By Rabbi Dow Marmur.
Do Israelis want to settle with the Palestinians or do they want to settle in the West Bank?
That’s how I read the underlying question asked by Stanley Fischer, the former Governor of the Bank of Israel, at a recent symposium in New York. The issue overshadows much of what’s going on in and around Israel today.
Though the current discussions between representatives of the Palestinian Authority and Israel are supposed to be secret, you don’t need inside information to conclude that the settlements – more than the Palestinian demand for the right of return – are the sticking point. And the present administration in Jerusalem is determined not to give them up or even to compromise whatever the price.
Every seemingly confidence building measure by Israel during the negotiations is almost invariably accompanied by an announcement of settlement expansion.
Prime Minister Netanyahu’s hard line on Iran may also be his way of averting attention from the settlement issue. Rumor has it that the Americans, too, are linking Palestinian peace with an Iran agreement, perhaps suggesting that if Israel yields on settlements, the United States will be tougher on Iran.
The current leadership of the Palestinian Authority may also prefer the status quo to its alternatives out of fear that any agreement, however seemingly advantageous to the Palestinians, will lead to strong opposition from within and thus the prospect of Hamas getting the upper hand in the West Bank as it has in Gaza. Victimhood may serve the Palestinian leaders better than something they could claim as victory.
No doubt Fischer knows all that. That’s probably why in the same presentation he also spoke of the demographic threat to Israel: the combination of the growing share of the Arab population at one end of the spectrum and the growth of the ultra-Orthodox haredim at the other. Both would make peace even more difficult than it already is.
Stalling every potential agreement may be expedient in the short term but is bound to jeopardize the very future of Israel when it has an Arab and haredi majority. A Jewish state isn’t exactly a priority for either.
Fischer’s concern about the state of secondary education in Israel is also relevant in this context. Arabs and haredim get an inferior education to the others. The implication is that the less Israelis are educated the more are they likely to follow hard-line politics. Liberals rarely move to the West Bank.
When I find myself painting a picture with dark clouds I’m looking for a silver lining. This time it may come from the change in the leadership of the Labor Party. The new leader Isaac Herzog is said to be a realistic centrist.
It’s, therefore, possible that he’d be prepared to join the government, hopefully in place of Naftali Bennet’s Habayit Hayehudi, the closest to a political party in power that the settlements have ever had. Its absence from the coalition would make an agreement with the Palestinians a little more possible.
If that were to happen – and the “if” is very big – the cloud would soon lift, peace would be possible and an Israeli nuclear attack on Iran would be averted, I’d like to think that this isn’t just wishful thinking, but at this stage, alas, it’s not much more than that.