Several years ago my friend Susan Lourenço, who used to be an American academic, took me early one summer morning to a checkpoint deep in the West Bank. There, along with several other women in MachsomWatch, we spent the morning watching young–very young–IDF soldiers check the IDs and bags of hundreds of Palestinians on their way to work or school.
There were no obvious abuses, perhaps in part because of the watchful eyes of the women. A couple of young men were detained under a corrugated plastic shelter that gave them a little protection from the sun. A few mild altercations occurred between people on line and the soldiers; one or two of the MachsomWatch women went up to the soldiers and inquired about them. Slowly, the line kept moving.
This is daily life for all Palestinians who need to go anywhere, even within the West Bank. It isn’t what I would call a severe kind of oppression; it’s not much more onerous than our having to wait on long security lines and be searched on a really bad day at the airport. But it’s an everyday—twice a day—occurrence for many thousands of Palestinians, and in a community desperately in need of development, it’s a big daily economic setback.
Settlers and other Israelis, of course, move around the West Bank with no such obstacles. One day on that same trip I took the wrong highway exit and accidentally left Israel, driving my rental car into another part of East Jerusalem. Finding my way back, I saw a huge line of cars waiting to be checked. But I noticed that there was an open lane adjacent to the line and, feeling sheepish, guilty, and a bit adventurous, I drove down it, passing the waiting cars. It led to the other side of the IDF booth, where I stopped. A soldier looked at my passport and waved me on.
The need for these security measures is not lost on me; along with the security fence, they have reduced terror-related deaths from hundreds a year to zero. I don’t question that. But, like many Israelis today, I do question how long this situation can go on.
Many savvy people in the field of international relations are saying that the window of opportunity for a two-state solution is slowly closing. At this moment in history, the idea of a Jewish and a Palestinian state side by side is widely accepted throughout the world, even much of the Arab world. Some very big sticking points, especially the exact path of the border and the question of a right of return for Palestinians to Israel proper, remain to be worked out. No one thinks that will be easy.
But a growing number of voices outside the Jewish world are calling for a single state from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. If these voices prevail, along with those of the settlers who believe in Greater Israel, there will be a majority-Arab state that will inevitably become either non-Jewish or non-democratic. The world reluctantly tolerates many Israeli compromises with democracy, from the treatment of Israeli Arabs as second-class citizens to the ongoing but temporary occupation of the West Bank.
Any Jew who thinks the same world will stretch its tolerance to accommodate a single state in which a Jewish minority permanently rules an Arab majority does not understand that world. Such a state would truly be the apartheid state that Israel is now unjustly accused of being. It would be internally unstable, the target of relentless hostility from its Arab neighbors, and a country far more isolated on the world scene than it is now. And yes, that is possible.
Benjamin Netanyahu has been prime minister for a month now, governing from a conservative coalition. But he is a pragmatist, and on May 17th he will have his pragmatism tested in his first meeting with our new president. He will find Mr. Obama to be exceedingly intelligent, well informed, sympathetic, and prepared to act in the best interests of the people of the United States.
This president, unlike the last, may not feel that those interests are exactly super-imposable on the interests of Israel. He will be friendly, no doubt, and he will be looking over his shoulder at his supporters in the American Jewish community. But he will want very much to move the Middle East situation forward toward the two-state solution that is for the moment widely accepted.
That means, ultimately, rights, respect, freedom of movement, pride, independence, and a real chance at prosperity for millions of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. This cannot be achieved in a simple-minded way, and it will never happen except against the background of true and lasting military security for the Jewish state. But it is increasingly clear that the same security will be even more threatened by indefinitely prolonging the current stalemate.
The women of MachsomWatch, whether or not they are religious, have taken to heart the mitzvah—the commandment—that appears three times in the Torah: “You shall not wrong or oppress a stranger, because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
If there is going to be a Jewish state in Israel fifty years from now—and I hope with all my heart that there will be—it is going to have to be one that treats the Arab stranger in its midst without wrong or oppression, and, almost certainly, one that lives side by side with a free, democratic, proud, and prosperous Palestinian state. If this is impossible, Israel is impossible.