In his 2011 book, The Anatomy of Israel’s Survival, Israeli journalist Hirsch Goodman posed a question that politicians and observers have dealt with for decades: can Israel survive? For Zionists and pro-Israelis, the question is frustrating, and most emphatically answer positively. Yet, against the backdrop of the Arab Awakening, the ongoing war in Syria, and the uncertainty of a new Iranian president, the answer to Israel’s survival is not as clear as it once was.
International condemnation and boycotts against products originating from Israeli settlements in occupied lands have made an impact upon Israel’s reputation abroad, too. Recently, new EU guidelines have prohibited the issuing of grants, academic fellowships and scholarships unless a settlement clause has been included. This renders institutions across the so-called Green Line (that area which Israel annexed in 1967) ineligible. In short, the EU has attempted to force Israel into acknowledging that the West Bank, Gaza, and other occupied territory lay beyond the borders of Israel.
It’s in this changing (geo)political context that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has renewed peace talks between Israel and Palestine. Like many others before him, Kerry is optimistic and hopes that the two belligerents can reach a settlement within nine months. When Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat arrived in Washington, they were greeted by President Obama, who has pledged to support the peace initiative. Although details about the talks are vague, it’s clear that the parties will discuss pressing issues like Israel’s E1 settlements, its continued expansion, and the future of Israel’s borders. Critics of Israeli construction in East Jerusalem argue that the program will prevent a sovereign Palestinian state from achieving congruity with other Palestinian settlements. The international community considers Jerusalem a separate city altogether. This notion derived from the United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine (1947). A year later, Israeli forces occupied West Jerusalem, while Jordan occupied the eastern part. Since then the status of Jerusalem has generated a great deal of controversy and the E1 plan has come to symbolize yet another way Israel continues to marginalize the Palestinian people.
So what, if anything, makes this round of peace talks any different than previous ones? The obvious difference is the context in which the impetus for peace has emerged. The strength of American foreign policy has been blunted by financial and geopolitical constraints and the Arab Awakening has underscored divisions between democracy and totalitarianism in the Middle East. When Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was ousted, onlookers saw in Egypt the potential to create a democratic state with Islamic influence, something along the lines of the Turkish model. The recent military coup and the uncertain role of the Muslim Brotherhood, however, have snuffed out these hopes. Significantly, the residual effects of the Syrian civil war, such as Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) and refugee crises, have put immense pressure on Israel’s neighbours, while the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) cautiously observes the development of that war from the Golan Heights. For better or for worse, everywhere Israelis look socio-political change in the Middle East is imminent.
The anti-Semitic rhetoric of former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been beneficial for those concerned with the capability of Israel’s defence and armed forces, but has never really posed an existential threat.
But the most severe threats come from within Israel’s own borders. Although the Likud party, of which current Prime Minister Netanyahu is a part, initiated some of the very first peace talks with Arab states in the 1970s, the current Likud party has voiced strong opposition to a Palestinian state and has supported the E1 settlement. Significant social and political cleavages also exist within the state; it’s far from a monolithic and homogenous country. The Hareidim, ultra orthodox Jews, have traditionally been exempted from Israel’s compulsory military service, but all of this has changed recently with a new bill that removes exemptions for this confessional community.
Another ongoing threat comes from something over which the Israeli Knesset has no control: demography. As Goodman correctly points out, in the 1970s the Israelis had an annual growth rate of 1.6 percent. But the 1.2 million Palestinians in Israel were growing at more than double that rate. Palestinians in Gaza had the highest birthrate outside of Africa at over 4 percent—and the polygamy practiced by the Negev Bedouin also continues to affect Israel’s composition. Currently, the number of Palestinians almost equals the number of Jews (5.4 and 5.7 million, respectively). As the population of Gaza doubles every ten years and the birthrate on the West Bank surpasses that of Jewish Israelis, demography poses the most serious threat to the future state of Israel.
As in previous negotiations, the Kerry Accords will have to contend with the obstinacy of both sides. The state of Israel certainly has the right to exist and it will survive. However, if politicians want to ensure a long-lasting peace, then Palestine must achieve statehood. Israel will exist, but the circumstances and conditions of its survival will remain in flux. Zionist claims to the land entirely based on a religious text are specious—historians like Gudrun Krämer have made this clear in her book A History of Palestine. The land promised to Abraham was neither settled nor occupied by him or his kin, not even in part. And, even if God’s eternal covenant was made only to Isaac and his sons, as outlined in Gen. 17:19 and 21; Deut. 1:7-8, the descendants of Abraham that Gen. 15:18-21 refers to also includes the sons of Ishmael, whom the Bible names as the ancestor of the Ishmaelites and whom the Muslims recognize as one of their prophets. If claims to territory are to be made based on religious text, then they need be fair and unselective. In that respect, Jewish claims should not outweigh those of Palestinian ones.
In many ways, we share the optimism expressed by Kerry, but we also approach these peace talks cautiously and realistically. Brokering a long-lasting peace and adjusting territorial boundaries in a sea of political tumult, both beyond and within Israel’s borders, is no easy task. The success of the Kerry Accords will hinge on placing human rights and international law at the apogee of peace negotiations and doing away with the archaic rhetoric of the “chosen people.”