For weeks Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has been threatening to “drop a bomb” during his speech at the U.N. General Assembly. Speculations ran high: Will he resign? Will he announce that the Palestinian Authority ceases to exist and from now on Israel is in charge of the Palestinians?
No wonder that on Wednesday at 7 p.m. Israel time (noon in New York) I was glued to the TV screen. There was Abbas indeed, starting to badmouth Israel, but in no time he was taken off the air, before dropping anything, to make room for a famous Israeli chef who was complaining about a more important thing: the staggering price of tomatoes.
Not that the Palestinians themselves were extremely interested. The big screens placed in public spaces in the West Bank did attract some viewers, but the real talk of the town was Mohammed Assaf, winner of the 2013 Arab Idol song contest, who had dropped the real bombshell: He had just announced his engagement to one Lina Qishawi, much to the dismay of many young Palestinian women!
So what was it, no more than a show in faraway New York, which had little relevance to the reality in our region? Even when Abbas finally dropped his promised bomb, declaring that the Palestinians were no longer bound by the Oslo Accords, some, like Barak Ravid of Haaretz, wondered whether it was “a Bombshell or a Stink Bomb.” Why? Because “Abbas didn’t specify a date as of which the Palestinians would no longer honor their agreements with Israel. Nor did he specify which agreements he meant and whether security coordination was included in them.”
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Needless to say that whether this was real or fake, neither President Abbas nor Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu missed the opportunity at the U.N. arena to point fingers at each other, and in the best Palestinian-Israeli tradition they held each other responsible for the current deadlock. Abbas complained that by expanding settlements Israel made clear its determination not to allow the emergence of a viable Palestinian state. Netanyahu, in turn, blamed the Palestinians for rejecting his numerous appeals to come to the negotiation table.
There is an old joke (like all Jewish jokes): Two Jews come to the Rabbi for arbitration. The first Jew presents his case, and the Rabbi says, “You’re right.” Then the second Jew enters and complains, and again the Rabbi says, “You’re right.” When they leave, the Rabbi’s wife, who had been listening from the kitchen, asked him how they could both possibly be right, to which the Rabbi replied, “You’re right, too.”
While everyone is right, things on the ground keep moving, and not necessarily in a good direction. On Tuesday, the World Bank reported that the “Palestinians are getting poorer on average for the third year in a row,” and warned that the status quo was not sustainable, and that “(t)he persistence of this situation could potentially lead to political and social unrest.”
Harbingers of this unrest are already seen in East Jerusalem. Palestinians who are clashing with the Israeli police on Temple Mount/Al-Aqsa Mosque, are perhaps motivated by religion, but the hotbed for their grievance is socio-political: Without a hope for a better future for themselves and for their children, people are getting desperate, and the symbolic hoisting of the Palestinian flag at the United Nations is not going to placate them.
Israelis are tempted to believe that this is the Palestinians’ own problem. They are wrong. What happens if Abbas — who is not getting any younger — makes good on his promises and either resigns or surrenders the West Bank to Israel? Then, 8.3 million Israelis, 1.7 million of whom are Palestinians, will have to absorb some 2.5 million more Palestinians. It means that between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea there will be a country which will call itself “a Jewish state” but which will consist of almost 40 percent of Arabs.
In order for Israel to avoid such a scenario it should act now, preferably through a negotiated settlement. But in the absence of a credible Palestinian partner, it should move ahead anyway. Israel should use the changing attitudes of the Sunni powers in the Middle East, who subscribe to Israel’s concerns about Iran, to push for a regional conference which will coerce the Palestinians to agree to a settlement. If this attempt fails, then Israel should pull out of the small settlements, carve its interim border around the big ones, and let the United Nations — so benevolent towards the Palestinians — take care of them. Once the Palestinians are genuinely interested in a negotiation, Israel should be more than happy to cooperate.
I know that the chances of the current Israeli government doing it are slim, but in order to remain both Jewish and democratic, this is the path Israel should be taking.