Israelis, Palestinians and the Necessary Injustice of Partition

Over the past several weeks, the Palestinian “March of Return,” initiated by the Islamist group Hamas, has drawn tens of thousands of protesters to the Gaza-Israel border, where they have clashed with the Israel Defense Forces. Hamas says that the marches will continue until mid-May, when Israel will celebrate its 70th anniversary and Palestinians will mourn what they call the Nakba, or catastrophe, the refugee crisis that resulted from the Arab war against Israel’s creation.

In monitoring the dramatic scenes of recent weeks, the international community and media have focused on the alleged use of disproportionate force by Israeli soldiers against Palestinian demonstrators and on the economic misery of Gaza. What has been missed by most observers is the rare clarifying moment that this confrontation has offered: The March of Return is an explicit negation of a two-state solution, with a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza coexisting beside Israel.

If Palestinians living in Gaza—a part of Palestine, under Hamas rule—still see themselves as refugees intent on “returning” to the Jewish state, then the only concession that can satisfy their aspirations is Israel’s national suicide. The real message of the protests is that the conflict is not about undoing the consequences of 1967, when the West Bank and Gaza came under Israeli rule in the Six-Day War, but about overturning 1948—when Israel was born. As Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh put it, the attempt to breach the border is the beginning of the return to “all of Palestine.” The destination is Jerusalem, and the goal is the creation of a Palestinian state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, erasing Israel.

The Palestinians are not alone, however, in harboring maximalist ambitions. Israel, too, has advocates for the right of return to all of the land between the river and the sea. West Bank settlers and their supporters, including the current government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, believe that this land can accommodate only a single national sovereignty: ours.

Palestinians set tires on fire during a ‘March of Return’ protest in Gaza City, April 6. Photo: Ali Jadallah/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Like those Palestinians dreaming of “return” to the state of Israel, the settlement movement aims at demographic transformation. Its goal is to fill the West Bank with so many Israelis that withdrawal would become impossible. They have not yet achieved this goal. Close to a half-million Israelis live in settlements, though most are close enough to the 1967 border that a line could be drawn that would allow Israel to annex a small part of the West Bank in exchange for granting territory to a Palestinian state from within Israel proper. But settlements deep in the West Bank are expanding, and they are intended to thwart such concessions.

Like a majority of Israelis—though the numbers are dropping, according to the polls—I support the principle of a two-state solution, for Israel’s sake no less than for the Palestinians. Extricating ourselves from ruling over another people is a moral, political and demographic imperative. It is the only way to save Israel in the long term as both a Jewish and a democratic state—the two essential elements of our being. Partition is the only real alternative to a Yugoslavia-like single state in which two rival peoples devour each other.

But in order to take that frightening leap of territorial contraction—pulling back to the pre-1967 borders, when Israel was barely 9 miles wide at its narrowest point—we need some indication that a Palestinian state would be a peaceful neighbor, and not one more enemy on our doorstep. The practical expression of that goodwill would be Palestinian agreement that the descendants of the refugees of 1948 return to a Palestinian state and not to Israel, where they would threaten its Jewish majority.

So far, despite years of negotiation, no significant Palestinian leader in any faction has agreed to that trade-off. Instead, the Palestinian precondition for a two-state solution is Israeli agreement to terms that would likely end in one state, with the Jews living, at best, as a tolerated minority.

Yet for both peoples, partition would require almost unbearable sacrifices. How can a Jewish state relinquish sovereignty over Hebron, the West Bank city that is the world’s oldest center of Jewish life, going back to Abraham and Sarah? How can Palestinians relinquish the aspiration to return to the sites of hundreds of destroyed Palestinian villages in what is now the state of Israel?

‘I agree at an emotional level with the settlers. I dread the idea of partition.’

The truth is that, for all my political support for a two-state solution, I agree at an emotional level with the settlers. I dread the idea of partition. I believe that the whole of this little land belongs by right to my people—just as almost every Palestinian I’ve known believes the same on his side. Through centuries of exile, Jews never stopped longing for this land, maintaining a vicarious presence in our prayers and celebrations.

For me, the “West Bank” is the biblical region of Judea and Samaria, precisely what Jews have called it for millennia. It is the heart of our homeland and of our identity as a people and a faith. Jews are not occupiers in Judea. And we returned to it in 1967 in the most legitimate way possible—in a defensive war against yet another attempt by the Arab world to destroy us.

But unlike the settlers, that claim is my starting point, not my end point. Reluctantly, painfully, I am ready to trade parts of my homeland for a peace that would include recognition of Israel’s legitimacy and of the Jewish people’s indigenousness in this land—concessions that no Palestinian leader has been willing to offer.

A man prays as Israeli settlers march in the West Bank during a protest against Palestinian statehood, Sept. 20, 2011. Photo: Uriel Sinai/Getty Images

The maximalist claims on both sides can readily lead to despair. But by candidly acknowledging the historical and emotional reality behind them, we can also perhaps find the basis for a solution.

