Surging Palestinian presence is a threat to many in Israel. Radical leaders in Tel-Aviv lobby for a military solution to a demographic threat: a regional war leading to the expulsion of Palestinians into neighboring Jordan.
Overt and direct ethnic cleansing of Palestinians is not likely to happen, but it may be achieved indirectly as a byproduct of a future regional war.
Eleven million people live in Israel and its occupied, annexed or controlled territories. The population under Israeli authority is now half Arab and half Jewish.
One of every five Israeli citizens is Palestinian. Half a million Israeli settlers live in the occupied West Bank and in East Jerusalem.
Gaza’s 1.6 million people live under the rule of Hamas, an Islamic resistance. But Gaza’s air space is closed and its borders are under siege.
Naturally, this mix of sovereignty and identities has always been tense and volatile. Demography is rapidly changing among the Palestinians and the Ultra Orthodox and Mizrahi Israeli Jews. Ideology is shifting to the right. The Arab Spring is introducing reform as well as uncertainty. Israel is alarmed by the rise of political Islam emerging from successive regime change in the Arab world.
The simultaneous ascendancy of political Islam and radical conservative Jewish politics is not a coincidence: one side reinforces the other.
Extreme elements in the Israeli cabinet wish to see Palestinians of the West Bank transferred to neighboring Jordan. Starting with the displaced refugees after the 1948 war, about three million Palestinians – constituting half the population - now live in Jordan.
Currently, a special committee in the Knesset discusses a new bill which identifies Jordan as the Nation State of the Palestinian People.
Discussions of the so called “Jordanian Option” for a future Palestinian state are already active in the US, Europe and Israel. The outrageous claim that Palestine is historically absent or invented emanates from the fact that the victor often dictates history.
The idea of “justified” ethnic cleansing of Palestinians within the occupied territories and Israel sounds immoral to most Israelis. But for those who have no interest in a two-state solution - or in a bi-national state scenario with equality for Arab and Jews- reducing Palestinian presence in Eretz (Greater) Israel may look feasible in a pretext, such as a regional war.
Question: what pretext could be created to rationalize the driving of Palestinians out of the West Bank and into Jordan?
To transfer Palestinians to Jordan requires a battle involving Palestinians. Although Palestinians are militarily exhausted, it would not take too much to provoke Hamas and Hezbollah to return to military confrontation.
For Israel, Iran appears to be a convenient setting to start a new wave of military intervention in the region.
For warmongers, Iran today looks like Iraq nine years ago. The Persian state also serves as a conduit to a battle with armed Palestinians and their Lebanese allies on Israel’s border. Iran’s inflammatory rhetoric on the Holocaust, its regional alliances and nuclear adventures, provide a “perfect” enemy for those seeking an international crisis to induce the intended Palestinian population transfer.
A swift Israeli air attack on Iran may not necessarily generate the conditions of ethnic transfer. However, if the attack were to turn into a protracted war, Hamas and Hezbollah would be likely be involved. If Israel were to win this protracted war, it would most likely arrange to push Palestinians across the Jordan River.
But Israel’s victory in this scenario is not certain. Neither in 2006, nor in 2009, did Israel succeed in wiping out Hezbollah in Lebanon or Hamas in Gaza. The outcome such wars is often inconclusive: No side wins; hatred rise and opinions shift to the extreme.
President Obama is not a fool to risk the creation of a regional war with Iran as a starting point. Unlike his opponents, President Obama, stays firm on his Iran policy of sanction-based diplomacy. Today, compared to Newt Gingrich - who lately referred to Palestinians as an “invention”- and other GOP presidential hopefuls, Obama is starting again to look moderate on the Palestine question.
Furthermore, the leaders of the American Jewish community are not yet sold on the idea of a war with Iran, and on a Jordanian option for peace. Finally, most Israelis know well that they cannot risk losing a single war
Should Obama win a second term, he will hopefully find a solution in dealing with an economically exhausted Iran and deal with the Arab-Israeli conflict with a firm hand. An Iranian Spring is in the background. War delays it.
Over the last four decades, the strongest means of Palestinian resistance has been their territoriality, their adherence to their land. They have learned from 1948 and 1967 wars that once they leave their land, homeland becomes a mirage.
To the extent that the Palestinians avoid military confrontation with Israel, it will be difficult for Israel to find a pretext to deport masses of people. Moral restraint, anticipation of rage of 1.5 million Muslims, and world opinion will not allow unprovoked ethnic cleansing.
Force should not be used to draw borders, displace people and forge national identity.
© Ghassan Michel Rubeiz, currently resident in Florida, USA, has written for The Christian Science Monitor and the Arab-American News Services. He is a former Middle East Secretary of the World Council of Churches.