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
Elon’s plan essentially argues that the Palestinians will
never be satisfied with a semi-state on the
1) end of the refugee problem through genuine integration in the Arab
world, especially in a Palestinian state in what is now
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
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
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
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
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.