Recent attacks by Jewish settlers on West Bank Mosques have highlighted yet again the resistance within Israel to creating a separate Palestinian state. But history suggests that if it Israel tries to keep the West Bank and Gaza at some point it will either stop being a Jewish nation or stop being a democracy.
There are many cultural and historical reasons why the Unites States supports Israel, but the most important and enduring is that Israel is a democracy. Jews managed to create a majority in a small part of the world and our country supports the rights of majorities to chose their government and defend their borders.
There wasn’t always a Jewish majority in Israel. In the early thirties the area, then a British colony referred to as Palestine, was still largely Muslim. But by the end of World War II hundreds of thousands of Jews had left Europe for the Middle East. In 1947 the United Nations officially supported the idea of a Jewish homeland and what had been a low grade Jewish insurgency against the British became a full but brief war between Jews and Muslims. When the Jews won and declared a democratic Israel hundreds of thousands of Muslims fled, leaving an overwhelmingly Jewish population.
At the time, 1948, Israel was a strip of land smaller than the New York metropolitan area and did not include the West Bank or Gaza. However Israel has faced periodic attacks over the years by Muslim neighbors intent on its destruction. A war in 1967 left Israel with control of Gaza, an even tinier strip of land on the coast of the Mediterranean and the West Bank, a much larger area between Israel and Jordan.
When Jordan eventually renounced its claims to the West Bank many factions in Israel celebrated. For some it was an opportunity to recreate the Greater Israel that had existed two thousand years ago. For others is was an opportunity to create a defense buffer against future attacks by Israel’s Muslim neighbors. Very quickly something called the Settler Movement sprang up, with the goal of settling so many Jews on the West Bank that Israel would have no choice but to absorb it.
Generally speaking, the victor of the last war gets to draw the borders. But the West Bank and Gaza represented both an opportunity and a trap for Israel. They could become the separate Palestinian nation that Muslims were clamoring for, which might bring peace to Israel. Or, if the West Bank and Gaza with their four million Palestinians and higher birth rate became part of Israel it would set in motion a demographic trend which would very quickly result in a Muslim-majority Israel.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak recognized these possibilities when he proposed a two state solution in 2000. And Yasser Arafat, then the leader of the Palestinians, recognized them as well when he rejected the offer. Instead Arafat initiated a low-level insurgency within Israel designed to convince Israelis that the Palestinians couldn’t be trusted with a two state solution, strengthening the hand of Israelis that wanted the West Bank and Gaza absorbed into a greater Israel.
Arafat recognized that a greater Israel would eventually have a Muslim majority, and this would force Israel’s hand. Either Israel would have to grant voting rights to the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, allowing a Muslim majority to eventually take control of the country, or it would have to renounce its democratic roots and not let Palestinians vote. And if Israel renounced democracy it would eventually lose the financial and military support of the United States, making the country far less likely to survive if again attacked by its Muslim neighbors.
This is the dilemma still facing Israel. The country can keep settling the West Bank and Gaza and create a greater Israel. But doing so will force Israel to eventually either give up democracy or give up being a Jewish nation. Or Israel can swallow hard and again extend the opportunity to the Palestinians to have their own separate country. It’s Israel’s only real chance to achieve lasting peace as a Jewish nation.