By: Daniel Edelstein
When people go against the two-state paradigm of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they’re often dismissed as “fringe.” This is due to supposedly ignoring the elephant in the room; namely, demographics. The assumption is most Israelis do not want to live in a 50/50 demographic split, as it will undermine Israel’s Jewish character, is unrealistic to sustain, and/or will result in official apartheid. In the one-state model, there are also assumptions of Gaza being annexed, as well as the return of all UN-classified refugees.
But these are false dichotomies. There are ways to have a solution which results in no apartheid, and does not either result in the mitigation of a Jewish majority. In any case, the current trend appears to be headed down a one state in the form of East Jerusalem and the West Bank. But if annexation formally occurs in the future, the math still favors a significant Jewish majority.
There are currently 6 million Jews and 1.5 million Arabs in Israel Proper. There are 1.7 million Palestinians in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. That means that if East Jerusalem and the West Bank are annexed, there will be 6 million Jews and 3.2 million Arabs in Israel. Consider that recent statistics show the Jewish birthrate growing higher than the Arab one, as well as the occurrence of gradual but steady Aliyah. With these factors at play, a Jewish majority is not in jeopardy.
There are two issues which remains to be discussed, however: Gaza, and UN-classified refugees.
In the case of Gaza, it goes without saying that the current military siege is unsustainable. That is not to advocate for its removal in the imminent future, nor to underplay the history which has led to its necessity. But this, like the aforementioned annexation proposal, is an abstract framework. In any case, should Hamas ever be destroyed, or the Gazan people internally transform the Gaza Strip, there are hopeful perspectives for the region which does not include being part of Israel or a unified Palestine. The often-touted notion of Gaza being the “Singapore of the Middle East” is not at all unrealistic. Consider that the area of Singapore is 277.6 mi² with a population of 5.399 million. In contrast, Gaza has an area of 140.9 mi² with a population of only 1.816 population. Proportionally, that means Singapore has around 3 times the population, but only double the land space.
Economically, Gaza has great potential as well. Before the Israeli disengagement from Gaza in 2005, 21 of the Israeli settlements had greenhouses spreading over 1,000 acres. Unfortunately, half of these greenhouses were dismantled by the Jewish evacuees, and the other half were looted by Palestinians following the disengagement. Moreover, settler homes were ordered to be bulldozed under international law, rather than being left over for usage. The withdrawal also occurred rather swiftly, which led to the undermining of the already-weak Palestinian Authority, and the subsequent rise of Hamas. Nonetheless, if Gazan society experiences order in the future, there is potential for a strong agrarian, fishing, and even market economy.
Finally, getting to the Palestinian refugee issue. To start off, it is important to distinguish between the living refugees of 1948 and the refugee population as defined by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine (UNRWA). The former is merely 30,000-50,000 people; the latter, which includes all descendants of the original 711,000 refugees, numbers over 5 million. Also of worthy note is that that Palestinian refugees are the only refugees in the world whose refugee status extends to succeeding generations. According to most Israelis on all sides of the political spectrum, the original refugees still alive should be granted right of return.
However, the primary issue kicks in when discussing the UNRWA categorization of refugees. Most negotiators working off the mainstream paradigm of a two-state solution speak of a “fair and realistic solution” to the issue of Palestinian refugees. In practical formulation, this will usually translate to something along the lines of return to original location for first-generation refugees, and return to the future Palestinian State for subsequent generations (even if their ancestors’ residency is in Israel Proper). This is in order to preserve the Jewish identity of the country.
Admittedly, it is on the Palestinian refugee question where the two-state solution has a more realistic outcome than the one-state. Under the two-state model, Palestinians can return to their nation-state without compromising the Jewish nature of Israel. Of course there are adamant BDS activists who not only call for redressing of all UNRWA refugees, but also granting them the right of return to their original locale. From their perspective, if this would undermine Israel’s Jewish demographic, then so be it. However, most of the Western world who spearhead international diplomacy recognize that a Palestinian State alongside a Palestinian-majority Israel will end in the dissolution of Israel at the least, and outright chaos and war at most. Thus, it can be said fairly safely that a return of all UNRWA refugees to their original homes would not be considered a realistic policy to enforce. This leads back to square one, where the two-state paradigm offers a fairly comprehensive solution, and one which is arguably more preferred by Palestinians than returning to Israel Proper. In contrast, the one-state model narrows the scope of relocation to the Gaza Strip.
It is important to note, though, that relocation to Gaza is indeed possible. Out of the 5 million or so UNRWA refugees, it is not at all unreasonable to suggest more than half would not opt to relocate (irrespective of which of the aforementioned resettlement plans). After all, people become accustomed to their day-to-day lives. Not everyone can just pack up and leave their jobs and communities. However, there is reason to believe the proportion of people who would opt to return is much higher than other demographics due to a combination of reasons. This includes the systematic perpetuation of refugee status among Palestinians in contrast to other historical refugees. For instance, most Holocaust survivors’ descendants are well assimilated into their host countries, and those countries so happen to be developed.
