The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Israel’s Three Endgames

As news comes in that Israeli commandos, boarding a relief flotilla for Gaza, have killed 10 to 16 peace activists, it’s worth reviewing the situation Israel finds itself in.

First, Israel is a state about half of whose population, the Palestinians, have restricted economic and political rights.  This is true both of muslim citizens and those Palestinians who live in the West Bank and Gaza.  I count them as under Israeli rule because when Israel controls their ability to exit or enter the country, bulldozes their houses at will, decides if they can import food and medicine, arrests “cabinet members” at will, determines where and when Palestinians can go, what the curfews are, and so on, it is clear that Israel rules them.

This makes West Bank communities (which are divided from themselves) and Gaza effectively South African bantustans, where non-citizen residents are forced to reside.  And that means that Israel, is, yes, effectively an apartheid state, different from South Africa in the eighties only in that a smaller proportion of the population are second class citizens confined to ghettos.

Population is, of course, the key to understanding the Israeli situation.  Not only are Palestinians outbreeding Israelis, so that they will soon be the majority of the population, but within the Israeli population proper, right wing religious Jews are outbreeding their more secular brethren.  This is leading to a hardening within the voting population, and a higher tolerance for violence and crackdowns, at the same time as the Jewish population feels itself more and more beleagured.

Population is also at the core of the resource problem, or, to be more specific, the water problem.  There is a limited amount of water in Palestine, and as the population increases, there are fears that there isn’t enough. A viable Palestinian state would require more water than Israel wants to give up, for very good reasons.

Another important demographic issue is that given how young their population is  almost every living Palestinian has never known anything but Israeli occupation.  This is less true of Israelis, but still, any Israeli who isn’t closing in on 50 probably doesn’t remember a time when Israel wasn’t occupying a hostile population.

Demographic realities lead to one conclusion: if things keep going on as they are now, in two generations Israel will e so clearly an apartheid state, with the vast majority of the population powerless Palestinians without a vote, that no one will be able to pretend otherwise, either inside or outside the country.

Since Israel’s identity is as a specifically Jewish state, that is, one based on religious and ethnic identity (many Jews don’t recognize converts) that will mean that Jews will rule over a population mainly made up of non Jews.

This is, in a sense, a modern Sparta, an outnumbered ethnicity ruling over numerous Helots.  It is unlikely the rest of the world will tolerate it, and it is an unstable state for a nation with democratic aspirations.

The status quo thus ends, most likely, in a single state solution.  The Palestinians are given the vote, as the blacks were in South Africa, and the state of Israel as a Jewish state, ends.  Those who find the idea of one ethnicity or religion ruling over others may not find this end particularly tragic.

However this end-state is anathema to most Israelis, who believe that Israel should be a state based on religious ethnicity.  If they are unwilling to accept it, then there are two options available to them to avoid that fate.

First, they can try and come to a two-state solution.  This has been the status quo preferred solution for a couple decades now, but it seems more and more unlikey.  The number of settlers in the West Bank goes up every year, as does the continued ethnic cleansing of Jerusalem of undesirable Muslims.  The facts on the ground say very clearly that the Israeli government does not want a two-state solution, and is not acting to achieve one.  However, as the situation becomes more intolerable, they may come to see the situation otherwise.

Any Israeli Prime Minister who acts on this will take his life in his hands.  Right wing settlers have already assassinated one Prime Minister, and there is no reason to believe they would hesitate to do it again.  Furthermore the Israeli military has become infected by right wing religious Judaism, with right wing Rabbis, in the last incursion into Israel, telling soldiers that killing Palestinians was their religious duty.  This influence is likely to only grow stronger the more time goes on, and by the time a Prime Minister feels he must make a deal, or else, the military may no longer be willing to obey orders.

The ability to make a two-state deal is thus likely to decline over time, even as the necessity to do so increases.

The third solution set is to simply remove all Palestinians from the occupied territories.  This doesn’t mean genocide, this just means shoving them out into neighbouring nations, and letting them worry about the Palestinians. This will turn Israel into a pariah state, but it will give them control of a good portion of Greater Israel without having to worry about pesky Palestinians, and while the neighbouring nations won’t like it, Israel has nukes, so who cares what they think?

