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Palestinians Push for Expanded Role in Israeli Politics


Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, left, speaks during consultations with representatives of the Joint List, right, an alliance of four small Arab-backed parties, Jerusalem, March 22, 2015.

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, left, speaks during consultations with representatives of the Joint List, right, an alliance of four small Arab-backed parties, Jerusalem, March 22, 2015.

The unprecedented success of Arab-Israeli political parties in this month's Israeli election is seen as possibly ushering in a new era of expanded civic engagement for Palestinian citizens of Israel.

A coalition of four Arab-dominated political parties, known as The Joint List, captured 14 seats in the March 17 election that was won by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party.

Though the Joint List is not expected to be included in the coalition government to be formed by Netanyahu, the electoral results were good enough to make it the third-largest party in Israel's Knesset.

That success was due to the higher Palestinian voter turnout. In Arab towns and villages, voter participation jumped 10 percent compared to the previous Israeli election, and was the highest rate recorded since 1999.

The Joint List's leader, Ayman Odeh, has stressed working alongside Jewish forces in Israel to help protect the rights of minority Palestinians, many of whom feel ostracized by the Israeli government.

That model — working within the system to help secure Palestinian rights — could represent a new strategy, according to some analysts, not only for the nearly 1.7 million Arab citizens of Israel, but also for those under Israeli military rule in the Palestinian territories.

Frustration over failed talks

In the West Bank, where 2.5 million Palestinians live under an Israeli military occupation that has lasted for nearly 50 years, many are disheartened by the failure of diplomatic efforts to secure an independent Palestinian state. Hope is also running low among the 1.8 million Palestinians in Gaza, where a joint Israeli-Egyptian blockade has left the economy in shambles.

"Palestinians within the occupied territories generally were more hopeful about the creation of an independent, viable state, but that hope is declining," says Stephen Zunes, a professor of international relations at the University of San Francisco. "They are still dealing with hundreds of checkpoints and the daily delays and humiliation of moving from one Palestinian town to another."

The two-state solution, which aims to form a Palestinian nation alongside Israel, is encapsulated in the 1948 U.N. partition plan. It has also been the stated goal of the on-again, off-again Israeli-Palestinian peace talks brokered by the West. The most recent U.S.-led peace effort broke down last year after Palestinian negotiators refused to recognize Israel as a Jewish state and Netanyahu refused to stop the growth of West Bank settlements.

The peace process appeared to take a further hit this month when Netanyahu campaigned on a promise that he would never allow the creation of a Palestinian state. Though he has since walked back those comments, White House officials have stressed their belief that chances for a two-state solution under his leadership are slim.

One-state solution?

The developments have led some analysts to question the viability of a two-state solution, prompting calls to seek resolution in the context of a single democratic state comprising Palestinians and Israelis.

"We are starting to see a swing back towards a call for a one-state solution," says Zunes. "Not in the sense of wanting to physically destroy Israel or kill or expel Jews or anything like that, but to recognize that it's not going to be possible to have a viable Palestinian state alongside Israel. That it needs to be one country: one person, one vote, with, presumably, guarantees for minority rights."

One of the most prominent supporters of the single state solution is exiled Palestinian activist Ali Abunimah, author of One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse. Last week, Abunimah said in a blog post he was "relieved" by Netanyahu's reelection.

"I think it makes it much harder for people to harbor illusions that by going back to the kind of negotiations that the U.S. has brokered for the past 20 years that there will be any progress," he told VOA. "I think it's a clear message that those formulas are dead."

The success of the Arab Joint List in this month's elections makes it easier "to imagine a day that the franchise is extended not just to the 1.6 million or 1.7 million Palestinian citizens of Israel, but to all Palestinians," he said.

"It's not so difficult to see a day when Palestinians and Israelis vote in the same election, when they make alliances across different political lines, social lines, religious lines, and that they negotiate governments and policies that benefit everyone in the country."

Complications

Veteran Middle East scholar William B. Quandt, a former member of the National Security Council, agrees that more Palestinians, especially younger ones, are open to seeking democratic rights within Israel.

But he calls the idea more of a "thought experiment" than a clearly thought-out policy, noting there has been a relatively small amount of effort put into figuring out how Israelis and Palestinians would co-exist in a binational state.

