Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Zalman Shoval/ Israel is not the obstacle

(Zalman Shoval-IsraelHayom).About two weeks ago, at a comprehensive government meeting, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivered a significant political speech that, for some reason, did not resonate much in the press, despite the fact that its importance surpasses that of the speech he gave at Bar Ilan University in 2009 -- or at least completes it.

“The disagreement over how many Jews and how many Palestinians will live between the sea and the Jordan River is irrelevant, and it doesn't matter if there are half a million Palestinians more or less, because I have no desire to annex them to Israel,” Netanyahu was reported as saying. “I want to separate from them so that they will not become Israeli citizens. I am interested in maintaining a solid Jewish majority inside the state of Israel, within its borders, however they are defined.”

If these quotes are accurate and reflect the prime minister's fundamental beliefs, they are subject to multiple interpretations. Yet the common denominator remains that a majority of land inside the West Bank -- and certainly the areas populated mainly by Arabs -- will not be a part of Israel in the future. As I said, these remarks don't necessarily point to one conclusion. The comment, “I have no desire to annex them [the Palestinians] to Israel,” may mean a return to Menachem Begin's idea of an administrative autonomy for Palestinians in the West Bank without the annexation of land, or it may refer to future agreements with King Abdullah of Jordan, or even a continuation of the status quo. It is clear that the option of a Palestinian state exists as well, and there are some who will say that this is the preferred option.

Yet from a practical standpoint, the main obstacle to establishing a functioning Palestinian state is not Israel, and certainly not the Jewish settlements within the “territories.” The problem lies in the basic fact that the millions of Arabs who call themselves Palestinians do not, in fact, have the attributes of a real nation. Contrary to the Jewish people, who maintained their character during nearly 2,000 years of dispersal among other nations, the Arabs living in Israel are basically various tribes with individual and sometimes conflicting interests. As experience has shown, it is hard to view them as a unified group capable of maintaining a sovereign society.

The interests of people living in Hebron are different from the interests of people living in Nablus, and certainly from those of people living in Gaza. The one person who understands this best is Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who seems to prefer symbolic declarations at the United Nations over concrete negotiations with Israel, which would force him to face difficult decisions, including ones on the intra-Palestinian front.

Israel obviously has its own interests and cannot ignore the Palestinian problems at its doorstep. Netanyahu's speech sent a clear message to the Palestinians: You can decide your future, but you cannot decide ours. In other words, our goal is to ensure the future of Israel on all fronts: national, security, Jewish, democratic, and demographic. If the Palestinians refuse to negotiate, we can unilaterally ensure the future of the state. Metropolitan Jerusalem and settlement blocs will remain under Israeli sovereignty, and an effective Israeli presence will remain in the Jordan Valley.

It is in Israel's interest to cooperate as much as possible with the United States, despite the occasional unhelpful speech or disturbing remark from U.S. President Barack Obama. As Elliott Abrams, one of former U.S. President George W. Bush's top Middle East advisers, has pointed out, Obama's comments in his first speech about returning to the 1967 lines with agreed-upon territorial exchanges were not particularly useful, because this formula would force Israel to give its own sovereign territory to the Palestinians in exchange for the Western Wall.

Obama's envoy, Dennis Ross, recently visited Israel and apparently made some suggestions as to how to bridge the differences of opinion between Washington and Jerusalem. The winning formula has yet to be determined, but quiet contacts continue. We can only hope that the solution will be found in coming weeks by means of a joint intellectual effort. Netanyahu's speech can help achieve that goal.