In Israel’s primary schools, the number of Arab Israeli children plus that of those of ultra-orthodox Jews may already have reached over half the total: in other words, the children of Zionists may already be in a minority within Israel itself. This is a dramatic illustration of a general truth – that Israel has never attracted enough Jews who believe in the Zionist project to secure the state’s future. It is hard to see, looking at these demographic trends, how Israel can survive, at least in its present form.
The calculations for Israel plus those for the West Bank and Gaza – in other words, for what should on paper be a Palestinian state – are even more discouraging for those of a Zionist bent. According to Bernard Wasserstein, the Jewish population of Israel is some 5.2 million: if the number of Arab Israelis (Palestinians with Israeli citizenship, if you prefer), about 1.3 million, is added to the number of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, one reaches a total of 4.7 million. Sergio DellaPergola, a leading Israeli demographer, claims that they may fall below the 50 per cent mark in this entire area by 2020.
Israel therefore faces a choice over how to deal with the Palestinians on the West Bank. It can either give them the same rights within one polity as Israelis themselves, in which case Israel will not be Jewish for very long (let alone Zionist); or it can withhold these rights, as at present, in which case Israel will no longer be democratic for very long. This is the country’s Catch 22. It is therefore very much in Israel’s own interest to cut a deal with the West Bank Palestinians (it being impossible to cut one with those in Gaza while Hamas is still in charge there in its present frame of mind). Israel’s own self-preservation, as well as the claims of justice, point to a two-state solution.
To which many Israelis will reply that it isn’t as though they haven’t tried – citing Arafat’s obstinacy at Taba, for example, which seems to have persuaded many of them that negotiations will always be fruitless. But there is another way of looking at what Moshe Dayan once called “the facts on the ground”. In a nutshell, there is no evidence that any Israeli Government has ever been willing to stop the settlements on the West Bank. And in the case of Benjamin Netanyahu, there is little to suggest that he wants to. Their increase goes on over time, with all the injustice to Palestinians that goes with it. This is bad for the character of what is still the only real liberal democracy in the region.
MPs will vote today on whether or not to recognise Palestine as a state. Were it clear that the consequence of such a vote would be swift negotiations between Israel and the West Bank Palestinians, with a viable Palestine and a secure Israel at the end of it, the decision would be a no-brainer: vote for recognition. However, this is simply not the case. British MPs voting for recognition today will make no short-term difference to anything at all. The settlements will continue. So will Hamas’s rockets. So will Israel’s blockade. And Israeli and Palestinian politicians will continue to complain alike that they have no partner to negotiate with.
It is none the less possible to believe that a Commons vote for recognition may make some difference in the longer-term. But it is far from clear what this might be. It could be that recognition would help to slow the settlements and force Israel to negotiate in earnest, as the supporters of the move argue. Or it could be that it would have a startlingly different effect – namely, to persuade the Arabs and Muslims and others who oppose Israel’s very existence that, if they only keep the pressure and protests up, British politicians will continue to act in ways that Israel doesn’t like, leading eventually to their co-operation and connivance in its destruction.
Given the law of unintended consequences, it is impossible to be sure either way. None the less, the choice for MPs is straightforward. If they believe that recognition would help to bring about a settlement, and that a settlement itself is indispensable to peace in the region, then they should vote for it. If, however, they believe that it wouldn’t and isn’t, then they shouldn’t. My own view, for what it’s worth, it’s that it’s impossible to predict what the consequences of a Commons vote for recognition would be, and that anyone who pontificates on their certainty, or even likelihood, is deceiving those he speaks to, not to mention himself.
The claim that a settlement is indispensable to peace in the region is easier to assess. It has been comprehensively disproved. Israel’s occupation of the West Bank (let’s call a spade a spade) had nothing do with the rise of Khomenei in Iran or the proliferation of Wahabiism or the war within Islam between Sunni and Shi’ite. The latter will not embrace if the Israelis and Palestinians solve their problems, and return to the peaceful co-existence that once made Islam an example to Catholics and Protestants. ISIS are not going to put down their bloody instruments of crucifixion and beheading, and turn into liberal consumers of Love your Garden or Strictly Come Dancing.
It is true that a settlement would help to take the wind out of the sails of extremism in the region and elsewhere. But there are other and stronger reasons why it blows in the first place. The middle east has failed to keep up with Europe since the Renaissance. A United Nations Development Programme Report in 2002 set out some of the reasons why this is so in modern times: authoritarian government, confessional politics, lamentable education, restricted opportunities for women. This mournful story can be packed into one sombre fact: the number of books translated into Arabic during the thousand years since the ninth century was less than those translated in Spain in one year.
For MPs to vote for the recognition of Palestine would undoubtedly please many voters, not all of them of Arab or Muslim origin. I am all for pleasing voters all round, including Muslim ones – arguing during the recent Gaza conflict that the Conservatives could do much more to make their case to them over the Israel-Palestine question. But there is more to voting than simply pleasing constituents, such as trying to do the right thing (no trifling consideration).
Israel has its faults, goodness knows, which its cheerleaders have a way of glossing over. But are they really worse than those of, say, Pakistan – another state to whose foundation religion was integral, and into which western nations pour money and support? When has traffic in Kensington been halted by protests against its injustices? The obsession with Israel and Palestine is, to use a vogue word, disproportionate. It swells a case for recognition that has simply not been made.