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Friedman: Status Quo Implies the End of Israel as a Jewish Democracy


The New York Times, Jerusalem, Jan. 15, 2003

You can understand everything you need to know about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict today through a simple math equation offered by Danny Rubinstein, the Haaretz newspaper's Palestinian affairs expert. The equation goes like this: Suppose Israel discovers that 10 Palestinians from Nablus are planning suicide attacks. Israel says: If we can kill at least two, that will be progress, because only eight will be left. The Palestinians, by contrast, say: If you kill two, four more will volunteer to take their places, and you will be left with 12. So for Israel 10 minus 2 is 8, and for the Palestinians 10 minus 2 is 12.

And that explains why Ariel Sharon's all-stick-no-carrot crackdown over the past two years has failed to improve security for Israelis. When Mr. Sharon succeeded Ehud Barak, roughly 50 Israelis had been killed in the Palestinian uprising; today the number is more than 700 Israelis dead, and over 2,000 Palestinians. When I asked an Israeli defense official why all the killings and arrests of Palestinians had had so little effect, the official said: 'It's like we're mowing the grass. You mow the lawn one day and the next day the grass just grows right back.' Then why is Mr. Sharon still likely to win the upcoming Israeli election? Two reasons.

First, because as futile as the Sharon strategy has been, the Palestinian strategy has been even worse. The Palestinians still act as if they believe they can get more out of Israel by making Israelis feel insecure rather than by making them feel secure. After a while, you can't call this a mistake. After a while, you have to ask whether it reflects a conviction that a thriving Jewish presence in the middle of the Islamic world is simply not acceptable to them. Sure, the only thing Mr. Sharon knows how to do is cut the grass. But the only thing Yasir Arafat knows how to do is grow the grass - to sacrifice one generation of Palestinians after another to the fantasy of a return to all of Palestine.

The second is the failure of Israel's Labor party to develop an alternative to the Sharon policy. The problem for the Labor candidate, Amram Mitzna, an enormously decent former West Bank commander, is not that he is advocating what 70 percent of Israelis want - separation from the Palestinians and giving up most of the settlements. Rather it is that he has not persuaded Israelis, on a gut level, that he and his party are tough enough to bring this about in a safe way.

As a Haaretz essayist, Ari Shavit, explained: 'I compare it to open-heart surgery. Israelis know that if we don't do it, if we don't separate, we will die. But if we do it in a rushed or messy way, we will also die. So when Mitzna calls for separation, 70 percent of Israel agrees. But when he says he is ready to do it unilaterally, if necessary, or to negotiate with Arafat, or even to negotiate under fire while the Intifada goes on, most people refuse to go along. It feels wrong to them in their guts. So they want a left-wing surgery to be carried out by a right-wing doctor. The problem is, Sharon won't carry out that surgery. He is so committed to the settlements that he built, he appears to be paralyzed.'

Indeed, Mr. Sharon benefits from the people's desire to see him implement the Mitzna separation. But instead of really trying to do that, Mr. Sharon manipulates the public's fears to stay in power and maintain the settlements - while winking to the Americans that one day he will really make a deal. As a result of all this, the conflict is entering a terrible new phase: the beginning of the end of the two-state solution. Under Mr. Sharon, the Jewish settlers have expanded existing settlements in the West Bank and also set up scores of illegal ones. The settlers want to ensure either the de facto or de jure Israeli annexation of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. And with no credible Arab or Palestinian peace initiative to challenge them, and no pressure from the Bush team, and no Israeli party to implement separation, the settlers are winning by default and inertia. Winning means they are making separation impossible.

But if there is no separation, by 2010 there will be more Palestinians than Jews living in Israel and the occupied territories. Then Israel will have three options: The Israelis will control this whole area by apartheid, or they will control it by expelling Palestinians, or they will grant Palestinians the right to vote and it will no longer be a Jewish state. Whichever way it goes, it will mean the end of Israel as a Jewish democracy.