After years building a modern state out of an Ottoman backwater, Israel has achieved unbelievable advancements in technology, medicine, and culture. Having built a modern, thriving state, however, Israel has a new challenge: marshaling these same resources to make itself the regional leader in the Middle East, one that utilizes its substantial Jewish majority and diverse social groups to form a leading society that bridges the East-West divide.
When I say “regional leader,” I’m not referring to the country as the region’s top military force.
Besides working toward a workable and sustainable solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Israel needs more developed foreign relations, increased economic cooperation with non-Western countries, strengthened ties with as many of its Middle Eastern neighbors as possible, and a renewed focus on improving the lot of its own poor and minorities.
First among these important objectives is an attempt to create peace with the Palestinians. Unlike past deals, the initial focus should not be on Palestinian independence, but Israeli-Palestinian interdependence. In emphasizing independence over interdependence, the international community is attempting a short-term solution to a long-term problem. If the issue were only independence for the Palestinians, the conflict would have been solved by now. But independence must also be matched with security for Israel.
Interdependence means Israel needs to better the lives of Palestinians to reduce the appeal of militancy in the disputed territories. The Palestinians’ economic situation can only get worse if they are unable to conduct international trade or get the proper international financial support for its domestic institutions and industries.
Israel’s occupation of the West Bank should not be one of limitless control, but characterized by helping the Palestinians with economic reconstruction and thus integration into the Israeli economy. Mutual dependence would deter Palestinian leaders from conducting or condoning devastating attacks against Israel that would devastate the Palestinians’ own economy.
Israel has been reluctant to admit the need to redraw the map to ensure Israel’s security. It may even be wise for Israel to consider a much larger annexation of territory from the West Bank that would extend citizenship to thousands of Palestinians. While Israel and the international community institute a Marshall Plan for the West Bank’s majority-Palestinian cities like Hebron, Nablus, and Jericho, access to the Israeli economy would improve the new Arab Israelis’ lot in Israel proper. Meanwhile, Israel would retain control of all the major Jewish settlement blocs, including several smaller ones that would otherwise be dismantled under Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s plan.
For such a plan to work, considering the country’s need to preserve its Jewish majority, Israel needs to create conditions that would attract a new movement of immigration to balance the population shifts. Israel has begun investment into building up the unpopulated areas of the Galilee and Negev; they should be the hubs of new immigration.
Simultaneously, the state should attend to the needs of communities like the Druse and Beduin, who have contributed vitally to the Israel Defense Forces and the state as a whole. Initiatives would include more allocations for development in Druse communities in the Galilee and the recognition of currently illegitimate Beduin settlements in the Negev. The development projects being currently initiated in the Negev should open themselves up more to the particular concerns of the Beduin community in that region.
An ambitious new plan of regional interdependence is also what Israel needs to rejuvenate its own people. Years of exhausting war with the Palestinians have weakened the Zionist zeal of many Israelis. Their leaders need to recognize this by adopting initiatives that reinvigorate Israeli society. Reducing the size of the country is not going to create the prime conditions for Israel to build a strong Jewish nation. It must be matched with an effort to meet the needs of its underserved minorities and poor, whose welfare was overlooked by leaders focused on security in the West Bank and Gaza. Economic development is the key not just to peace but to boosting morale.
A premature peace deal, without a reorganization of the Israeli and Palestinian economies, would just be lumped in with the Oslo Accords, the 2000 withdrawal from Lebanon, and the Gaza disengagement as failed land-for-peace initiatives that eventually led to new wars. Each of these efforts put Palestinian independence before a workable future of Israel-Palestinian interdependence — in essence, kicking a bird out of the nest before it can fly. This time, Israel should work out how Israel and a future Palestinian state would work together ahead of plans for separation and independence.