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Opinion ‘Deal of the century’ aside, what is the Israeli-Palestinian end game?

A monument engraved with the names of fallen Israeli soldiers in Jerusalem on May 7. (Ronen Zvulun/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

JERUSALEM — At 8 p.m. on Tuesday, all activity paused throughout much of Jerusalem. Cars pulled over, and people stood still as air-raid sirens sounded across the city to signal the beginning of Israel’s Memorial Day.

On this sunset-to-sunset holiday, Israel commemorates those who have died in its long-running survival struggle, not just soldiers but also the victims of terrorism. It is, I was told, the most important holiday in Israel. “Holocaust Remembrance Day is when we mourn the price of Jewish powerlessness,” says Yossi Klein Halevi, an American-born writer and senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute. “On Memorial Day, we mourn the price of the Jewish reclamation of power.”

That’s a striking thing to hear for someone raised on New York’s Upper West Side, among American Jews who were viscerally connected to the Holocaust through family and neighbors. But in Israel at least, that part of the Jewish identity seems to be receding somewhat, a change that may matter as Israelis contemplate the question of what they are willing to do in the name of national identity.

In the coming weeks, President Trump will apparently launch the “deal of the century” for Middle East peace, a deal that promises to be quite favorable to Israel. The idea seems to be that the Palestinians will have to accept something much less than full statehood within the West Bank and Gaza Strip, because Trump’s prior actions, such as moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and dramatically cutting U.S. aid to the United Nations’ Palestinian refugee camps, have worsened their negotiating position so dramatically.

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The idea that Palestinians will have to concede defeat strikes me, and many other observers, as dangerously naive. But assume it works — that Israel gains de facto control over the territory from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River, and for most of the Arab people within it. What comes next? What, as I asked an Israeli academic, is the endgame?

To the Trump administration, and to many people within Israel, it seems as if that is the endgame: The Palestinians give up Jerusalem and accept something close to the status quo. But if that happens, Israel will still have, within borders it essentially controls, a large and desperate minority population that is about to become the majority of the whole area. Giving those people limited self-rule may allow Israelis to claim that the Palestinians are not Israel’s problem, but they will still be there and still be a problem.

A one-state solution would mean the loss of Israel’s Jewish character and commands little political support. But the longer the status quo continues, and with it the Judaization of Jerusalem and the West Bank, the closer to impossible a two-state solution becomes, not least because the radicalized Palestinians cannot develop the state capacity to run even an autonomous zone.

Which is why, in so many conversations with Israel hawks over the years, I have sensed that the plans all had an asterisk in them somewhere — a point where, somehow, the Palestinians aren’t there anymore, or at least not so many of them. And one hears the same implied asterisk in conversations with many Palestinian nationalists. That is, after all, the heart of the problem: Two peoples whose national identity is tightly bound to the exact same piece of land are bound to be in the other’s way.

I’m not talking about genocide, but about an apartheid state, or the sort of more or less violent mass population transfers that so often accompanied nation-building in the past. Either would maintain Israel’s Jewish character, but only by violating international law and Israel’s self-conception.

Hard-liners on both sides are already quite open about their belief that the other side needs to be removed. But most people are more moderate, and so, the asterisk. But if one side wins full control, it seems all too possible that the implication will become explicit, and shortly thereafter, a fact. What sort of facts is Israel willing to have inscribed in its national history?

The waning significance of the Holocaust may determine how Israel answers that question. It is frequently invoked as a reason that Israel, of all nations, cannot contemplate creating an apartheid-like state. But the majority of Israel’s Jews aren’t the descendants of Holocaust survivors; they are Sephardic Jews with ancestry in the Middle East and North Africa, or refugees from the former Soviet Union. The Sephardic and Soviet Jews are not connected to the Holocaust in the visceral, personal way that they are connected to those who have fallen in Israel’s conflict with its Arab neighbors. And their familial memories of persecution are often likely to have been at the hands of Muslim majorities elsewhere.

But even for the descendants of Holocaust survivors, the current conflict seems more emotionally immediate. And so the question I asked myself on Memorial Day, as Jerusalem fell silent, is whether it is now possible for Israel to think, and ultimately to do, the thing that almost nobody wants to say.

Read more:

William J. Burns: Trump’s ‘deal of the century’ for Arab-Israeli peace is doomed by delusions

Jackson Diehl: For a man who considers himself to be a dealmaker, Trump is avoiding a lot of deals

Max Boot: Trump just made a huge mistake in the Middle East

Hugh Hewitt: Trump’s sledgehammer tactics are fit for the Middle East

Max Boot: I’ve been visiting Israel since 1998. The path to peace is shrinking.