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Lieberman’s swap proposal exposes Israeli democracy deficit

Earlier this month, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman declared in a high profile speech that “he would not support any peace agreement that does not include the exchange of Israeli Arab land and population”. Calling it a “basic condition”, the Yisrael Beiteinu leader said that “the border will move” so as to put “the Little Triangle and Wadi Ara” in the proposed Palestinian state.

Lieberman has suggested this before. In a Newsweek interview in 2010, he affirmed that he envisaged “drawing a line” so that “at least half” of all Palestinian citizens would “no longer be part of Israel”. Two years ago, the FM described any arrangement that did not include “territory and population exchanges” as “collective suicide”, while in April 2013, Lieberman reiterated his argument as Palestinian citizens marked the Nakba.

It is unclear just how much this is being seriously pushed by the Israeli side in the context of the U.S.-led negotiations. An Israeli media report today claimed that Netanyahu supports the land and population swap idea, with a figure of 300,000 Palestinian citizens cited. The Palestine Papers, meanwhile, revealed that current chief negotiator Tzipi Livni had raised the same idea on two occasions during talks in 2008.

Palestinian Members of Knesset reacted angrily to Lieberman’s speech, with Ahmed Tibi commenting that “Arab citizens of Israel are not chess pieces that are moved from here to there”. MK Jamal Zahalka warned of the plan’s “dangerous repercussions”, since “who would want to invest in an area that might be part of a different state?”

Some, however, felt that this outrage was an opportunity for some political point scoring – including Lieberman himself (thanks to Ofer Neiman for the translation):

The Arabs of Wadi Ara have turned into Lovers of Zion [forerunners of modern Zionism]…In interviews with residents of Um El Fahem on various TV channels, we saw those who commemorate “Nakba day” instead of celebrating independence day, those who raise black flags instead of Israeli flags, those who hold up photos of Nasrallah and Hamas and Hezbollah flags – those very same people are now crying out against the plan according to which, as part of a peace treaty which includes the exchange of territories and populations, they will become citizens of the Palestinian state. All of a sudden, they have become an integral part of the State of Israel, now Herzl is their national hero, Hatikva [Israel’s national anthem] is the hit, and among Ahmad Tibi and his friends, a Jewish soul still yearns [quote from Hatikva].

Meanwhile, Haviv Rettig Gur, formerly of the Jewish Agency and now with the Times of Israel, wrote a piece that hailed Lieberman’s proposal as a “a rhetorical trap of breathtaking simplicity” for the way in which it apparently “forc[es] Israeli Arabs, whether implicitly or explicitly, to reject the liberation of occupied Palestinian land”. Just in case his point wasn’t clear, Gur emphasised just how Lieberman”s “neatly set” trap upsets “Israeli Arab ideologues” and “throws Israeli Arab discourse [completely] off-balance” (a claim he repeats for good measure).

This is all reminiscent of how Israel advocates use polls of Palestinians in East Jerusalem – such as this one and others – to try and undermine (well documented) accusations of discrimination and apartheid-style policies. “Look”, they say, “if the Arabs would rather be in Israel than a future Palestinian state, it can’t be that bad for them!”

This is not a robust argument. It is unsurprising that many would prefer not to voluntarily cede the rights they do have, within the Israeli regime’s sliding scale of privileges and restrictions, for a worse position on the apartheid ladder. They can see what has happened in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, where Palestinians have been economically choked and militarily assaulted behind fences and walls. As Balad party secretary-general Awad Abdel Fattah put it:

Israel turned life in the West Bank, Jerusalem and the other occupied territories into a hell after years of confiscation, Judaisation, oppression, arrests and the isolation of cities. Who would be willing to move…to a place that is even harsher and more dangerous? To move to another part of their homeland that Israel wants to turn into a large prison and call it a state and which is governed by a subsidiary government of the apartheid occupation authorities, otherwise known as the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah?

Or, more pithily, in the words of Oudeh Basharat: “I’m prepared to move, provided that Palestine will be a real country in every way and not just a punching bag.”

Discussing Lieberman’s plan with me, Nadim Nashif, director of Baladna (Association for Arab Youth), pointed out that “when people hear the message ‘we’re getting rid of you’, or ‘swapping’ you, it is natural that the first response is to reject this – especially because the status quo is known and understood, while the new situation is unclear and represents the unknown”.

In fact, rather than the opposition to being transferred into a future West Bank Bantustan somehow proving just how much Palestinian citizens ‘love Israel’, the fact that such a proposal can be made at all just goes to show how the understanding of what constitutes citizenship in the State of Israel is so problematic. Lieberman hasn’t laid a ‘trap’; he’s laid bare Israeli ethnocracy’s democracy deficit.

First published by Middle East Monitor

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