The cruel but essential logic of partition is that both rival claimants can make a compelling argument for why the totality of this beloved land belongs by right to them. The space between the river and the sea holds two conceptual territories: the land of Israel and the land of Palestine. How, then, to move from our mutually conflicting geographies and begin to accommodate each other’s maps?

Perhaps by granting that both sides love this land in its wholeness and that both sides must do violence to that love. A peace agreement should frankly accept the legitimacy of each side’s maximalist claims, even as it proceeds to contract them. Partition is an act of injustice against both Palestinians and Israelis. It is the recognition of the borders to our dreams: An agreement would partition not just the land but justice itself between two rightful claimants.

I deeply understand the appeal of maximalist claims. Growing up in Brooklyn in the 1960s, I was drawn to the youth movements of the nationalist Jewish right. As a teenager, I wore a necklace holding a small silver map of all of the land of Israel as defined by right-wing Zionism of that time. It included not only the West Bank and Gaza but the territory that became the Kingdom of Jordan, which Britain severed from historic Palestine in 1922.

Eventually I came to realize that trying to reach an accommodation with the Palestinians must take precedence over asserting the totality of our just claim. My turning point came as an Israeli reservist soldier serving in the Gaza refugee camps in the 1980s. The teenage Palestinians throwing rocks at our patrols reminded me of myself as a fervent young ideologue—and of the futility of trying to suppress a people’s national longings.

‘Each people should exercise national sovereignty in only a part of its land.’

Neither side can or should relinquish its emotional claim to territorial wholeness. Yet not every claim must be implemented in full. The state of Israel cannot be the same as the land of Israel, the state of Palestine as the land of Palestine. Each people should exercise national sovereignty in only a part of its land. The moral argument for partition is simply this: For the sake of allowing the other side to achieve some measure of justice, each side needs to impose on itself some measure of injustice.

Such an agreement would require heartbreaking concessions. Both sides would have to accept limits to their legitimate right of return. That means no more settlement-building by Israelis in the future Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, and it means no descendants of Palestinian refugees “returning” to the state of Israel. The Jewish state would absorb those of the Jewish diaspora who want to live in their homeland, and the Palestinian state would absorb those of the Palestinian diaspora who want to live in their homeland.

In 1950, the new state of Israel passed the “Law of Return,” guaranteeing automatic citizenship to any Jew coming home from any part of the world. Like Jewish immigrants from Yemen and Russia and Morocco and Ethiopia, that is how I became an Israeli: In 1982 I left my home in New York, showed up at Ben-Gurion Airport and declared myself a returning son. The Law of Return is the foundation on which the Jewish state stands, defining its moral responsibility to the Jewish people. The state of Palestine would surely enact a similar law for its diaspora.

Palestinian children in Ramallah, West Bank, hold model keys symbolizing the houses that Palestinians left in 1948, May 15, 2017. Photo: Issam Rimawi/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

But is any of this really relevant anymore? The hard reality is that Palestinians and Israelis are as far apart as we ever were. There is no basis of trust, let alone mutual recognition. Decades of violent Palestinian rejection of partition has created despair among young Israelis, allowing our own maximalists to prevail. And on the Palestinian side, the relentless message, conveyed to a new generation by media and schools and mosques, is that the Jews are thieves, with no historical roots in this land.

When Israelis look around at our borders, we see terror enclaves on almost every side, actively committed to our destruction. Hezbollah in the north, Hamas in the south, and most dangerous of all, Iranian Revolutionary Guards establishing bases near our border with Syria. Any of those borders may erupt at any time, threatening regional war.

That sense of impingement helps to explain why Israel is so determined to prevent even a symbolic breach of its border with Gaza. A recent poll revealed that 67% of Israelis believe that, if a Palestinian state were created tomorrow, Hamas would eventually take over, creating a radical entity in the West Bank, on our most sensitive border—just minutes from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

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And yet ironically, just as the hope for an Israeli-Palestinian agreement seems to be definitively ending, unimagined opportunities may be opening for Israel in the wider Sunni world. The Obama administration’s disastrous deal with Iran, which left it on the nuclear threshold while further empowering it as the regional bully, has had one positive if unintended effect: bringing together Sunni leaders with Israel in an alliance of dread, a shared loathing of the deal and a fear of an imperial Iran. The recent and unprecedented statement by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman unequivocally accepting Israel’s right to exist is one consequence of that emerging relationship. It is potentially a historic turning point.

A deepening Israeli-Sunni strategic relationship could evolve into a political relationship, encouraging regional involvement in tempering if not yet solving the Palestinian conflict. One possible interim deal would be gradual Israeli concessions to the Palestinians—reversing the momentum of settlement expansion and strengthening the Palestinian economy—in exchange for gradual normalization with the Sunni world.

That scenario is still remote. And yet for the first time in many years, it is possible to imagine a different future. Even as the latest phase of the Palestinian-Israeli tragedy unfolds on the Gaza border, the hope of an unloved partition must not be allowed to die.

— Mr. Halevi is a senior fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. His book, “Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor,” will be published in May by HarperCollins (which, like The Wall Street Journal, is owned by News Corp).

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