Years ago, I asked my good friend Reuben Surkis, then a director general of a department of the Jewish Agency, why no one had suggested the possibility of exchanging Arab villages situated on Israel’s side of the Green Line for West Bank areas in which Jewish Israelis had settled. He responded that this may be the way the territorial issues may be resolved. Apparently this was being discussed quietly.
And now, WikiLeaks revealed that as far back as 2008, Tzipi Livni, then Foreign Minister, raised this possibility with her Palestinian counterpart in negotiations, Ahmed Qureia. They spoke of the possible exchange of several border communities, including Barta’a, Baka al-Gharbiya, and Beit Safafa, saying that the only place that Palestinian national ambitions could be realized would be in a Palestinian state.
As reported in Al Jazeera, Qureia rejected the offer, saying that “All Arabs in Israel would be against us.”
The Israelis again made a similar proposal, reported by the Jerusalem Post on Nov. 8, 2007, offering to exchange the above-named border villages together with the larger town of Um el-Fahm — all told numbering 200,000 Israeli Arabs — in exchange for unnamed West Bank settlements containing 50,000 Jews. This time, according to the Post, Abbas and Qurei offered to consider it.
And yet the one who made the biggest headlines was Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. After he made a similar proposal to the public rather than in private, it seemed as if he were the one who conceived the idea. Because Lieberman, for a variety of valid reasons, provokes strong reactions from those who reject any idea emanating from him, his proposal was widely criticized in Israel and abroad. Yet just as paranoids can have real enemies, so too can an aggressive blowhard like Lieberman have good proposals — proposals similar to those made years before by leaders in Israel’s mainstream.
There are a number of advantages to this type of exchange. It would increase the percentage of Jews in Israel and shield it from becoming a binational state. It would strengthen the proposed Palestinian state by increasing its population, bringing with it a population with greater education than most on the West Bank, which — equipped with a knowledge of Hebrew — would play a valuable role in developing relations between the two states. It would, in part, solve the territorial issues and make it easier to solve the remaining ones.
Those most opposed are the Arab residents of the Israeli villages. On the face of it, this is surprising. Many of them complain that “Hatikvah,” with its obvious Jewish references, should be dropped or modified as the national anthem. They don’t like the flag and have flown Palestinian flags. Several years ago, Israeli Arab intellectuals issued a proclamation which in effect said that Israel should cease being a Jewish state.
Yet in polls taken by both Arab and Jewish pollsters, the overwhelming majority of Arabs rejected the idea of an exchange, even if it meant not having to relocate and that they would switch from a minority to a majority status. There is a certain cognitive dissonance that a group whose members proclaim loyalty to another, whose elected leaders have often voiced support for Israel’s enemies, and which repeatedly claims to be discriminated against, should cling so tenaciously to remaining a part of the State of Israel.
Some 10 years ago, while in Haifa, I walked in unannounced to Beit HaGefen, the Arab-Jewish community center and the sponsor of the only state-supported Arabic theater company. I came on the right day, as both the community center’s cultural director and one of the theatrical directors had time to meet with me. Most of the discussion centered on their unhappiness at the center’s budget, which limited their programs. They blamed discrimination against Arabs.
However, as the discussion progressed, it became apparent that their greatest fear was being transferred to an Arab state as part of a peace agreement. As the director said, “Let’s see how the Palestinians manage their state before we determine whether we wish to live there.”
Should a peace agreement ever be concluded between Israel and the Palestinians, it will cause great dislocation, particularly on the part of those Jews living in areas of the West Bank that would form part of the newly created state of Palestine. Surely their distress and personal upheaval would be greater than that felt by Palestinians who would remain in their homes, whose children would attend the same schools, and whose mother tongue would be the language of daily life.