Trading Places

By Aluf Benn
Sunday, August 14, 2005

WADI ARA, ISRAEL When Israel's war of independence ended in March 1949, the country's prime minister and founding father, David Ben-Gurion, had one final demand from his neighbor, King Abdullah of Jordan. Ben-Gurion asked the king to cede the hills around Wadi Ara, a seasonal riverbed adjacent to the West Bank, to Israel as part of the armistice agreement concluding the war. Otherwise, he said, Israel would take the strategic ridges by force. Abdullah gave in. And Wadi Ara and its Arab population became part of Israel, on the western side of the "Green Line," or armistice line.

Fifty-six years later, a lot of Israelis want to give Wadi Ara away. Its ridges, 15 miles southeast of Haifa, are still strategic, but many Israelis have become more anxious about demography than about topography. To them, invading armies from neighboring countries seem a remote danger compared to the rapidly growing Arab population in Israel's midst. And Wadi Ara is full of Arab communities, including Umm el-Fahm, the second largest Palestinian town inside Israel's pre-1967 borders.

Once disengagement from the Gaza Strip is complete, this will become the next frontier of Israeli politics. Already, if you drive along the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway, you can see billboards showing a portrait of Avigdor Lieberman, the Moldovan-born former transportation minister and leader of the extreme right, with the campaign slogan "disengagement from Umm el-Fahm." Lieberman advocates a "populated land swap," which is sometimes called "soft transfer": Israel would give Umm el-Fahm and the adjacent Arab-populated area west of the Green Line to a future Palestinian state, in return for the major Jewish settlement "blocks" that lie east of the Green Line on the West Bank. You don't have to be from the extreme right to find the notion appealing; academics and politicians from Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to his predecessor, Ehud Barak, have toyed with the idea.

But from Wadi Ara, where identity and borders have become blurred, swapping whole communities doesn't look so simple. Here, Israel's highway 65, which follows the route of the ancient Via Maris connecting the country's coastal plain with the Galilee in the north, winds among ridges dense with olive groves and villages. The villages, while Arab, have sloping red-tiled rooftops, a staple of Israeli architecture. The town of Umm el-Fahm is a mixture of modern and traditional; it features a new shopping mall under construction as well as women in traditional costumes, a golden-domed mosque and steep, narrow alleys. While Umm el-Fahm is the hub of Israel's Islamic movement and flaunts its Palestinian Arab identity, it is also integrated into the Jewish state's political structure and enjoys its economic opportunities. On the next crest line to the east, right behind the town's highest houses, the newly constructed security barrier separates Wadi Ara from the West Bank Palestinians and their flat-roofed houses.

To many of the people here, the idea of swapping Israeli Arab towns sounds like a twisted board game. When I interviewed Sharon last April, he recalled a meeting with the town council members of Umm el-Fahm. "I asked them, 'Would you want to stay in your homes and lands, but move to the control of a Palestinian State.' Everybody paled. I said, 'Let's vote about it,' but no hand was rising." When I asked him about his own vote, Sharon told me: "It can be discussed. But I don't see any possibility to impose such a move by force."

The residents of Umm el-Fahm firmly reject the idea, and the mayor, Sheikh Hashem Abdel Rahman Mahajne, calls it "racist and unacceptable." They are, and want to remain, Israeli citizens, he told me. The Israeli left opposes the Wadi Ara swap as both immoral and impractical. A state cannot simply divorce its citizens for convenience.

And if it could, who's to say it wouldn't open the door for similar demands in other Arab-inhabited districts? After all, the failure to fully integrate our Arab citizens has been a flaw of Israeli democracy since its inception. Israel's Arabs have been discriminated against in funding and infrastructure, and our Jewish and Arab communities have minimal contact even after decades of living together. This gap was tragically illustrated on Aug. 4, when an AWOL soldier turned terrorist murdered four Arab Israeli citizens on a bus in the northern town of Shfaram. The Sharon government worked with Arab community leaders to contain reactions. Nobody wanted a replay of October 2000, when roads to Wadi Ara and other Arab areas were blocked by local demonstrators who identified with the newly erupted intifada. Back then, Israeli police opened fire, killing 13 and further alienating the Arab and Jewish communities.

