lead to some sort of combat situation with the Palestinians is about the same as the likelihood of eternal peace and the “wolf lying down with the lamb.”

Sure, there is also some reason to hope that we could attain reasonable neighborly relations with the Palestinians – we’ve been living together for nearly 50 years now, and this should carry some weight. But while one can hope things work out, it would be irresponsible and betray a great lack of seriousness to base Israeli policy upon hope alone.

And just because a withdrawal from the territories – with the high risk it entails – isn’t guaranteed to usher in peace, that shouldn’t necessarily rule out this option, either. Israel withdrew from Lebanon in 2000 without any illusion that there would be peace, and in the 15 years since then, we’ve maintained a regime of deterrence and sporadic combat with Lebanon without Israel’s survival being threatened. Despite the ongoing threat from Hezbollah, the Israeli public does not appear to regret the withdrawal from Lebanon, or have any desire to retake part of its northern neighbor because of it.

There is no reason not to be prepared to hold similar expectations with regard to the territories. With the Palestinians as well, it is possible – and will be necessary – to maintain relations of deterrence and readiness for combat, although the topographic location of Judea and Samaria right in the center of Israel certainly makes the risk of such combat especially high.

The option of a withdrawal from the territories, which entails the risk of the area being turned into Hamas-stan (or ISIS-stan), is not a good option. In fact, it’s a terrible option. But the option of perpetuating Israel’s control over the territories forever, while risking a loss of Israel’s democratic character and a worldwide loss of legitimacy for its right to exist, is just as bad. But these are the only two options before us, and the time has come to stop fooling ourselves about them.

The writer is a senior business columnist at TheMarker.

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