The future of Jews in a Palestinian state

A reader of the Ibishblog writes, “It appears that the PA and its supporters believe that Jews may not live in a future Palestinian state. Why is it necessary to make Palestine Jew free?” Thank you very much for that question, but I am happy to report that this is not, in fact, the case. Much has been made recently of these claims by many supporters of Israel, apparently including Prime Minister Netanyahu himself. It is reported that, in defending his insistence that Israel settlement activities continue apace in spite of American and international demands that Israel adhere to its commitment to a settlement freeze, Netanyahu told the German foreign minister that, "Judea and Samaria [official Israeli jargon for the occupied West Bank] cannot be Judenrein," a term hearkening back to the genocidal anti-Semitic policies of the Nazi regime. This theme that a stop to settlement activity is some kind of Nazism, anti-Semitism, or even “ethnic cleansing” (a despicable piece of sophistry recently proposed by the typically ludicrous annual Frank Luntz public relations/hasbara manual tediously regurgitated by the Israel Project) is ridiculous on multiple levels, and simply designed to obfuscate the fact that Israel has no right either legally or politically to continue with settlement activities.

However, the idea that all Jews and Israelis would have to leave a future Palestinian state is not a demand made by the Palestinian Authority or its supporters. To the contrary, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad said at the Aspen Institute recently that, "Jews, to the extent they choose to stay and live in the state of Palestine, will enjoy those rights and certainly will not enjoy any less rights than Israeli Arabs enjoy now in the state of Israel." Numerous other Palestinian officials have made similar comments in the past, and I personally said the same thing in my colloquy with the Israeli Council General in Los Angeles in a radio program a few months ago. I think there are very few, if any, Palestinians who have a desire to see zero Jews living in a Palestinian state.

However, the situation is obviously a complicated one. There are almost 500,000 Israeli settlers living in the occupied territories at the present time. Their physical presence is the single greatest complicating factor in drawing a mutually acceptable border between Israel and a Palestinian state. However, the principle of a land swap in which parts of the occupied territories that have been heavily settled by Jewish colonists might be exchanged for unpopulated or sparsely populated territories in Israel adjacent to the West Bank has been accepted in principle by both sides for quite some time. It is estimated that between 70-80% of the Israeli settlers reside in between 3-4% of the occupied territories, especially in and around occupied East Jerusalem. In theory, a large majority of Israeli settlers in some of the major settlement blocs, with some adjustments, could become Israeli citizens living within parts of the occupied territories ceded to Israel as part of a land swap agreement. The negotiation of the details would obviously be fairly complex, but I think there is every indication that such an arrangement is achievable.

However, that leaves the question of a significant group of settlers who would then be left residing in the rest of East Jerusalem and the West Bank that becomes the territory of the Palestinian state. Palestinians have already expressed a willingness to have Jews remain in Palestine either as Israeli citizens residing in territories under Palestinian sovereignty or some other formula such as dual citizenship. However, there are two additional complications. First, many of the settlers, especially in outlying settlements that will almost certainly not be part of any land swap and will have to be integral elements of a Palestinian state, are living on land that has been unlawfully expropriated from Palestinian public or private ownership. It is estimated that almost 40% of the West Bank has been expropriated in one form or another of the state of Israel, and there is no way that this “arrangement” can survive the transfer of authority to a Palestinian state. Therefore, the question of land ownership in settlements that will become part of a Palestinian state in which Jewish residents will wish to continue to reside is an issue that will have to be resolved in negotiations by the national leaderships with sensitivity and a sense of realism. Again, I do not think this should be in any way insurmountable if the will for a permanent status agreement is strong on both sides. However, it is unlikely that the Palestinian state would permit the current Jewish-only policies for residency in these Jewish West Bank settlements to continue following independence, and settlers who remain in Palestine will not only find themselves living in a Palestinian state, but living with and among Palestinians as equals. This will be a new experience for many of them, but if their intention is to live on the land and not to conquer and rule it, it shouldn’t be impossible to accept.

The biggest obstacle to the continuation of Jewish residency in a future Palestinian state is unlikely to be the Palestinians themselves, or even the Jewish settlers willing to abide by the laws of Palestine. Rather, opposition is most likely to come from the government of Israel itself. It is difficult to imagine the Israeli state feeling that it can allow large numbers (or even modest numbers) of Jewish Israeli citizens to continue living in the territory that becomes a fully independent and sovereign Palestinian state under the protection of the Palestinian, and not the Israeli, authorities. In every society, especially where there are ethnic tensions, and even within ethnic groups, there are always incidents of violence, unrest and grievances. It is likely that most Palestinians would not have a problem with the continued presence of Jewish Israelis in a Palestinian state who were willing to submit to Palestinian law and live as equals rather than as colonizers and rulers. However, there is no guarantee that tensions and confrontations may not occur — in fact, it’s almost impossible to imagine any society in which such things do not happen. I think it would be very politically and socially problematic for any Israeli government to essentially say to former Jewish settlers, now residents of Palestine, in effect, you are on your own, good luck, and if you have any problems, contact our embassy in East Jerusalem. I imagine this might look like a nightmare to any Israeli political leader and the public outcry might be intolerable. Therefore, I actually think that the party with the strongest interest in ensuring that there is the smallest possible presence of Jewish Israelis remaining as permanent residents, citizens or dual citizens of a future Palestinian state is actually the government of Israel, and not either the settlers or the Palestinians.

To return briefly to Netanyahu’s outrageous comments invoking the ghastly concept of “Judenrein” when referring to holding Israel to its Roadmap commitments and international legal responsibilities to cease colonizing occupied territories, there are two final points worth making. First, the Israeli state is in no position to lecture anybody else, anywhere in the world, about ethnic cleansing, ethnic discrimination, and attempting to rid a land of its people. Such outrageous hypocrisy, particularly coming from a politician with the ideology of Netanyahu and his even more extreme coalition partners, is the very definition of chutzpah. Second, the reason why international law, particularly the Fourth Geneva Convention (Article 49), as I’ve pointed out many times in the past, prohibits settlement activity in occupied territories is that it is, by definition and inevitably, a human rights violation against the people living under occupation. Therefore, in Netanyahu’s twisted "through the looking glass" world, ceasing to violate the human rights of Palestinians living under occupation and obeying the Geneva Convention, international law, the roadmap and everything else, becomes, in effect, a capitulation to Nazism. If we have ever seen a more cynical huckster at work, it’s been a while.