On the evening of October 13, Benny Elon presented a peace initiative that on one might consider inflammatory in the least inflammatory way imaginable.  When a politician speaks of moving large populations of people, identified by religion and ethnicity out of one area and into another, when that politician is Israeli and that population is primarily Palestinian refugees, and when their destination is not a Palestinian state on the West Bank, but Jordan, then one can expect fireworks.  In the language of the Palestinian resistance, this man is a “certified killer” (Al Awda) who may be contemplating committing war crimes, namely ethnic cleansing.  In the language of the Israeli left, such Nazi-like tactics are literally unthinkable.  And yet here was Knesset member Benny Elon, speaking at MIT to an audience of some three hundred people, a good number of whom were clearly not on his side (you could tell when they didn’t laugh at his jokes), and the conversation was remarkably civil and open.

 

Elon’s plan essentially argues that the Palestinians will never be satisfied with a semi-state on the West Bank that cannot have an army, a ministry of international relations, cannot sign treaties, cannot escape the political and economic dominion of an Israeli state – which is all that Israel would be willing to allow.  Rather than procrastinate on these vital issues and start a process of “peace-building” like Oslo, based on cruelly inaccurate illusions and guaranteed to bring cruel and violent disappointments, he argues that we need to step back from the map between the Jordan and the Mediterranean, and look at the larger issues.  There was an incomplete population transfer in 1948, 850,000 Jews from Arab lands came to Israel and were integrated into the state, 6-700,00 Arabs left Israel and were locked up in “refugee camps” where they were taught to hate Israel for a misery their own leaders – the Arab League, the PLO – inflicted on them.  “It is as if time stopped for them,” he commented, they could not go forward with their lives.”  They were told they had to go back to the very house they lost, that “justice” must be done before their suffering could end. The most viable answer to both the yearning of these refugees to lead real lives, and for a real Palestinian state to exist, is to have a plan whereby these refugees are relocated to real villages, towns and cities in Jordan.  The three basic elements of the plan:

1)      end of the refugee problem through genuine integration in the Arab world, especially in a Palestinian state in what is now Jordan

2)      end of the Mafioso politics of the Palestinian Authority and its even more extreme opposition parties like Hamas, and the transfer of the political representation of the Palestinians to king Abdullah of Jordan

3)      a condominium arrangement whereby Arab (and especially Muslim) inhabitants of Israel (which now reaches to the West Bank) have the right to be citizens of either Jordan/Palestine or Israel without moving to the actual geographical area of the sovereign nation they are citizens of.

 

On one level, this plan defies every axiom of current thinking

  • the Arab refugees must be returned, not displaced yet again;
  • Israel cannot annex the West Bank and the Gaza Strip;
  • Abdullah would never want a huge influx of Palestinians and
  • the Palestinians would never accept a Hashemite monarch as their only representative… 

And yet what disarmed the audience and made at least some of them think again, was the obvious seriousness with which Elon spoke about the Arabs and the Palestinians.  He was not demonizing them, indeed he presented their feelings with respect and understanding.  He acknowledged what (he claims, probably accurately) no one in Israel wants to admit: that by putting off discussion of the hard questions like refugees and Jerusalem, by pretending that the most difficult things can be solved later, you are fooling no one but yourself.  You certainly aren’t fooling the Palestinians, merely treating them with condescension.  Spoken softly, with deliberation and humor, with respect for the nationalism of the Palestinians and unapologetic about the nationalism of the Jews, the message came across unexpectedly lucid.  Here was not an irrationally emotional right wing Bible thumping nut bent of ethnic cleansing, but a deeply thoughtful, empathic and passionate man who could think out of the box.  And as he himself pointed out, with no rhetorical anger, the Norwegian Fridtjof Nansen received the Nobel Peace prize in 1922 for organizing the peaceful transfer of some 175, 000 Greeks and Turks in order to bring peace to those two troubled nations.  Ethnic cleansing and peaceful and constructive relocation are, potentially at least, two very different things.