These seem to me to be the three most likely endgames for Israel – the end of the Jewish ethnic state in a one state solution, a two-state compromise, or the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from Palestine and the creation of a Greater Israel which is Jewish, and a pariah state.

It’s hard to anticipate which solution will be chosen, but I think the single state or the cleansing of Palestinians are the most likely end-games at this point.  The two-state solution is unlikely to occur, since making it occur would cost an Israeli PM his life and might not be allowed by the army.

One might object that a single-state is unlikely for the same reasons, but single-state is the long term solution.  When population numbers become 80/20 Palestinian/Jewish you either have to ethnic cleanse or give up, the status quo will be intoldrable.  The two-state solution is what occurs before then.

I don’t hold out a lot of hope for a pretty solution in Israel/Palestine, or a solution in the near term.  Could be I’m wrong, and I hope I am, but it seems unlikely.


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Holy Sweet Lord, Turkey has announced they will send another flotilla to Gaza—escorted by the Turkish Navy!


  1. gtash

    Do you think the United States will accept Israel pushing all Palestinians out of the country?

    The United States is ethnically changing as well, and if the “push” comes a decade or more from now, I think our population will be far less accepting of it.

  2. marku

    Isn’t attacking ships in international waters “piracy”? If brown people did it, the US would be screaming terrorism.

    ‘Course, it’s been a good while since Israel gave a flying fig about international law. How many UN declarations are they in violation of?

    and btw, the site is “fixed”. I have no idea what was going on. This was the only site where I saw this, so a cache issue seems unlikely. Maybe a coding error at a mirror server?

  3. anonymous

    Does Israel even have two generations to play with? How much longer will the US have the resources to support Israel economically and militarily? Where would Israel be without the US? How are nukes going to help Israel against home grown guerillas? They would have to do an ethnic cleansing. But without US support, they would be completely isolated economically. Like a big version of Gaza.

  4. Suspenders

    Ian, you’re probably right on your endgame prediction. I would quibble with your demographic projections a bit, as I don’t think that tiny area of land can physically support some of the population projections I’ve seen, but other than that some sort of ethnic cleansing is likely, at least far liklier in my eyes than any sort of one state solution. Ethnic cleansing works wonders at “solving” problems like these, and the price would probably be a few decades as a pariah state, a small price I’d imagine for most of the Israeli right wing. Certainly better than one state. Another “plus” is that once done, it’s rarely if ever reversible. Just take a look at Bosnia, or huge swathes of eastern europe formerly populated by Germans until WW2, or the Soviet Unions various population transfers over the years. The only instance of large scale returns I’m aware of is the Chechens returning to their homeland.

  5. Ian Welsh

    The question is whether Israel is viable under a serious trade embargo, Suspenders.

    Maybe… but it’d be pretty bloody miserable.

  6. beowulf

    So Israel’s options are: Apartheid state leaves Israel without international legitimacy or domestic tranquility, Two- state solution gives them legitimacy but not tranquility (assassinations and civil war), “Trail of Tears”* solution gives them domestic tranquility but even less less legitimacy in the world community. I think there’s no question door #3 is where this is headed.

    The US has always had Israel’s back in the UN. But for the US’s automatic veto of any UN Security Council resolution critical of Israel, the UN would have imposed South African-style sanctions years ago. Since ratified treaties overrides all domestic laws (except for the US Constitution itself), it the President’s decision whether to veto a Security Council resolution or not, Congress has no say in the matter. If the President wanted to impose sanctions on Israel or, for that matter, lifts all sanctions on Cuba, he need only order his UN Ambassador to call in sick while the Security Council votes on resolutions.

    The one wild card is the US dependence on foreign oil. Its because of this Achilles heel that OPEC punished the US economy in 1973 and 1979 (and perhaps in 2008 as well). The number 1 thing Israel can do to bolster its security is to use its American political capital to demand a crash effort for North American energy independence. If Saudi Arabia has no leverage on the US economy, then Israel has a free hand to do whatever it wants. Ironically, the one president who was serious about achieving this goal was Israel’s least favorite president, Jimmy Carter.

