A few weeks ago, Avigdor Lieberman presented his peace plan (once again), which in a nutshell comes down to: “Ariel for Israel, Umm al-Fahm for Palestine.” At the same time, he began to hint that he was involved in a process aimed at ultimately securing a comprehensive regional accord. In response, political pundits and analysts have been trying to decide whether the foreign minister and head of Yisrael Beiteinu is veering rightward or leftward; if he is for or against a regional agreement; and if he embraces or rejects the two-states-for-two-peoples concept.
Lieberman is indeed hard to pin down in terms of the familiar parameters for defining right and left, but in any event his plan – even if it is ultimately rejected – is beset by serious problems and could undermine the political situation in ways that, for now, remain unseen.
Lieberman’s main argument – that his plan will enable the establishment of two potentially “ethnically pure” nation-states – is problematic in itself. In the 21st century, the vast majority of nation-states contain minorities, and no one really believes that it is possible to turn back the historical clock to create ethnically homogeneous political zones.
The very aspiration to create such a political space places the minority in the category of nuisance, at best and, at worst, of a fifth column that must be eliminated. It thus enhances internal domestic tensions and lends legitimacy to hostile acts toward minorities, in the form of discrimination and persecution of these “unwanted” groups.
The second damaging aspect of Lieberman’s plan is the way it makes demographics the criterion for determining political borders. This is hugely problematic, and could pave the way for an international debate over Israel’s future borders that would be swayed by demographic considerations.
Specifically, Lieberman’s plan calls for the transfer to the Palestinian Authority of parts of Israel’s sovereign territory, such as Wadi Ara and the Triangle, that are located in the center of Israel in close proximity to the Green Line. These regions include such locales as Tira, Taibeh, Kafr Qasem, Jaljulia, Umm al-Fahm and Baka al-Garbiyeh – and are home to more than 100,000 Israeli Arab citizens. In exchange, Israel would annex West Bank settlement areas close to the Green Line, including around Ariel and Kedumim. The Wadi Ara and Triangle areas, which comprise about 90 square kilometers and include 15 localities, were incorporated within the territory of Israel as part of the 1949 Armistice Agreement between Israel and Jordan (the Rhodes Accords).
On the face of it, Lieberman’s plan would enable the establishment of two states with a solid ethnic majority in each. The territorial exchanges offered – including the transfer of East Jerusalem to Palestine – would reduce the presence of both the Arab minority in Israel and the Jewish minority in Palestine.
His proposal accepts the idea that the Palestinians are entitled to territory that is equivalent in size to 100 percent of the territory that makes up the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, but it does so by proposing a re-partition of the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean along demographic lines.
Unlike the American road map, the Geneva Initiative, the Clinton principles and other proposals, however, this plan is based on border adjustments that would involve the exchange of populated areas. The plan raises questions and suggests a new way of thinking about the political division of the territory called the “Land of Israel.”
If the borders are supposed to be drawn on the basis of demographic criteria, there is no reason for this principle to stop where Lieberman wants it to. Indeed, it’s quite likely that the idea of redividing the land into separate units based on demographics could lead to demands for the annexation to the Palestinian state of other parts of the country with clear Arab majorities.
Maps published in 2010 by the demographer-geostrategist Professor Arnon Sofer illustrate the distribution of the Israeli Arab population. The borders suggested by these maps closely approximate those of the 1947 United Nations Partition Plan. That plan, embodied in UN Resolution 181, was passed on November 29, 1947. The Jewish state was allocated 56 percent of the territory of Palestine, the Arab state was to be given 43 percent, and the remaining 1 percent of land, comprising Jerusalem and Bethlehem, was supposed to become a neutral international zone under UN auspices. The leaders of the Yishuv (pre-state Jewish community) accepted the principles of the partition plan, but objected to the proposed map for fear it would create a state with insufficient territorial contiguity.
Who will decide?
If Israel consents to discuss a redrawing of its borders based on demographic criteria, it probably won’t be long before the Arabs of the Galilee (where they are currently a majority) and of the Negev (where in certain areas there is an Arab majority) may also question their belonging to Israel. If Arab citizens are not made to feel that they are an important part of Israel’s future, why shouldn’t they seek to leave it – as Lieberman proposes – and take with them the land on which they dwell? As it is, there are already many Arab citizens who have despaired of ever being equal citizens in Israel and are critically examining their connection to the state.
Lieberman presumes that the exchange of territories and citizens will proceed in accordance with whatever Israel proposes, with no counter-proposal being presented. As he envisions it, Israel will decide upon the extent of the territory involved and determine the fate of that area’s inhabitants.
Many Israelis view the unilateral decision to evacuate the Gaza settlements in 2005 as a model for Lieberman’s territorial exchange plan. They say that the disengagement from the Strip shows that the government is capable of willingly giving up tracts of land – even if it goes against the desires of the people who inhabit them. How is it that Israel was able to compel the Jewish residents of Gaza – Israeli citizens – to leave their homes, but is not capable of compelling Arab residents of the Triangle to “move” to the Palestinian state together with their homes and property?
