Speaking to the Likud central committee on Sunday night, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said any discussion of Palestinian statehood "is dangerous to the State of Israel and will prematurely increase the pressures on it."
Given the international fallout from the Likud's stinging rejection of the prime minister's view restatements of support for Palestinian independence by Washington, Brussels, et al, as well as the Labor Party's full-throated advocacy of the cause of Palestine, it is possible that Sharon was right, although it is unclear what is different about the "international community's" support for Palestinian statehood this week than its support for it last week.
Yet even if discussing the issue at the central committee may have been impolitic, the question of whether setting up a Palestinian state serves the interests of the State of Israel is far from immaterial.
In his own remarks before the committee, Sharon's rival, Binyamin Netanyahu, argued that the conferral of statehood on the Palestinian Authority is dangerous to Israel, because the moment the Palestinians are granted sovereignty, Israel will have no control over whether Palestine is militarized or demilitarized.
Netanyahu is on the right track, even if he may not have chosen the most appropriate occasion to air his views. But even he misses the point. The PLO, as a member of the Arab League, is already a party to a military alliance. The absence of Palestinian sovereignty has not prevented Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat from cooperating militarily with Egypt, Iran, Syria, Hizbullah, Iraq, or Saudi Arabia. And it has not prevented the EU and the US from training PA forces.
The Palestinians continue to arm themselves with everything they can get their hands on. They have schooled their children in the language of jihad and produced another generation of terrorists. All this they have done without recognized sovereignty.
In other words, from a military perspective, it is doubtful whether de jure Palestinian statehood is significantly more dangerous than the de facto statehood that exists today. The problem is not whether Palestinian state is recognized, but Palestinian empowerment in general.
Proponents of Palestinian statehood on Israel's political Left have promised the establishment of such a state will solve all of our diplomatic, security, and demographic problems. In spite of almost 20 months of Palestinian war against us, these arguments still have allure and therefore demand careful analysis.
Diplomatically, it is unclear what advantage would accrue to Israel by conceding a priori that it accepts and even supports Palestinian statehood. Oslo was based on the strategic assumption that the adoption of a conciliatory stance would benefit Israel diplomatically.
Yet, since Oslo began, even when Israel was most forthcoming, the process itself constricted our diplomatic and policy prerogatives rendering us more vulnerable diplomatically than ever before.
Under the Rabin and Peres governments, for example, Israel was internationally condemned for the decision to pave bypass roads in Judea and Samaria, even though doing so did not constitute a breach of the accords. Similarly, the policy of denying Palestinians entry has been consistently and roundly condemned, although the measures are wholly legal and permitted in the framework of the accords.
And of course, the very notion that appeasing Palestinian aspirations would bring about international acceptance of Israel was literally blown to smithereens after Arafat reacted to Ehud Barak's unprecedented offers at Camp David by going to war. Rather than taking Israel's side, the international community has reacted to this situation by increasing its diplomatic isolation. Indeed, even the Bush administration, which is so outspokenly sympathetic, last November became the first US administration to openly support Palestinian statehood. Israeli openness and flexibility toward the Palestinians, far from bringing openness and diplomatic acceptance, have consistently fostered only greater diplomatic weakness and international isolation.
The security arguments for Palestinian statehood are equally open to question. One argument claims that granting the Palestinians sovereignty will satisfy their political yearnings and therefore they will live in peace. Perhaps. But why then has Arafat used the territories already granted him as a launch pad for attacks? And why has he stated repeatedly that he will use any further territory granted for the same purpose?
At the same time, we are also told that Arafat's aspirations are unimportant. Israel will simply build a fence and the Palestinians will effectively vanish. But this, too, can't be right. Israel also has a fence along its border with Lebanon. It has not prevented cross-border shootings, incursions, and rocket attacks. A fence only keeps out those who don't wish to enter in the first place, and the Palestinians wish to enter even more than Hizbullah.
This Palestinian desire brings us to the demographic problem. From Yitzhak Rabin to Yossi Beilin to Haim Ramon, the Left has argued that the real reason to give the Palestinians control over territory west of the Jordan and to grant them statehood is to prevent them from overrunning Israel. It was, for instance, Rabin's repeated contention that holding on to 3.5 million Arabs in the territories would make it impossible for Israel to maintain its identity as a Jewish, democratic state. Forecasts claim that, by 2020, there will be an equal number of Jews and Arabs west of the Jordan River.
But this also fails to convince. While it is no doubt true that annexation of Judea, Samaria, and the Gaza Strip would present a demographic problem, it does not follow that Palestinian statehood is the answer.
Establishing a Palestinian state does nothing to change the patterns of population growth. In fact, Israel's Arab population and the Palestinian population in the territories have seen their largest increase since the implementation of the Oslo Accords. More than 100,000 Arabs have made their way inside the Green Line, and it is projected that more than 100,000 more have entered the PA.
Establishing a Palestinian state that would presumably control its immigration policy would only exacerbate this trend, for dramatic increases in Palestinian population will cause a steep rise in pressure on Israel to allow these new Palestinians to enter for work, then marriage, then family reunification. And even if Israel were to shut its borders with a high fence as promised, overcrowding in Palestine will only serve to exacerbate its irredentist tendencies, thus again increasing the likelihood of further terrorist onslaughts.
The single-minded advocacy of Palestinian statehood as a mode of neutralizing this threat has prevented successive Israeli governments from actually coming up with more workable and effective plans to reverse demographic trends. This week, the Interior Ministry decided to ban family reunification for West Bank and Gaza residents. This decision, which one hopes Ramon applauds, is one way to reverse the trend. Other plans, such as encouraging lower birthrates and increasing Jewish immigration, have never been seriously discussed.
The conclusion that emerges from this brief exploration of the issue is twofold. On the one hand, contrary to Netanyahu's claim, it is not de jure statehood, but unbridled empowerment and legitimization of the Palestinians' irredentist aspirations that pose a threat. On the other hand, further empowerment of the Palestinians, which independence would undoubtedly cause, far from advancing Israel's diplomatic, security and demographic interests, works only to their detriment, while blind advocacy of such empowerment prevents us from discussing more effective and simpler ways to advance
those selfsame goals.