The "populated swap" idea was first formulated in 1994 by Yossi Alpher, a researcher from the moderate left who was seeking a quid pro quo for the settlement blocks. Following the events of 2000, it resonated among Israeli Jews. Mainstream politicians from both the Likud and Labor parties have expressed some support, but only Lieberman, leader of the National Union party, has made it a campaign platform. He has pledged to leave his home in Nokdim, a settlement near Bethlehem, in return for a "genuine ethnic division." A couple of weeks ago, Yisrael Hasson, a former deputy chief of the Shin Bet security service and a member of Barak's Camp David peace negotiations team, joined his bandwagon.

The underlying reason for the Wadi Ara plan is demography. In the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, Israeli Jews will soon become a minority, if they aren't already. Getting rid of an Arab-populated area adjacent to the West Bank would instantly improve the balance. The leading academic preachers of the "demographic threat," Hebrew University demographer Sergio della Pergola and Haifa University geographer Arnon Sopher, advocate the exchange as a potential remedy.

The essence of the demographic argument is that, given the higher Arab birth rate, Israel will be forced to choose between its being Jewish and being democratic. To remain a democracy, it can either control all the land east of the Jordan River and become a bi-national state, or it can preserve its Jewish character over a smaller territory. In the past, the former scenario had been a mainstay of the Israeli left, which used it as a reason for leaving the occupied territories in the West Bank and Gaza. In the past five years, however, the collapse of the peace process and the prolonged Palestinian intifada has convinced many in the center-right of the political spectrum that separating the peoples is in the national interest.

Sharon personifies this change of heart. His two key decisions -- the construction of the "separation barrier" between Israel and the West Bank and the pullout of Jewish settlements from the Gaza Strip -- are both designed to address the demographic imbalance. The fence was planned to leave as many Palestinians as possible on its eastern "other" side. The Gaza withdrawal will turn the Green Line there into an ethnic frontier by removing the 7,500 Jews who had previously been surrounded by about 1.2 million Palestinians. Sharon had not been an easy convert; he previously rejected the demographic argument as leftist propaganda.

In recent months, however, Sharon has altered his line. Preserving a Jewish majority in Israel has become his top priority. "The future of the Jewish people depends on the nature of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state," he told a French Jewish audience during his recent visit to Paris. "In this spirit we initiated the disengagement plan . . . . That would secure the Jewish majority in the land of Israel." But demography doesn't stop at the Green Line. Asked about Israel's Arabs, Sharon called them "Palestinians," thereby insinuating that they may ultimately be affiliated with the Palestinian state. Other political leaders on the right have also chimed in. Binyamin Netanyahu, Sharon's main challenger, declared in 2003: "Our demographic problem lies with the Israeli Arabs, rather than the Palestinians."

The demographic fear already has concrete policy implications: Sharon's government is encouraging Jewish immigration from the United States, France and the former Soviet Union, while seeking to block the entrance of non-Jews to Israel. The cabinet recently approved a bill that will make it harder for Palestinians to gain Israeli citizenship through marriage. When the cabinet put a temporary halt to such "family reunifications" at the height of Palestinian terrorist attacks in 2002, it cited security reasons. Now Sharon says, "We should not hide behind security arguments. There is a need for a Jewish state."

Sharon has not completely forsaken topography. He still favors Israeli control over wide "security zones" in the West Bank, including the major Jewish settlements that overlook Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and the Ben Gurion international airport. And he prefers to leave Gaza, with its flat terrain and dense Palestinian population. He also has political limits. The current barrier route excludes 55,000 Palestinians who live within Jerusalem, but leaving out more of the 200,000 still inside the city limits would amount to political suicide in the Likud party, where Sharon is already blamed for "dividing Jerusalem."

Nevertheless, Sharon's Gaza withdrawal is accelerating the debate over Israel's future identity within narrower borders. In this debate, demography, rather than topography, will become the new dividing line in a country with a growing non-Jewish minority. And Jews and Arabs alike will have to decide on which side of that line they belong.

Author's e-mail:

Aluf Benn is the diplomatic editor of the Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company