Some day soon, the foreign minister of a major ally may decide to drop an A-bomb on Israel. William Hague and John Kerry have each pointedly left the option open. And Jimmy Carter, of course, has already done it.
This A-bomb isn’t a literal bomb, cooked up beneath the deserts of Iran, but it could be almost as great a threat to the longevity of the Jewish state. This A-bomb is the word apartheid.
Hague is the one who’s sounded the loudest warnings. He has repeatedly insisted that if there isn’t a deal this year that establishes an independent Palestinian state, then Israel’s own future as a both a Jewish state and a democracy is in doubt. If there’s no two-state solution, then Israel will face international isolation as a pariah state that denies rights to up to 2.5 million Arabs. The Foreign Secretary believes Israel has just a few months to negotiate the creation of a Palestinian state before the A-bomb is dropped.
Kerry has been more circumspect. Still, here’s what he told Israeli TV last year: ‘If we do not find a way to find peace, there will be an increasing campaign of delegitimisation of Israel that’s been taking place on an international basis. I’ve got news for you: today’s status quo will not be tomorrow’s.’
The US has been clear about what it would like to see: a sovereign Palestinian state alongside Israel. And it has set a deadline for talks to produce something: April this year.
The standard international plan for Palestinian/Israeli peace goes something like this. Israel would end its siege of Gaza and leave most of the West Bank, absorbing some settlements but granting other land in return. Those areas would become a Palestinian state, with restricted military capacity but free international borders. Much of east Jerusalem would return to Palestinian control; the Old City and the holy sites would be an international mandate. The Israelis could keep some early-warning systems on Palestinian territory, and the Palestinians would have to give up their claim to a ‘right of return’ for refugees and descendants of refugees from land captured by Israel in 1948 and 1967, a claim that now encompasses some five million people. The Palestinians would recognise Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state. Oh, and Arab countries would normalise relations with Israel.
Unfortunately, however, that deal has been kicking around for 20 years or more, and the Palestinians keep turning it down. Yasser Arafat walked away from it in 2000. Mahmoud Abbas, his successor, has been no less fearful of giving up on grand claims — especially that right of return. And while the Palestinian leadership sits tight and soaks up foreign aid, Israeli attitudes have hardened dramatically.
Israel’s survival through the 1948 foundation conflict, the 1967 triumph over Arab armies and the 1973 Yom Kippur War can largely be attributed to the tough pioneering spirit of the secular kibbutzniks who founded the state. But the kibbutzniks’ orange groves are now harvested by Thai guest workers, while their heirs are in nightclubs in Tel Aviv. They’re individualists, more interested in building technology start-ups than Zion. The new spirit that animates Israel’s politics and increasingly dominates the military is being forged in the occupied West Bank.
Here in the heat and dust of a shooting range on the edge of Gush Etzion, a little south of Bethlehem, I watched sixth-formers squint down the barrels of M16 rifles and shoot live ammunition at photographs of armed Arabs. Instructors from Russia and South Africa screamed at them in accented Hebrew. They were members of the National Religious movement, learning to protect their West Bank yeshiva — Jewish seminary — against the threat of Palestinian ‘insurgents’.
‘We want to dominate politics. Dominate the army,’ their chief instructor, Yisrael Danziger, told me. They seem to be succeeding. Most of prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu party, and many of his allies, now see him as a dangerous leftie. His own ministers publicly condemn the idea of a two-state solution, and call for an end to negotiations with the Palestinians. They have their own ideas about tomorrow’s status quo.
Their poster boy is Naftali Bennett, the leader of the settler-dominated Jewish Home party, who is economy minister in the coalition government. Bennett is a technology millionaire and special forces veteran, with a perma-grin and an American accent. As leader of a settler party, he is naturally set against leaving the West Bank, which he calls by its biblical name, Judea and Samaria. He says he doesn’t have a solution, but does have a way to better manage the problem.
Bennett proposes annexing the 62 per cent of the West Bank that Israel already controls, where about 350,000 settlers live. He estimates that nearly 50,000 Palestinians live there too: he’d give them the option of becoming Israeli. The other 38 per cent of the land, which is under Palestinian control, ‘will be granted autonomy… with transport continuity which would allow free movement for all Palestinians in Judea and Samaria without IDF roadblocks’.
‘This will barely even tweak the demographic balance [between Jews and Arabs] in Israel,’ he says. ‘But it will take the air out of the anti-Israel “apartheid arguments”.’
He’d be lucky. Because Bennett’s plan for the Palestinians fits the textbook definition of Grand Apartheid — a Bantustan mess of ink-splotch territories in which clearly defined ethnic groups have ‘separate development’ and ‘local autonomy’ forced upon them, under Quisling leaders dependent on the colonial forces that established them in the first place.
Uri Ariel, the housing minister, would go further. He’d like to simply annex the West Bank, though he promises Israeli citizenship for all Palestinian citizens who apply. They would have to pass a Hebrew language and citizenship test, and swear allegiance to the Jewish state. Failure to do so would inevitably lead to second-class citizenship. Deputy defence minister Danny Danon promotes a similar scheme, as does Ze’ev Elkin, the deputy foreign minister.
There was a time, not long ago, when the purveyors of this sort of idea would have been dismissed as nutters. Now they’re mainstream, thanks largely to the failure of the Palestinians to grab their opportunities under the left-leaning governments of Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert.
The foreign aid-drenched Palestinian leadership is largely feckless, cowardly and corrupt. It’s impossible to see it making the historic concessions statehood would require. Instead it is sitting back waiting for Israel to get the blame for letting hope of a two-state solution die.
If that happens, Israel will indeed pay a price. Already the European Union has signalled that it may impose sanctions on Israeli products manufactured in settlements, and ruled that settlers cannot receive grants through Horizon 2020, a multi-billion-pound scientific co-operation agreement. If the April deadline passes without a resolution, more sanctions may follow. Israel will face condemnation. It will have to endure more tub-thumbing at international forums. It may face charges of racism, and be labelled an apartheid regime. That may make the Palestinians feel better, reinforcing a victim mentality.
But isolation and grandstanding won’t create a Palestinian state; in fact, they may only strengthen the fortress mentality of the Israeli right.
The most worrying thing about the international community’s A-bomb is that it could be dropped and prove to be a damp squib.
Sam Kiley is foreign affairs editor of Sky News.