Coldly Considering the Unthinkable

Transferring populated areas to another state is legitimate if most of the affected population agrees, but revoking citizenship clearly contradicts democratic norms.

The statecraft challenges facing Israel require much creativity, because, on critical issues, such as the peace process and Iran, all the options on the table are clearly unsatisfactory. But being creative depends on extricating oneself from the procrustean bed of frozen opinions and dogmatic views, on the right and the left alike, that reject ideas regarded a priori as taboo without serious consideration. Such have been the reactions to the proposal for swapping populated areas as part of an agreement with the Palestinians.

Transfer of populated areas has served throughout history as a part of peace agreements. Therefore the idea of transferring the Triangle and Wadi Ara regions of northern Israel, with their high concentrations of Arab residents, to a Palestinian state should not be rejected in advance. Instead, it should be considered from two perspectives: 1 ) normative legitimacy; and 2 ) realpolitik consequences.

In terms of democratic values, transferring populated areas to another state is legitimate if most of the affected population agrees. Revoking citizenship in areas selected on the basis of religious or ethnic criteria, however, and swapping territories against the will of the population living there, are things that clearly contradict democratic norms.

As is clearly reflected in numerous pronouncements, it is very likely that in the foreseeable future the vast majority of Israeli Arabs will not wish to belong to a Palestinian state, even given optimistic assumptions about its development. This sentiment can only be expected to deepen as they increasingly integrate into the Israeli economy and society. Therefore the idea does not meet normative requirements.

There are exceptions to the applicability of democratic criteria to territorial swaps, such as situations of emergency, in which the very existence of Israel as a Jewish state is seriously endangered, or the aftermath of a war. But these are unlikely possibilities, though their exploration within professional contingency planning is in principle desirable.

Another important exception would be a situation in which swapping populated areas or moving people against their will are necessary conditions of highly important peace agreements. This would be the case with Jewish settlements in areas due to become part of a Palestinian state. However, there is no Palestinian demand to receive parts of Israel populated by its Arab minority. And if, hypothetically, such a demand is made, it should be rejected out of hand, if only because of the danger it would pose as a precedent for dismembering Israel.

In terms of realpolitik, swapping the areas under consideration would leave Israel with a border wide open to illegal immigration and easily penetrable by terrorists. Transfer of territories near the country's center can only aggravate strategic security risks, even if accompanied by demilitarization agreements. And relinquishing areas with an Arab majority would set a precedent and create an incentive for demands by Arab concentrations of population in the Galilee and the Negev for political autonomy, something that could endanger the integrity of Israel.

In terms of the peace process, there is no possibility that the Palestinian Authority and heads of Arab and Islamic states would agree to territorial swaps opposed by the Arab population living there. Just presenting such a proposal would make Israel look bad, impair its relations with the United States, and damage the chances of peace.

Additionally, the proposed swap could most likely include only about 150,000 Arabs, which would not change substantially the demographic balance in Israel. And a stable Jewish majority in Israel - a requisite for a Jewish and democratic state - can be assured by preventing illegal entry and residence, integration of non-Arab and non-Jewish residents in Jewish society, a well-considered policy encouraging three- and four-child families, and more.

The correct conclusion is not that it is inappropriate to discuss the idea of a swap of populated territories. Israel urgently needs a lot of creative options that are not blocked by closed minds. This applies also to other ideas that are to some taboo, such as - assuming that there is a stable peace - allowing Israeli Arabs who so desire to be citizens of the Palestinian state with permanent residence rights in Israel (perhaps on a reciprocal basis, with respect to Jews wishing to live in the Palestinian state ).

But the overall substantive conclusion is that the idea of swapping territories populated by the Arab minority should be rejected. This is the case not because some may regard this option as inherently anathema, but as a result of normative and realpolitik analysis.

Therefore, the recent presentation of the proposal to swap populated areas by the Israeli foreign minister at the UN General Assembly - made without prior approval of the prime minister or professional analysis by the National Security Staff - was fundamentally flawed and reflects serious defects in Israeli governance. At the same time, those who opposed in advance the consideration of such options also suffer from serious cognitive failures.


Yehezkel Dror is professor emeritus of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His book "Israeli Statecraft: Challenges and Responses" will be published in 2011 by Routledge.