Bradley Burston
Haaretz (Opinion)
March 28, 2012 - 12:00am

A beleaguered Democratic president, beset by an unpopular war overseas and raging polarization at home, clamps heavy pressure on Israel to make a dramatic gesture over the future of the West Bank.

Israel's cabinet convenes to discuss the White House initiative. A minister-without-portfolio, less than three months in his first cabinet post, asks for the floor. He has a proposal regarding the Palestinians of the West Bank: Offer them citizenship and the right to vote.

Under the plan, "If an Arab from Shehem (Nablus) wants to become a citizen of the state of Israel, he's entitled," the minister says.

"We want a Jewish state with a large Arab minority. So what do we need to do? First of all, we're capable of keeping a Jewish majority.

"Of course, if that majority were to break down, our situation would be a bitter one. We are not South Africa, nor Rhodesia," he declared. "The Jewish minority will not rule over Arabs.

The date is August 20, 1967. The minister is Menachem Begin.

The minutes of the cabinet meeting are classified Top Secret and kept under wraps for 44 years.

There is something fitting about the timing of the release of the transcripts, declassified in recent weeks at the request of former senior Begin aide Prof. Aryeh Naor for a book he is completing about the late prime minister.

At this, the anniversary of the Arab Spring, there has been something of a Jewish Spring in rethinking the future of Israel and its relationship to the Palestinians, the Mideast, and the Jewish people.

Peter Beinart's very public and also very personal act of biur hametz, his call in The New York Times for a targeted boycott against settlements, has spurred many Jews to re-examine and re-define their own positions with respect to Israel and the territories.

The AIPAC conference's laser focus on the Iran issue has, paradoxically or not, encouraged a widening debate over the necessity and the wisdom of calls for pre-emptive strikes on Tehran's nuclear sites.

And in an essay which is as revolutionary as it is calmly argued, Noam Sheizaf, editor of the online +972 Magazine, manages the impossible: explaining Israelis to Israelis.

Sheizaf's thesis: The status quo of an occupying Israel - inherently immoral as even some rightists now acknowledge - "represents the most desirable political option for Israelis." Regardless of developments on the Palestinian side, for Israelis, "keeping things as they are will remain preferable to the alternatives of either pulling out of the West Bank or to annexing it."

Sheizaf stirred wide debate in 2010 with an article in Haaretz that quoted a string of prominent Israeli hard-liners advocating versions of what Menachem Begin appeared to be suggesting in 1967. One of them, columnist Emily Amrousi, who lives in a settlement and promotes dialogue between settlers and Palestinians, told Sheizaf that the status quo must change "because it's really not moral. It's impossible to go on like this, with a situation in which my Palestinian neighbors have to cross three checkpoints to get from one village to another - we can't go on accepting this."

Admittedly, across the political spectrum, the citizenship concept is much easier to dismiss than to seriously consider, as are other alternatives, such as a Palestinian-Israeli confederation, possibly including Jordan as well.

There is no denying, however, that settlement construction, Palestinian disunity, and other factors are fast rendering the two-state concept impracticable. I say this with profound regret, as someone who still believes that two independent states would provide Israelis and Palestinians with their best chance for a future of freedom, justice, security and well-being.

A new reality is already in place, however. There are children being born who constitute the third generation of West Bank settlements.

When Begin addressed the cabinet in 1967, he outlined the concept of a "bi-ethnic" state, allowing both Jews and Arabs to develop as culturally distinctive peoples, and ruled by the majority, rather than a bi-national state with power shared equally, regardless of the numerical majority or minority.

In contrast with a bi-national state, "We have never ruled out a bi-ethnic state, and the difference is crucial," Begin said. "Zionism, as I have known it, has never viewed the state as mono-ethnic."

Even as I look into Begin's proposal, which raises more questions, and suspicions, than it answers, I can feel another, deeper response welling up. Fear. The same fear that keeps Israelis, this one included, from fully committing to a substantive change in an intolerable reality.

"If every path seems to reach an impasse," Sheizaf quoted former Netanyahu chief of staff Uri Elitzur, a fierce, even radical rightist and also an early advocate of citizenship for Palestinians, as writing, "usually the right path is one that was never even considered, the one that is universally acknowledged to be unacceptable, taboo."

The rule of fear is the underpinning, the psychic secret police, of the dictatorship of the status quo. To use Begin's word, we are all n'tinim, subjects, of the rule of fear.

In another week, it will be Pesach. The enemy of fear. Time to cast out the chametz, which is everything we put up and hoard and refuse to part with and acquire and consume too much of, as our insulation against everything that scares us. Ideas included.

Time to burn it. Time to burn what we are so comfortable believing, knowing to be true.

It's Spring. Time to start again. Time to think again, to leave behind what we know. Time to hit the road. Even if we can see that the route leads between gigantic, threatening walls, with nothing visible holding them from falling in on us, drowning us, annihilating us. Nothing, that is, but faith and a willingness to try something we hadn’t, until now, considered.


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