Glenn Kessler
The Washington Post
February 7, 2011 - 1:00am

"There are vast amounts of territory that are in the hands of Muslims, in the hands of Arabs. Maybe the international community can come together and accommodate" the Palestinians

Once and possibly future GOP presidential candidate Mike Huckabee visited Israel last week. A hallmark of many politicians running for president is expressing support for symbolic measures that hold deep meaning for various ethnic or religious groups. One typical example is promising to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, Israel's capital. The State Department maintains the embassy in Tel Aviv because the status of Jerusalem is still in dispute, but Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama all pledged to move it--only to abandon the promise once they took office. Huckabee also supported moving the embassy during his visit. But he also went further and said the Palestinians should not get any land on the West Bank--what Israelis call Judea and Samaria--for a Palestinian state. Instead, he suggested, Arabs should carve out a Palestinian state out of Arab lands, somewhere in the Middle East. How workable is this idea?

The Facts

The first part of Huckabee's statement is factually correct--virtually all of the Middle East is occupied by Arab Muslims--but his proposal is completely unrealistic. If an American president were to formally propose such an idea, it would spark outrage throughout the Muslim world. It might even start a war.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has lasted for more than six decades because of two conflicting narratives--Jewish claims that they have roots in the land dating back 3,500 years and Palestinian claims that they, not the Jews, are the descendants of all previous inhabitants and that Judaism is just a religion, not a title to land. Such deeply felt beliefs are almost impossible to bridge--and wading into the middle of the dispute only causes problems for a politicians. President Obama, for instance, got in some trouble in Israel when, during his 2009 Cairo speech, he attributed the "aspiration for a Jewish homeland" to the Holocaust.

Ever since the 1967 Six-Day war, international diplomacy has sought to resolve the conflict through the concept of "land for peace," which is also enshrined in United Nations Security Council Resolution 242. That resolution ultimately was accepted by all of the main parties to the conflict, including Israel, Israel's neighbors and the Palestinian Liberation Organization.

From the perspective of Palestinians, they have already given up a substantial portion of what they consider their homeland. Palestinian negotiating maps frequently note that they are negotiating with Israel over just the remaining one-quarter of what they consider historic Palestine. (Israelis, of course, would differ with the math.) Huckabee proposes that more than 2 million Palestinians would now leave the West Bank as well for some other part of the Arab world. (We asked a Huckabee spokesman if the former governor also wanted the Palestinians to give up the tiny Gaza Strip, where an additional 1.5 million Palestinians live, but did not get an answer.)

There are some Israelis who have touted what is called "the Jordanian option," under which Jordan would become the Palestinian state. A substantial portion of Jordan's population, after all, is Palestinian, though most consider themselves refugees with a claim on property in Israel. But Jordan has adamantly rejected this idea and Israel's peace treaty with Amman is a core part of its security. Daniel Levy, a former Israeli peace negotiator now at the New America Foundation in Washington, said "it is considered such a wacko position in Israel that it basically does not make it into any mainstream polling whatsoever."

Speaking of polling, a key reason for a politician to pander to ethnic or religious groups is because the stance will help win votes. But there is substantial support within the Jewish community--and in Israel--for the creation of a Palestinian state on the West Bank, as long as it is demilitarized. Various surveys show that between 54 percent and 64 percent of Israelis Jews support the creation of a Palestinian state, with about 30 percent opposed. Among American Jews, 48 percent favor the establishment of a Palestinian state and 45 percent oppose the idea, according to a recent American Jewish Committee survey. Still, it raises the question of how many Jewish votes Huckabee would attract with his proposal.

In the Arab world, the idea would be a nonstarter and probably be considered deeply offensive. Sixty years after Israel's founding, its existence is still not recognized by all but two Arab countries. Which Arab country or countries would give up land in order to resettle more than 4 million Palestinians?


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