The Palestinian question has always been caught between a rock and a hard place: geography and demography. The first has been the source of discord and conflict from the UN partition resolution in 1947 through the Arab-Israeli wars and from the truce agreements in 1948 through the Oslo Accords and the Arab Peace Initiative. The second is about creating realities on the ground such as the forced expulsion of Palestinians from their land, the migration of Jewish settlers into that land and the ability of Palestinian populations to remain and grow in Israel and the occupied territories. In general, in its political and military drive the Arab world has focused on the first factor, as epitomised in the call for a two-state solution, which is essentially an extension of the partition resolution. They did not know how to deal with the demographic factor, as a result of which Palestine became more important than the Palestinians and Israel more important than the Israelis. For its part, Israel is the translation of Zionism into a geopolitical fact. The process is based on accepting what has been legitimised, no matter how small it seems in relation to the Zionist project, and expanding into the illegitimate using armed force, exploiting Arab and Palestinian distractions and relying on time for an ally in the creation of de facto realities to add to its negotiating power and further its expansion.
Today, after more than seven decades of the Arab-Israeli conflict and an even longer period of Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the demographics on the ground have shaped a new reality. Firstly, 13 million people currently live in the area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean (which is to say historic Palestine), half of whom are Palestinian Arabs and the other half Israeli Jews. Secondly, there are numerous daily modes of interdependence and interaction in that area. Effectively, there is a single economic zone that straddles both sides of the Green Line. It features a single currency, a joint labour market, and closely related fiscal and customs systems. Also, as was clear once again from the meetings between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz, the West Bank, with its three divisions (Areas A, B and C), and Israel, as defined by its 1948 boundaries, form a single security zone.
Many Palestinian observers see these demographics as a not unwelcome prelude to the establishment of a single state. Whether that state is unitary, federal or confederal, the key principles are democracy and equality. The main Palestinian condition for achieving this is to create the Palestinian state first, after which the two sides can explore other modes of government consistent with current realities. Israeli observers are worried by the demographics which, they believe, jeopardise the Zionist dream of a state in which Jews are the majority. Nevertheless, despite political developments in Israel, which have propelled society towards the far right, Israel has not dealt seriously with the demographic aspect apart from looking the other way when racist practices occur in Israeli cities with mixed Arab and Israeli populations. Many Israelis are probably aware that Jewish immigration to Israel is declining. In all events, that movement has a ceiling equivalent to the number of Jews in the world which is around 16 million, and not that many of those are prepared to emigrate to Israel. Most have been assimilated into their countries of citizenship in the West and many of those with liberal and democratic outlooks are morally averse to moving to a country that deprives its indigenous people of their residency, property and other rights.
Both sides are wary of the mutual dependency and its perceived implications. For example, Palestinians caution against the “Israelisation” of Palestinians who have learned Hebrew, entered the Knesset and, more recently, become government coalition partners. On the other side, Israelis worry about the “Arabisation” of Israel pointing to how 90 per cent of pharmacists in Tel Aviv are Palestinians or how the demand for Palestinian dentists, not to mention Palestinian labour, has grown. To Israeli extremists, such as Knesset member Ben Gvir, the solution is further settlement expansion and another Nakba, or mass expulsion of Palestinians.
Feeding the conflict between mutual dependency and the fears that prevent it from evolving into new political arrangements is the animosity fuelled, on the one hand, by four Gaza wars, the origins of which reside in the double coup the Hamas movement waged against the Oslo Accord and the Palestinian Authority, and by an Israeli right that thrives on the historical enmity with the Palestinians and, more recently, growing antisemitism in the West.
Ironically that racism in the West also includes Palestinians and Arabs, not because they are Semites but because most of them are Muslim. Paradoxically, this could give rise to constructive political interactions between the Jewish and Palestinian diasporas that would foster new forms of collaboration and interdependence in the face of racism and discrimination both abroad and in Israel and the occupied territories. The peace agreements between Arab states and Israel encourage this. Although Egyptian-Israeli and Jordanian-Israeli relations have often been described as a “cold peace,” the climate has grown considerably warmer due to new types of collaboration, whether in the fight against terrorism or in the framework of the Qualifying Industrial Zones (QIZs) agreements and, more recently, the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum. The latter has the potential to bring an additional Palestinian component into the larger regional equations favouring cooperation. Although this possibility is still out of reach because of how Hamas has wrenched Gaza from its Palestinian fold, efforts to promote a long-term truce should pave the way to many industrial and commercial collaborations.
The Abraham “normalisation” Accords, which primarily aim to promote commercial, industrial and technological relations between a number of Arab countries and Israel, depend inherently on mutual cooperation. What they probably needed was to bring on board Palestinians in Israel and the West Bank. But to do so would require a new way of thinking, one that would not keep the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, in its geopolitical sense, as the linchpin for approval or rejection in the negotiating process. Instead, it would take Palestinian-Israeli interdependence as the stimulus and catalyst. This would not only transform the Arab Peace Initiative into reality but also encourage the processes of reform and economic progress that are currently underway in many Arab countries seeking to promote regional stability and expand their markets.
This is not a pipe dream. It is a reading of the actual potential of a reality that fosters concrete interactions on the ground. All point to a large economic and social market that is just waiting for the right imagination and ingenuity to turn it into a political arrangement.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 13 January, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.