A tense peace

It is reasonable to assume that within 10 years at the most, there will be a Palestinian state in nearly all of the West Bank and Gaza, with al Quds (East Jerusalem) as its capital. It will have signed a peace treaty with Israel. By 2025 all remnants of Israeli settlements built inside what becomes the sovereign territory of Palestine will have disappeared, and a broad program for the resettlement and rehabilitation of the 1948 refugees and their descendants will be well underway.

But this is likely to be a relatively cool peace, for a number of reasons.

First, and most significantly, the most fundamental antipathy toward Israel within the Arab world will not have dissipated two decades hence. Many Arabs, including many Palestinians, will still see Israelis as foreigners who stole Arab land. The more fervent Muslims will still consider Israel’s very existence to constitute a desecration of Islamic holy land. Israel’s own vision of itself–as the legitimate expression of the right of the Jewish people to a state in its historic homeland–will still not be legitimized by most Arabs.

True, because Israelis and Palestinians live in such close proximity–indeed, share, along with Jordanians, the same geostrategic land unit–there will be numerous areas of almost mandatory close cooperation, such as the water economy, ecological issues, shared ports and airspace and the like. But there will also still be Palestinians who express their resentment toward Israel in sporadic violence; some Palestinian refugees will continue to cultivate an active longing for homes long abandoned, just as some Israelis, former settlers and their descendants, will foster irredentist movements that focus on the West Bank. One of the challenges facing the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships 23 years from now will be to find ways to channel these emotions away from violence and toward mutual empathy.

Israeli-Palestinian relations will to a large degree be influenced by the state of broader Israeli-Arab relations. Assuming Israel and Syria have made their peace by 2025, this will go a long way toward stimulating commercial relations between Israel and the wealthy Gulf states (yes, they will still be wealthy 23 years from now), and this, in turn, could reflect positively on the warmth of ties between Israelis and Palestinians.

Another critical issue will be Palestine’s success in fostering economic development and reducing its extremely high birthrate. The past decade has demonstrated that even in the rough and tumble years of a sporadic peace process, tens of thousands of Palestinians have “returned” to Israel illegally for economic reasons. Even with the best of international aid efforts, by 2025 there will continue to be serious economic disparities between Israel and its neighbors, and the Palestinian birth rate will not have dropped to levels achieved in other overcrowded countries like Egypt. Hence Israel and Palestine are likely to coexist in a kind of “north-south” tension, with Palestinians seeking ways to enter Israel in order to improve their economic lot, and finding a welcome among relatives in the Israeli Arab community. Israeli authorities will seek to expel them and will be inclined to “build walls” that separate Israel from its neighbors and maintain Israel’s demographic identity as a Jewish state.

This points to an internal Israeli dynamic that will affect Israeli-Palestinian relations. Once a two state solution is instituted and a Palestinian state is established, Israel will face the awesome challenge of normalizing the minority status of its own Palestinian Arab community within a Jewish state. Its success or failure in this endeavor will have far-reaching ramifications for overall Israeli-Palestinian relations. Certainly if the present trend of increasing alienation and radicalization of Israeli Arabs continues, it will project negatively on Israeli-Palestinian ties. Incidentally, a parallel though less acute challenge following Israeli-Palestinian peace will be faced by Jordan, about half of whose population is Palestinian.

If this description paints a somewhat bleak picture, it is not intended to sound pessimistic. On the contrary, the trials and tribulations projected here are an inevitable stage in the gradual process of Israel’s acceptance into the region. A warmer peace than that described here will take not a single but several generations. How quickly it is achieved will to a great extent be a function of Israeli and Palestinian leadership.

Yossi Alpher is the author of the forthcoming book “And the Wolf Shall Dwell with the Wolf: The Settlers and the Palestinians.”

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