With Palestinians, not only are many not well assimilated into their host countries, but those counties are often underdeveloped (Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, etc.). That, coupled with a strong nationalistic yearning (often deliberately kindled by nation-states and international actors with an agenda), is reason to believe that the percentage that would opt to return could be quite high. Nonetheless, it goes without saying that a fair number would not return. With the growth of many city-states such as Singapore and Honk-Kong, it is not preposterous to suggest that an area as small as Gaza could incorporate them.
Still, one cannot call it unreasonable to object to such arrangements. Indeed, it would be overly generous from the Palestinian side to agree to this. While that may be so, it is only so from the narrative which presumes refugee rights past the first generation. As mentioned before, Palestinian refugees are the sole refugee demographic to whom such standards apply. This double standard is not coincidental, nor is it based on unique situational factors; rather, this policy is a well-orchestrated ploy facilitated by Arab nations and their allies to undermine Israel. (The same can be said about the double standard in UN condemnations focused disproportionately on Israel.)
In addition to this, several other factors need to be taken into account. One such factor is the effective “population exchange” which occurred with Jews from Arab nations and Palestinians. Roughly an equivalent amount of Palestinians and Arab Jews were expelled and/or preemptively fled their homeland. A qualifier to this premise is to note that many Arab countries who lost their Jewish populations do not have substantial Palestinian residents, but there are nonetheless hundreds of thousands in Egypt, Syria, and Lebanon — all nations with formerly substantial Jewish populations.
Moreover, Jordan, which hosts the majority of Palestinian refugees, has a Palestinian majority. To Jordan’s credit, they have done the most to naturalize their Palestinian population in comparison to other Arab nations. In spite of this, there are 634,182 Palestinian-descendant Jordanians who do not hold citizenship. This is because Jordan naturalized all ’48 refugees, but was more hesitant to extend the same courtesy to ’67 refugees. The reason for this may in part be due to fear from the Hashemite minority who rules Jordan that a too-large Palestinian presence can undermine their leadership. In any case, it would be beneficial for the UN to pressure Arab nations to more fully incorporate their Palestinian population, in the same way that Israel incorporated expelled Jews and the Western world attempts to incorporate other refugees.
Another factor to remember is that wars have happened from time immemorial, particularly in the last century. Hardly any nation has fully compensated displaced peoples, least of all after one generation and/or when allowing full return would undermine the demographics of the existing country. Not only do both of these factors apply to Israel, but Israel was not the undisputed aggressor (in contrast to, say, Nazi expulsion of Jews from Europe). While Palestinian advocates will argue that it is was not unreasonable for the Arab world to take up arms in response to the agenda of creating a Jewish homeland in Palestine — and they are entitled to that view — the fact is that when Israel declared independence in 1948, the attacking army knew full well that they could lose and suffer the repercussions. Indeed, that is what happened, and the unfortunate collateral of that decision were refugees (who either preemptively fled the war, were expelled, or were told by the conquering Arab armies to leave and return afterwards). War is not pretty, and the results do not always jibe with everyone’s preference.
Ultimately, there is no absolutely “clean” solution. Every proposal, including the one being argued here, has issues. With a two-state solution, the benefits include a better solution for Palestinian refugees, the ability for Palestinian sovereignty, the support of the international community, and precedent. However, if history and contemporary politics have taught us anything, ideal solutions often are not feasible. This in turn results in the dismissal of alternative, yet far more viable solutions. In the case of Israel, the presence of hundreds of thousands of settlers in the West Bank, the security threat of pulling out forces from the hills of the West Bank, and the uncompromising sanctity of East Jerusalem to the Jewish people makes the UN-lauded solution highly unrealistic. In contrast, annexing the West Bank and East Jerusalem does not require any displacement, will not compromise the Jewish identity of Israel, will satisfy the religious yearnings of many Jews, and would arguably lead to a far higher standard of living for Palestinians.
We are ingrained in the contemporary notion of the sovereign nation-state as the ultimate culmination of cultural independence, but this is a very limited perspective of freedom. While Israeli Arabs by no means have it perfect, and are arguably unofficially “ignored” in Israeli society, the fact still remains that they have the highest level of social, economic, and political agency in the Arab world. It is also very reasonable to project that a Palestinian state would hardly be pluralistic and free, but would rather either look like Gaza 2.0, or else a more moderate, yet unfree country — something akin to Jordan. Decisions are not easy to make, and when addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, often people would rather remain fixated in unrealistic ideals as opposed to coming together and working on a realistic solution which could produce genuine utility for all involved.