Whatever else may be said of Yasser Arafat, his death will leave a dangerous leadership vacuum in the Mideast. Meanwhile, George W. Bush’s victory has created a power surge in the U.S. that is pushing the nation toward one-party rule. This ought to concern all Americans. But speaking as a non-Jew, I think it ought to concern Jewish Americans most of all because the welfare of Israel affects all the world’s Jews, and the Republicans’ power consolidation bodes especially ill for Israel in the imminent post-Arafat era.
Written off as irrelevant when not despised as a terrorist, the president of the Palestinian Authority paradoxically kept alive the Jewish and Israeli hopes for a secular Palestinian alternative to the fanatical violence of Hamas and kindred smaller groups. With Arafat gone, Israel may have to cope in a new way with the full truth of its complaint that there is no Palestinian partner with whom to make peace. If there is none and if there will be none, then what?
In persuading Israel to withdraw from the Gaza Strip, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has sought to shed responsibility for 1.4 million Palestinians at the affordable cost of relocating Gaza’s 8,000 or so Jewish settlers. But will the withdrawal have this effect? During the month leading up to the U.S. presidential election, Israel’s involvement in Gaza actually escalated. Israeli armed forces killed 159 Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, about 30% of them civilians, according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.
If we grant that this toll -- a 2 1/2 -year monthly high -- was necessary for security reasons, then we must infer that the grim necessity will continue, for Palestinian attacks have not been halted. On Nov. 1, an undeterred Palestinian suicide bomber killed three and wounded 32 others in Tel Aviv. In retaliation, a day later, Israel destroyed the homes of three Palestinian families in the West Bank town of Nablus.
So long as this cycle of incursions and retaliations continues, and it shows no sign of stopping, Israel will remain the effective ruler -- the only effective ruler -- of the 3.7 million Palestinians of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip while continuing to rule the 1.2 million Arab citizens of Israel. In other words, if Israel has no Palestinian partner with whom to negotiate, then it is permanently stuck with the Palestinians as a two-class subject population. And because these two Arab populations living under de facto Israeli rule will soon outnumber Israel’s Jewish population, thanks to a strikingly high birthrate, the Jewish-majority state must shortly become a Jewish-ruled state with an Arab majority.
I do not propose this demographic and political transformation as a solution but foresee it as a tragic outcome. Neither side wanted it or will ever want it. But it may nonetheless have become inevitable.
What might forestall it?
Neither voluntary nor forced Palestinian emigration is likely to do so. Though some Israelis may dream of “population transfer,” no country in the world, least of all any neighboring country, will accept millions of penniless Palestinian refugees, some of them with a history of terrorism.
Until recently, commentators of every political stripe agreed that no nation but the United States had any hope of serving as mediator between the Israelis and the Palestinians, and it remains true that the Bush administration has endorsed a two-state diplomatic solution in principle. But only massive U.S. intervention guaranteeing the security of both sides could impose such a solution. And the administration, which has shown no appetite for any such intervention, now has lost both the military and the diplomatic capacity for it.
Militarily, because the Iraqi occupation will continue for years, the United States cannot spare the manpower for a costly second Middle East mission that would fall between occupation and peacekeeping. Diplomatically, America’s acceptability as an honest broker in any negotiation involving Arabs has been undercut by the Iraq war and by Bush’s historic reversal -- at an April news conference in Washington with Sharon -- of earlier U.S. opposition to Israel’s retaining and expanding its West Bank settlements, whose population is already in the hundreds of thousands and steadily growing.
With greater majorities in both houses of Congress, Bush will dominate American political life -- including U.S. policy toward Israel -- during the next four years far more than his Republican predecessors dating back to President Eisenhower. As a result, if the Zionist dream of a Jewish-majority state can be rescued at all, it may have to be rescued without U.S. help.
Israel’s national anthem is “The Hope” -- the hope, to quote from the anthem, “to be a free people in our own land.” My heart aches at the thought that this hope now may have been lost, but it does not ache alone for the future generations of young Israelis condemned to the endless bloody subjugation of a hostile native population. It aches as well for the millions of Jews who have chosen not to “make aliyah” to Israel. For them, and above all for American Jews, Israel refuted forever the charge of double identity that had plagued Jewish life in the West.
Israel has been the final undoing of the most insidious kind of western anti-Semitism, the kind that disparaged a Jew living in London or Los Angeles as “not really English” or “not really American,” the kind that Saul Bellow encountered when he was told as a young PhD candidate that, for cultural reasons, a Jew could not be expected to understand English literature. The founding of the state of Israel served notice to the world that any Jew who felt that he could only be at home in a Jewish land now had a Jewish land to go to. As for the millions who had no desire to emigrate, Israel meant that they could be finally and securely at home where they were.
This is what Zionism has meant to me, an American Christian who treasures the Jews in his life, and this, I fear, is what may be lost as the passing of Yasser Arafat coincides with the triumph of George W. Bush.