Daniel Levy
The New York Times (Opinion)
September 11, 2012 - 12:00am

SEVEN years ago today, the Israeli flag was lowered over the Gaza Strip after approximately 7,500 Israeli settlers left or were forcibly removed.

We cannot know with certainty what Ariel Sharon, Israel’s prime minister at the time and the architect of the Gaza disengagement, had in mind: A dramatic step toward peace? The first of several removals of Israeli settlements from Palestinian land? Or a tactical and minimalist retreat — giving a little (Gaza) to keep a lot (the West Bank)?

One thing is clear: The years from 2005 to 2012 have been seven decidedly lean ones for peacemaking and withdrawal and seven gluttonously fat ones for entrenching Israel’s occupation and settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. In these areas, almost 94,000 new settlers have been added since 2005, some settler outposts have been legalized and thousands of Palestinians have been displaced.

In the Book of Genesis, Joseph is called on to interpret Pharaoh’s dream of seven fat cattle followed by seven emaciated cattle emerging from the river. He tells Pharaoh that seven years of plenty will be followed by seven years of famine — and to gather the necessary grain to see Egypt through the lean years.

But in interpreting the seven lean years of peacemaking, we can forget dreams and dream-readers. One need only look at how the Gaza withdrawal has reshaped debate within Israel’s dominant political bloc, the right-nationalist-religious camp — call it the rise of Israel’s 1.5 percent doctrine.

In terms of land mass, the Gaza Strip encompasses just under 1.5 percent of the total area of British Mandate-era Palestine, (or “Greater Israel” as the settlers like to call it). However, that same tiny area is today home to approximately 1.7 million Palestinians, or over a quarter of the total Palestinian population between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. So, in divesting itself of just 1.5 percent of the land, Israel significantly recalibrated the so-called “demographic equation” (the ratio of Jews to Arabs in the area under its control).

The 1.5 percent doctrine paves the way to permanent Israeli control of 98.5 percent of the land. West Bank Palestinians can either join their left-behind-in-1948 confreres as second-class citizens in an enlarged Jewish state or continue their stateless existence in insecure and disconnected enclaves of limited autonomy, a kind of Bantustan status.

Meanwhile the inhabitants of the forgotten 1.5 percent, Gazans, remain isolated in an area that a recent United Nations report concluded might not be “a liveable place” by 2020.

Maybe this is all just a bad dream and there is no such thing as a 1.5 percent doctrine. Perhaps leadership changes, security escalations and recent upheavals in the Arab world are to blame. The post-withdrawal rocket fire from Gaza onto civilian areas in southern Israel is a frequent explanation for the lack of progress. And it’s true that these occasional attacks are inexcusable and a violation of international law (as are many of Israel’s responses and its own military provocations).

But the bigger picture is characterized by a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas-run Gaza and by strong security cooperation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority-run areas of the West Bank. Even accounting for the continuing rivalry between the Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas, Israel could have handed the West Bank over to the Palestinian Authority’s unthreatening current leaders.

The debate within Israel today is in a very different place from where most outside observers think it is. Despite vehemently opposing the Gaza withdrawal, elements on Israel’s right belatedly came to see a dramatic opportunity arising from it. A constant problem with their Greater Israel ideology was that the area simply contained too many Arabs — losing on demography has always been a far scarier prospect for many Israelis than sacrificing democracy. Dropping Gaza — the 1.5 percent doctrine — went a long way toward fixing that problem. Indeed, some Israeli demographers also claim that there are one million fewer West Bank Palestinians than appear in official American and United Nations statistics.

New dividing lines have emerged within Israel’s ruling elites, and the disagreements do not revolve around the details or timing of cutting a peace deal with Mahmoud Abbas. There are three competing tendencies within Israel’s ruling coalition: annexationists (who want to formally take over the West Bank), status quo merchants (who wink at the notion of two states while expanding settlements), and Bantustan two-staters (who want the Palestinians to accept 50 percent of the West Bank as constituting a state).

A growing number of rightist leaders — parliamentarians, rabbis, prominent settlers — are openly advocating “Greater Israel,” their version of a one-state solution. Openly discussing such full annexation of the West Bank is a relatively new phenomenon in Israeli politics — and sans Gaza, it resonates.

That Israel will never live in peace and security with the Palestinians or the wider Arab and Muslim world under such terms doesn’t seem to matter. Forty-five years of Israeli impunity as settlements metastasized in defiance of international law has bred an understandable sense of invincibility. Add to that mix the emaciated state of liberal Israeli politics, the messianic orientation that infuses religious nationalism and the catastrophism endemic to much Zionist thinking — and the seven lean years look set to continue. But don’t be under any illusions; such injustice will not be sustainable.

The famine predicted in Pharaoh’s dream was averted by Joseph’s cunning plans. But no plan yet exists to avert more lean years ahead for Palestinians and Israelis who value universal rights, democracy and freedom.

The choices are stark. Either Israel takes bold and urgent action to reverse the 1.5 percent doctrine by getting out of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, or it acknowledges that the doctrine has triumphed and embraces a democratic solution that moves beyond the classic two-state paradigm and guarantees full and equal rights for all residents in some form of confederation or unitary state.

Daniel Levy directs the Middle East and North Africa program at the European Council on Foreign Relations and is a fellow at the New America Foundation.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017