But an exact parallel cannot be drawn between the inhabitants of the Triangle areas and those of Gaza. The latter was occupied territory, where Israeli control and settlement were in violation of international law. There is no similarity between the decision to leave the Strip, and thus comply with international law, and the proposal to alter Israel’s recognized borders in a way that will leave some of its citizens outside the new lines, denying them the possibility to live, work and vote within the boundaries of a country in which they hold citizenship.
Can a state voluntarily give up some of its territory? There are not many cases in history in which states voluntarily relinquished internationally recognized territory. Leaving aside the issue of whether such a move is practically possible the question still remains: Who can make such a decision so that it will be legitimate?
Decisions of partition are commonly made by the residents of the territory that is about to change its status. For example, in 1995 and 2014, it was the people of Quebec who voted on the question of their province’s affiliation with Canada; in 1997 and 2014, the people of Scotland voted on the issue of Scotland’s independence from England; in 1996, when Switzerland considered forming a new canton, the Jura, it was the people living in this proposed canton who decided their own fate; in 2014, Catalonians held a referendum on whether to secede from Spain; and in 1920, the fate of the Carinthia region between Austria and Serbia was also put to a referendum among its residents.
The reason for this is clear: A state cannot relinquish its citizens, and it certainly cannot force them to relinquish their citizenship. The opposite process is possible, however: Citizens may give up their citizenship, and provinces – with the consent of their inhabitants -- can secede from the state.
What do Israel’s Arab citizens want?
According to surveys conducted in recent years, a majority of residents in the Triangle and Wadi Ara areas do not want to come under the sovereignty of a future Palestinian state. Only a minority of the Arab citizens (between one-quarter and one-third) would be willing to move, along with their lands, to the Palestinian Authority. Could the state decide to divest itself of the Triangle and Wadi Ara contrary to the residents’ wishes? Could it unilaterally revoke the political and social rights of the Arab citizens residing in these locales? Such a decision would be devoid of legitimacy and would be perceived – and rightly so – as a policy of theft and expulsion.
If, as Lieberman argues, Arab citizens who so desire will be permitted to move within the new, modified borders of the State of Israel and to receive compensation for the property they left behind – Israel will lose twice over: It will give up territory that belongs to it, and it will be forced to pay compensation to every such citizen. If the amounts of compensation that were given to the settlers who left Gaza are taken as a starting point, we’d be talking about billions of shekels.
Can the State of Israel unilaterally relinquish the territory of the Triangle? Of course not! A future Palestinian state could, out of respect for the preferences of Israel’s Arab citizens, decide not to accept the “transferred territory” into its sovereignty. Removing a territory from the jurisdiction of one state and leaving it without any civic-political affiliation – effectively turning the inhabitants into stateless refugees – would be a grave and unprecedented move.
Lieberman’s plan could thus spawn the following sequence of events: Israel makes a unilateral decision to remove the Triangle area from its sovereign territory, irreparably angering its Arab citizens; it creates a local autonomous zone in the areas in question without being able to transfer them subsequently to any other state; and it then has no choice but to capitulate to international pressure and take them back.
If this scenario is not being discussed here, it’s because Israel has gotten so accustomed to thinking unilaterally that questions regarding the preferences and desires of it future partners never come up.
Politicization of the Arabs
Notwithstanding their ethnic, historical, religious and cultural attachment to the Palestinian people, in the 66 years since the founding of the Jewish state, Israeli citizens who live in the Triangle and Wadi Ara – like all of Israel’s Arab population – have developed a unique Palestinian-Israeli identity: While they may be sympathetic to the Palestinian struggle, they see themselves as Israelis. Promoting the territorial exchange plan would send the message that Israel’s Arab citizens are a political bargaining chip and merely provisional citizens.
It would be an irreversible step that would undermine the Arab minority’s relationship with the State of Israel once and for all. The state that seeks to revoke the citizenship of members of this minority would then have no basis for demanding its loyalty and commitment.
The results of Lieberman’s plan would be:
Delegitimation of Israel as a democratic state;
Delegitimation of Israel’s borders and a return to the 1947 Partition Plan;
A demand for a redivision of Palestine between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean following a demographic blueprint; and,
Total “Palestinization” of Israel’s Arab citizens, resulting in a final loss of trust in the state.
The only workable diplomatic solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is well known, and consists of four key elements:
1. Acceptance of the principle of two states for two peoples – i.e., nation-states that are based upon a democratic majority and not upon “ethnic purity”;
2. Maintenance of the 1967 borders with slight territorial adjustments that are not based upon demographic considerations;
3. Achievement of a comprehensive agreement, via negotiations with the Palestinians, and under the patronage of international parties;
4. International recognition of Israel’s right to exist within agreed-upon and recognized borders, and normalization of Israel’s relations with the Arab world.
Lately, another dimension has been added to these four principles: the possibility of Israel forming an alliance with moderate Islamic forces in the region against radical Islam.
Lieberman’s plan ostensibly adheres to these principles, but in its subversive way it also undermines them and puts long-settled issues back up for debate. Thus, whether his blueprint is ultimately implemented or rejected, it is already sowing the seeds of a future disaster.
Prof. Yuli Tamir is a political philosopher and political activist. She served as Israel’s minister of education, and is currently the president of Shenkar College of Engineering, Design and Art.