 

The strength of this approach came out clearly in the challenge of one questioner who asked how the kind of nationalism represented by Israel was not just more of the kind of regressive parochialism of the Nazis.  Invoking the lessons of Soviet efforts to suppress nationalism in the former Yugoslavia, Elon argued that we need to acknowledge the need and the right of people and religions to run their own lives, and that the Palestinians will do that far more successfully in a real state to the East of the Jordan, than they will in a mini-state on the West Bank doomed to incompletion and dependence. Pointing out further, that nationalism does not mean imperialism and real wars, but on the contrary it can mean good neighbors and “color wars”, he argued that acknowledging and granting people autonomy under the right circumstances was probably the sanest and most respectful way to proceed.  (He could have added here that we need to distinguish between a zero-sum [I win, you lose] “malignant nationalism” that defines its identity in terms of its dominion over others, and a positive-sum [win-win] respectful nationalism that can live side by side in prosperity with its neighbors.)

 

Similarly, when another questioner asked how, given how enraged the Palestinian refugees are today, his plan would do no more than enrage them further, and how naïve could he be to think that the refugees would do this voluntarily, Elon answered that he did not think it would all be a happy, voluntary relocation, but that, as part of a larger political agreement that actually looked to their welfare on the other side of the move, it could be both acceptable and in the long run preferable.  (He might have added that, given how the refugees’ rage is a direct result of the cruel treatment that they received at the hands of their Arab “brethren”, the offer of no more refugee misery, but a chance to build a decent future for themselves might lessen the rage significantly – which is precisely why leaders like the Arafat, the PFLP, Hamas and Islamic Jihad are ferociously opposed to letting the refugees “out.”)  Indeed, Elon argued that under the best circumstances, a relocation of the refugees will work to everyone’s advantage; whereas if another war occasions the forceful expulsion of these populations, the same catastrophic suffering inflicted by the Arabs on their own refugees in 1948 will repeat itself.

 

The initiative – it is more modest than a “plan” – has many problems, including the immensely difficult task of dealing with citizens of two, potentially enemy states in the same geographical area, and the problem Israel would face if the vast majority of Arabs in the territories were, out of malevolence or out of self-preservation, to chose Israeli citizenship.  According to Elon, they would serve in the army and presumably have access to high echelons of the government based on merit.  Given his remarks about the irreducible and understandable identification of Israeli Arabs with both Islam and Palestinian culture, it seems unlikely that such an arrangement will work very well at least for the foreseeable future. Similarly the problem of dismantling the PA presents a real problem.  As one questioner put it: the Palestinians would rather shoot themselves in the foot (or head) with a terrible leader (Arafat) than accept a leader that the West – kal ve-homer that Israel – suggests.

 

The problems are difficult.  Indeed, just to raise the subject is nearly impossible.  In particular, the vast weight of politically correct thinking, in its desire not to see further suffering inflicted (by the Israelis) on the Palestinians (there’s a curious tolerance for Arab-inflicted suffering in PC discourse as Charles Jacobs “Human Rights Complex notes), has equated “transfer” with “ethnic cleansing,” with Nazi tactics, has thereby blocked off a whole dimension of creative thinking.  Elon, with humor, frankness, and thoughtfulness, has opened up a discussion that looks at a much larger picture than the narrow one that has characterized most of the failed thinking since 1967.  As he put it, it’s hard to be politically correct when you have to correct so much failed political thinking.  Whether one agrees with him or not, to go through the mental exercise of imagining the problem in the wider, and ultimately more humane perspective that he brings to it, can only make one a better contributor to the solution.

 

For me personally it has opened up a whole range of interesting possibilities.  At one point in his responses, Elon noted that some of the refugees are dying to get out, and we could start with an experiment of taking one camp or neighborhood out and building a new home for them in Jordan.  The demonstration effect alone would help the process.   This is precisely where Jimmy Carter’s Habitat for Humanity could contribute, helping these folks to build the own homes and feel the kind of empowerment that their previous wardens, the Arab nations, never allowed them.  As for the funding for such a venture, Elon would be glad to contribute the $3 billion Israel gets from the USA (and undoubtedly far more could come from a global community eager to develop peace in the region).  That way, Israel divests itself from being a Schnorrer nation (rather than being forced by demonizing opponents), and the Palestinians as a people benefit, rather than Mafioso elites who thrive on their own people’s misery and threaten the stability of the entire region. 

 

If only for opening up new areas for social creativity to begin to exercise its imagination, Benny Elon deserves our gratitude for his reflections on a hard problem in a hard season.

 

Richard Landes