Thursday, September 15, 2016

Call Bibi's Bluff

On Friday, September 9, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu posted a short video on YouTube entitled "No Jews." In it, he asks why the presence of Jews on the West Bank (he uses the nomenclature preferred by Gush Emunim settlers, "Judea Samaria") should be considered an obstacle to peace, and accuses Palestinian leaders of pursuing "ethnic cleansing." He compares the Jews living in the Occupied Territory to Arabs living in Israel, noting that "no one would seriously claim that the nearly two million Arabs living inside Israel [are] an obstacle to peace." The implicit rhetorical question is superficially persuasive: if Israel does not require that two million Arabs depart its borders, why would the Palestinian Authority need the 400,000 Jews living in the West Bank to relocate?

This rhetorical question of course overlooks the most salient comparison to be made between Arabs living in Israel and Jews living in the West Bank: they are all citizens of Israel. They thus are all enfranchised to participate in the political affairs of a sovereign nation, unlike the Arab residents of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Netanyahu's short diatribe thus elides the heart of the issue. West Bank settlers are not a problem chiefly because they threaten peace, but because they obstruct Palestinian sovereignty (in a way that Israeli Arabs do not, in Israel's case). In this latter respect it is not the fact that they are Jews which is at issue, but the fact that they are the citizens of a sovereign power that does not formally lay claim to or accept ultimate responsibility for the land on which or the people among whom they live. 

To dwell on the faultiness of Netanyahu's reasoning, however, is to fall into the rhetorical trap that he clearly wishes to set. He expects that all of his political opponents, on hearing his glib and audaciously specious pronouncements, will become apoplectic in voicing the reasons why Jews must of course depart the Occupied Territories. He knows that the aesthetics of this exchange favor him. No one looks good when calling for the expulsion of Jews, especially when those calls are fueled by indignation over the mendacity of one's interlocutor.

In making this rather brilliantly Trumpesque rhetorical sally, however, Netanyahu has inadvertently set a trap for himself much more ironclad than any he has laid out for his opponents. If he seriously, in his position as Prime Minister of Israel, wants to lay down a marker committing the Israeli state to the moral imperative of allowing Jewish settlers to remain on the West Bank, the international community should call his bluff. If forcing Jews to leave the West Bank would be ethnic cleansing, then all world leaders, those of Israel included, should feel compelled to do whatever is necessary to let them stay. 

In this regard, who can doubt that the most egregious motivator of ethnic cleansing on the West Bank today is the de facto state of apartheid driving a wedge between its Jewish and Arab residents? If the world hopes to prevent ethnic cleansing, nothing is more imperative than the immediate establishment of Palestinian statehood. Only when Jews and Arabs on the West Bank are all citizens enjoying a sovereign franchise will the risk of ethnic cleansing be averted.

There is no reason that Jews could not continue to live in that future Palestinian state, either as naturalized citizens or as resident aliens holding permits from their host government. As long as they remained law-abiding and paid taxes into the Palestinian fisc, then as Netanyahu suggests they ought to be welcome. Pragmatically such a plan would face challenges. The residents of Ofer might violently oppose living in any state that is not the holy Jewish kingdom they envision, and radicals on the Palestinian side might try to attack their Jewish neighbors in order to incite an Israeli-Palestinian war. But the idea that four million Palestinians must be kept forever stateless and disenfranchised in order to accommodate the comfort and preferences of 400,000 Jews is as ridiculous as asserting that....well, as asserting that ethnic cleansing is the only path to peace.

If Bibi insists that the relocation of Jews living in the Occupied Territories would be ethnic cleansing, then let him put his money where his mouth is. Let Israel commit the political and economic capital needed to avert such a moral outrage. With sufficient funds and human resources, Israel could facilitate the safety and security of the Israeli residents of the West Bank in the wake of occupation. Palestinian statehood now! It is the only way to avert the catastrophe of ethnic cleansing against which Prime Minister Netanyahu so sagely warns us.

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