"Nobody's even started," he said. "I mean, I can point you to ten studies that have tried to work the details on a two-state solution, including some by Israelis and Palestinians, and you can read how they'd do the border, and Jerusalem, and border crossings, and security, and refugee claims and so forth.

"It's not that it's all been agreed, but at least you kind of know what the topic headings are," he said. "There's nothing I know of comparable on what a one-state agreed solution would be. At this point, it's more of a concept."

Quandt, professor emeritus at University of Virginia, says the likelihood of Israelis immediately rejecting a one-state solution poses another stumbling block.

Most Israeli leaders view the binational solution as an existential threat to the world's only Jewish state — one that has served as a safe haven for persecuted Jewish populations around the world. Furthermore, they say the security of Israeli citizens would be threatened if outnumbered by Palestinians within the confines of a single state.

Dore Gold, a Netanyahu confidant and former Israeli ambassador to the U.N., acknowledges that if more Israeli Arabs "become a full part of Israeli life, and don't seek to separate themselves," Israel would become a "stronger country and a better society."

But he stresses that the West Bank is a distinct territory from Israel, and that it would be pointless for Palestinians there to seek political rights in a Jewish state. "This is not a case of an area that is already part of Israel and therefore the Palestinians should seek Israeli citizenship," he tells VOA.

"Undoubtedly, as part of a permanent status agreement, there will be Palestinians who will be in territory that will be incorporated into Israel, and those Palestinians should become full Israeli citizens," he said. "But the solution to the problem is a meaningful negotiation that creates secure borders, and not the creation of a single state with the Palestinian population part of the state of Israel."

Gold says it's "pretty clear" that the onus of failed peace processes is on the Palestinians. He specifically cites the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority's formation of a unity government with Gaza-based Hamas militants, whom are committed to armed opposition against Israel.

Status quo seen as likely

Israeli leaders are also fearful that if they end the West Bank occupation, the security vacuum will be filled by Islamic militants, much the same way that Hamas took over the Gaza Strip following an Israeli withdrawal in 2005.

With the peace talks stalled and Israel unwilling to withdraw from Palestinian territory, this essentially means the situation likely will trudge along in some variation of its present form, a position that finds widespread support in Israel. One of those supporters is Dani Dayan, a prominent leader of the Israeli settler movement.

"I am one of those who believe the two-state formula is not a solution to the conflict at all," Dayan told VOA. "On the contrary, it will aggravate the conflict. The state of Palestine, if created, will be used as a launching pad for any aggression against Israel, exactly like the de facto Palestinian state in Gaza."

Although Dayan does not support the creation of a Palestinian state, he rejects the notion that he therefore supports a single-state solution. Instead of engaging in a "futile diplomatic process," Dayan says efforts should be made to improve or normalize the situation on the ground in practical ways, a process he refers to as "peaceful non-reconciliation."

"There is a myriad of things we can do to normalize the situation: to improve human rights, to dismantle road blocks, checkpoints, to maybe in the future completely dismantle the security barrier that Israel was forced to establish ten years ago, to reintegrate Palestinians in a joint labor market, to rehabilitate the refugee camps," he said.

"Those are real steps, not just futile diplomatic steps. [They] will make a tremendous psychological difference and a tremendous improvement in the day-to-day life of both Palestinians and Israelis, even in the absence of peace."

Dayan publicly supported Netanyahu in the elections, and says the Israeli leader even called him on the night of the vote. Following those conversations, he believes Netanyahu soon will implement unspecified "confidence-building measures" to help convince the U.S. he is committed to peace.

US commitments

Meanwhile, the Obama administration has announced it is "reevaluating" its options in regard to the peace process.

Some officials have suggested the U.S. could remove its historic diplomatic support for Israel at the U.N., where Washington has repeatedly vetoed resolutions critical of Israel. Others have said the U.S. could support a U.N. Security Council Resolution that outlines the framework of a comprehensive, two-state solution.

If that were to happen, the two-state process could be put back on track. But whatever White House officials decide, they have attempted to make clear in recent days that the status quo is unacceptable.

In a speech this week in Washington, White House Chief of Staff Dennis McDonough said the U.S. "will never stop working for a two-state solution and a lasting peace that Israelis and Palestinians so richly deserve."

He also warned that "Israel cannot maintain military control of another people indefinitely," suggesting that on its current path, Israel could not survive as a Jewish and democratic state. "An occupation that has lasted for almost 50 years must end," he said.

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