Time to Reframe Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations

(originally published as “How Israeli-Palestinians Could Transform the Peace Process,” Al Bawaba, July 23, 2020)

It is time to reframe Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.

For far too long these talks have assumed that “Israeli” meant “Israeli Jew” whereas in fact Israelis—people with Israeli citizenship—include 21% who are Palestinian Arab. If Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations were based on this simple fact, they would no longer be focused on the ethnic fault line of Jew and Palestinian as they have since before the founding of the State of Israel.  Instead negotiations would be between a multi-ethnic, multi-religious secular state (Israel) and a people still seeking a state on its own land.

IF the Palestinian-Israelis had a place in these negotiations—which would mean that they were part of a governing coalition in Israel—the resolution to the problem of two peoples in one land could take surprising turns, from a one-state solution favored by Israeli and Palestinian ultra-nationalists (albeit with their own group supreme) to a two-state solution (an option that is rapidly fading) to Trump’s so-called Peace Plan, to God-knows-what.

The only problem standing in the way of this proposal is the fact that, since Israel’s founding, no Palestinian-Israeli political party has been considered a fit partner to join a coalition government.

Although some Palestinians live in Israel and some live in the Occupied Territories (and some in the Palestinian diaspora), those who live in Israel are Israeli citizens and, at least on paper, are supposed to have equal rights with Jewish Israelis.  They have been part and parcel of Israeli society for over 70 years!  After the recent elections, the Joint List is the third largest bloc in the Knesset.

Yet despite this fact, Netanyahu’s Likud would never consider bringing them into its coalition (nor would the Joint List ever consider joining it primarily because of the Likud’s settlement and anti-Palestinian policies).  Gantz’s Blue and White party also made it clear, as it strove to appeal to right-of-center Jewish voters, that it would not accept the Joint List as a partner had it won the election. At the same time, Gantz sees Avigdor Liberman’s party, which seeks to move parts of Israel with a majority of Palestinian-Israelis to the Palestinian Authority, as a more suitable partner for it than the Joint List.

Why is the Joint List so loathed by the right and centrist Zionist parties? The obvious answer is that the Palestinian-Israeli political parties are non-Zionist and even anti-Zionist.  But is that a legitimate objection?

Is the Joint List any less palatable than the ultra-Orthodox parties who have formed a part of every coalition government, left, right or center, since the founding of the State?  Yet these parties are opposed to the Zionist nature of Israel and some even oppose the existence of the State.

Is the opposition based on the premise that these are somehow better than those because at least the ultra-Orthodox are Jewish?  The ethnic connection is a tenuous one at best and I would suggest that most Jewish Israelis would have more in common with Palestinian Israelis than with the ultra-Orthodox Jews who oppose the State of Israel.

On the surface, there seems little to distinguish the Joint List’s platform from those of far-left Zionist parties, which are now so out of favor and fashion.  Its leading principle calls for an end to the occupation of all territories conquered in 1967; the dismantling of all Israeli settlements and the separation fence in the Occupied Palestinian Territories; the establishment of a sovereign, independent Palestinian state within the June 4, 1967 borders, with its capital in East Jerusalem; and finding a just solution for the problem of the Palestinian refugees which assures the right of return in accordance with to UN General Assembly Resolution 194.  Other points include struggling for the full national and civic equality for the Palestinian public in Israel as a native minority, including recognition of the Arab public as a national minority with the right to self-administration in the fields of culture, education, and religion; support of workers’ rights, environmental justice, equal rights for women, and nuclear disarmament in the region.

To be sure, some of what the platform says is troubling to many Jewish Israelis and to the center-left Zionist parties, but one needs to look at the big picture, and the Joint List clearly endorses a two-state solution and promotes a vision of a democratic, secular Israel living at peace in the region (to the degree that such a thing is possible in such a tumultuous area).  But it is unreasonable to expect any Palestinian-Israeli party to endorse Zionism, particularly as it is now being articulated.

The Blue and White party probably won’t have the opportunity to form the governing coalition this time around and perhaps, whether through desperation to attract right-of-center voters or ideology, it will never be able to work with the Joint List—and perhaps the Joint List might find the potential partnership equally repugnant.  But one thing is clear:  As long as Israel presents itself as a state only of its Jewish citizens rather than as a bi-national state with a sizeable Palestinian minority, the negotiations will be based on a faulty, undemocratic and, dare one say, immoral, premise.