  7. Suspenders

    A tiny state like they are, with such meager resources; my guess is they wouldn’t be viable. Or as you eloquently put it, it’d be bloody miserable. Then again, I don’t think it would come to that. The US turning against Israel is almost unthinkable, and even if they did I’m sure others such as China (or even Russia) might be interested in throwing them a lifeline if it came to it. Just think of all that juicy American military technology the Chinese could get in exchange. Israel has always been good at sucking up to world powers when necessary, whether that was Britain and France before, or the States now.

  8. I disagree with you that Israel isn’t serious about a two-state solution–at least Israel believes it’s being serious. The problem is that serious in the Israeli context typically means annexation of the entire Old City & areas surrounding Jerusalem, military outposts along the Jordanian border, and control over Palestinian borders.

    While you (and I agree with you) might think this is an insane definition of a ‘reasonable’ two-state solution, among the Israeli center (broadly defined), this seems reasonable. Therein lies the problem.

    A reality check is desperately needed.

  9. Phoenician in a time of Romans

    Ethnic cleansing works wonders at “solving” problems like these

    It’s not going to stop their defenders evoking the Holocaust every time Israel engages in immoral actions, though. Ethnic cleansing is okey-dokey if it’s done to the bad kind of people.

  10. Sabrina

    Thank god, I think it’s too late for the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians (Israel has lost their last opportunity in 1967), and secular Israelis know this.

    Many commenters don’t realize how fragmented Israeli societys has become, and how it can contibute to the endgame scenarios. Tensions between secular/religious Jews who have radically different conception of what society should be, with the added racial acrimony between ashkenazi Jews/Separdic & mizrahi J/Falashas, are not being taken in account.

    Israel is no longer a monolith, if it ever was, and is showing signs of cracking at the seams, with refuseniks and other social issues.
    I think a large portion of Israeli, esp. secular ones, and should the Palestinians become the majority, are likely to jump ship.

    A great numbers of Israeli are eligible for dual citizenship with European countries/ the US, I’ve noticed many of them have done a reverse aaliyah away from Israel, buying properties in eastern Europe and north america .

    In this case, religious Jews, who refuse to serve in the armed forces, will become the majority of the israeli, will probably stay and live in their own closed communities if Palestinians resume Sovereignty over their historical homeland.

  11. Suspenders

    It’s never too late for ethnic cleansing. Just ask some Bosnians how that worked out for them. And even that was after 40 years of bratstvo jedinstvo, the same language and a secular society…

    I don’t quite share your optimism.

  12. scootie

    I agree the demographic issue will eventually drive the situation, but currently Israel is 75% jewish.

    thought experiment for option 1:

  13. Ian Welsh

    Israel isn’t 75% Jewish if you consider all areas under occupation. It’s just slightly over 50%.

  14. scootie

    But that is exactly the point. You cannot consider a non-Israeli population as Israeli.

  15. Ian Welsh

    Since they rule them, yes you can. That is precisely my point. Blacks in South Africa didn’t have the vote either.

  16. Suspenders

    South Africa still isn’t a perfect analogy (I guess none really are). Israel rules Palestine, but it’s “temporary”, much the same way Iraq’s population wasn’t simply tacked on to the United States.

    Perhaps a better example might be Puerto Rico’s relationship with the US. A former Spanish posession, under the rule of the US but not really a part of it.

    It’s a minor distinction, sure, but these sort of definitions matter, because they, err, define how we think about these problems. This will sound stupid to you Ian, but I didn’t even consider Palestinians as being ruled by Israel until I read a post of yours similar to this one a few years back. Palestinians aren’t a part of Israel, at least on paper, and that tiny distinction can mean an entirely different way of understanding the situation. If the South Africans said that blacks weren’t South African, they’d be laughed out of the room, but an Israeli says Palestinians aren’t Israeli and it makes intuitive sense, regardless the fact that de facto they are.

  17. Ian Welsh

    Temporary, eh? Tell me how long that temporary has been? Tell me what percentage of Palestinians has ever known anything else but Israeli rule?

  18. Suspenders

    Well, that’s why I put it in quotes. The understanding is that they’re only there until the details of a Palestinian state are worked out. The reality, obviously, is much different.

  19. scootie

    The occupied territory was gained in a war. If Israel “gave the occupied territory back” who would they give it to? A British Mandate? Jordan?

    The other original players have extricated themselves from the situation. It is disingenuous to hold Israel completely responsible for this stateless population.

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