Shira Herzog
Globe and Mail
August 13, 2010 - 12:00am

New winds seem to be blowing in Israel’s right wing. Prominent voices opposed to relinquishing the West Bank and Jewish settlements are calling instead for its annexation, with citizenship for Palestinians living there. On the face of it, this sounds virtuously democratic. But the right has no intention of abandoning its vision of a Jewish state in expanded territory. What’s being proposed is neither practical nor intellectually honest.

Israel’s 7.5 million residents already include nearly one million Palestinian citizens. Palestinian numbers are debated, but incorporating the West Bank and East Jerusalem would mean the addition of close to three million more and a narrower Jewish majority. Israeli support for a two-state resolution of its conflict with the Palestinians is largely based on this demographic imperative. If Israel wants to remain a democracy, maintain a Jewish majority and be a homeland for the Jewish people, it can’t possibly become a single binational state. (This underpins the reluctance of all Israeli governments to annex territories captured in 1967.)

In spite of this, Knesset speaker Reuven Rivlin, former Likud defence minister Moshe Arens and former Settlers’ Council chair Uri Elizur believe that evacuating settlements and an unstable Palestinian state alongside Israel are worse than the risk of incorporating an even larger Palestinian minority in a Jewish state.

The Israeli right has espoused annexation since 1967 but wouldn’t face up to its underlying weakness – the demographic issue and its impact on Israel’s democracy. These prominent voices now publicly admit that the occupation is untenable and propose a deceptively different take on the people living there without abandoning the territories. They’re responding to, and taking advantage of, recent unrelated developments. Israelis generally doubt negotiations will lead to a realistic deal that can satisfy both sides. The 2000 breakdown of the Oslo process and skepticism about Palestinian willingness to accept Israel are fuelled by the Palestinian Authority’s weak leadership and the Fatah-Hamas split. On the other hand, increasingly harsh international criticism of Israel’s West Bank and Gaza policies and concern that Israel’s overall legitimacy is questioned make it impossible to ignore the issue of Palestinian rights.

Finally, Hamas’s 2007 takeover of Gaza and the area’s subsequent separation from the West Bank reduce the number of Palestinians to be annexed and the attendant demographic risk. Annexationists now conveniently leave Gaza out of their equation because they know that once Gaza’s 1.5 million Palestinians are added to the formula above, Israel quickly loses its Jewish majority.

So the new, one-state version rides the wave of public uncertainty, responds to Israel’s critics and is less foreboding in its numbers – at least that’s how it appears.

These annexationists are honest in admitting the status quo is unacceptable, but otherwise, their position is filled with holes. Pragmatically, Gaza can’t be left out of the equation and the Palestinian diaspora can’t be ignored. (The two-state paradigm would offer Palestinian refugees the “right of return” to the Palestinian state, just as Jews have a “right of return” to Israel.) More importantly, the new annexationist stance is inherently flawed. It’s committed to preserving Israel’s Jewish character and majority, but by annexing even the West Bank alone, adds enough people to undermine these very qualities. None of its proponents suggest granting citizenship and voting rights to Palestinians in anything less than a generation – which adds up to no democracy at all. And none of them acknowledge Palestinian national and collective rights. Renowned political scientist Shlomo Avineri decries this “lie at the heart of the right’s truth.” He warns that Israel isn’t an apartheid state today, but that’s where this one-state vision still leads.

Even on the right, there’s reluctance to accept the new ideas. The settlers’ council is focused on ending the freeze on settlement construction next month and, when pressed, its leaders say that continuing the status quo for decades is the least of available evils. This is certainly wishful thinking. Soul-searching on the ideological right has long been required but the new annexationists who draw on Israelis’ uneasiness don’t provide a genuine alternative. Jews and Palestinians both deserve a homeland and the only way to get there is with two states, imperfect though that approach may be.


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