Mideast Peace Conference The Real Two-state Solution

President Bush's peace summit for Israelis and Palestinians ignores a painful truth -- one that we are already living in the Middle East.

By Aluf Benn in Tel Aviv

Israel built a barrier between Jerusalem and the West Bank in 2002.

Israel built a barrier between Jerusalem and the West Bank in 2002.

This week President Bush will convene an international conference in Annapolis, Md., to promote the "two-state solution" for Israelis and Palestinians. The meetings and noble proclamations toward that goal, however, will bear little relation to reality here in the Middle East. Essentially, Bush is too late. For most Israelis, the two-state solution already exists.

When I grew up near Tel Aviv in the 1970s, Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza were an indispensable part of the environment. Many of them worked in construction sites, laboring to turn my hometown's strawberry fields into a modern suburb. Others stood every morning in line at the town's highway intersection -- a common sight in Israeli cities then -- waiting for their chance to get a day job. Luckier Palestinians got jobs filling gas at service stations, washing dishes in restaurants and bars, or fixing cars. They served Israeli customers, and were even given Hebrew aliases by their employers. Thus, Ghazi became "Roni" and Mustafa turned into "Moti." Despite a class system problematic in its own right, many of these workers experienced at least a measure of integration.

"The Arabs," as they were called then, manned our country's service sector for two decades after Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza in June 1967. But lacking civil or political rights, this underclass rebelled in December 1987. Termed the first intifada, the Palestinian uprising abruptly changed Israel's reality. Palestinian workers disappeared from sight, first the young ones, then the elders.

Born a few months after the outbreak of the first intifada, my daughter grew up in a very different environment than I did. She has never met a Palestinian from the West Bank or Gaza. Now 19, she has seen our Palestinian neighbors only on TV, and views them as aliens. She is much more familiar with American brand names and sitcom characters than with the people who live 15 miles east of her Tel Aviv home.

My daughter is far from alone in her experience. Today's mainstream Israelis living comfortably in the Tel Aviv area hardly ever cross the "Green Line" separating Israel from the West Bank. In pre-intifada times, many Israelis traveled the short distance up the hills to buy cheap furniture at Bidyah or get their cars fixed in low-cost workshops in Jenin. Not anymore. Since the much bloodier second intifada erupted in September 2000, all Palestinian towns and villages are legally off-limits to Israelis. Moreover, few Israelis would even visit the controversial Israeli settlements on the hilltops. (Conversely, their religious, highly ideological inhabitants would feel out of place in Tel Aviv, just like Palestinians would.) Now, the only reason to go to Nablus or Ramallah, or to one of the Israeli settlements around them, would be for military duty. Otherwise, entering these towns is a life-threatening prospect for Israelis.

Even the Old City of Jerusalem, officially a sovereign part of Israel, has lost its appeal for most Israelis. As a child and teenager, I toured the Old City's alleys, the souk and holy places countless times with my family, my classmates and my friends. We would walk on top of the Ottoman-built wall, or eat hummus at Abu Shukri and have tea down the alley in the Christian Quarter. Imagine visiting one of the world's most exotic wonders, within an hour's drive from home! But few Israelis who grew up in the post-intifada reality would even recognize these places now. These days, I visit the souk only when I have visitors from abroad. For many of my peers in Tel Aviv, the Old City is more remote than New York, London or Thailand. For them, the Jewish part of the city suffices. They see East Jerusalem, with its Palestinian dwellers, as too scary and alien to visit.

The truth is, the popular divorce that has hardened in place between Israelis and Palestinians has an acute political meaning. If you don't ever go to the West Bank or Gaza except for military duty, then for all practical purposes those places lie across the border. Official state or not -- it doesn't matter. Only diehard leftists and peace process buffs here still talk about "the occupation." The majority of Israelis, who never witness its ugly expressions -- the checkpoints, the travel bans, the house demolitions -- hardly bother to think about the occupation anymore.

This political parallax explains a paradox with Israeli public opinion. Polling data indicate strong support among Israelis for the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. Yet, this majority support has not translated into action. The last three Israeli prime ministers -- Ehud Barak, Ariel Sharon and the incumbent Ehud Olmert -- have declared that Palestinian statehood is in Israel's interest. In reality, however, its establishment appears as remote as ever. The West Bank is ruled by an ad hoc hybrid: Israeli security forces, who also control the external borders; Israeli settlers and their municipal organs; the dysfunctional Palestinian Authority, which delivers civilian services; and Palestinian terrorist groups. Gaza is now controlled by Hamas, but with Israel essentially controlling basic services like food and electricity. It's a complicated mishmash, a patchwork of authorities and responsibilities. But, as destitute as parts of the Palestinian areas now are, to most Israelis the situation appears to be working somehow.

From the perspective of most Israelis, then, "if it ain't broken, don't fix it." Supporting Palestinian statehood in principle, and voting for it in public opinion polls, cost nothing. But why bother paying the costs of actually implementing the two-state solution if it already exists de facto? An Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, a prerequisite for a Palestinian state there, mandates the relocation of tens of thousands of resistant settlers, who could disrupt public order and even turn to violence. It also means that the Israeli military would have to cede control of hills overlooking Israeli population centers and an international airport, exposing them to Palestinian militants' rocket fire and suicide bombers.

Under these circumstances, changing the status quo is hardly appealing, for better or for worse.


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