Herzliya Conference reveals Israeli plans after disengagement

Acres of analysis will be dedicated over the coming days to the significance of this week’s Palestinain general election and what it heralds for the Middle East conflict. But that spectacle and Hamas’ starring role in it have overshadowed a far more important drama playing out in the wings.

Barely anyone has remarked on the unfolding events at the Herzliya Conference, Israel’s most important annual policy-making jamboree. This week politicians, businessmen, generals, academics and journalists converged on the exclusive seaside resort of Herzliya, near Tel Aviv, to share their thoughts on the country’s central concern, as expressed in the conference’s title: “The balance of national strength and security in Israel”. Based on past form, the discussions and speeches are revealing more about the direction of Israeli policy over the next year than all the Knesset debates, cabinet meetings and press conferences put together.

The first Herzliya Conference, in December 2000, set the tone. It concentrated on the key anxiety facing Israeli policy-makers as the intifada took hold in Palestinian areas. Senior politicians of the left and right, from Shimon Peres to Ariel Sharon, strode on stage not to talk about military strategy but to discuss the “demographic demon” threatening the collapse of the Jewish state.

The debate marked a political sea change. For decades Israel had made a sharp distinction between the two main Palestinian population groups under its rule: the “Israeli Arabs”, who hold Israeli citizenship and whose Palestinian identity has traditionally been denied by the state, and the Palestinians of the Occupied Territories. From Herzliya onwards that policy was abandoned. All the Palestinians between the Mediterranean Sea and the River Jordan were lumped together and reclassified in demographic terms — as an ethnic enemy poised to achieve numerical dominance. If unchecked, Herzliya’s speakers warned, Palestinian population increase would force Israel either to adopt apartheid rule or to commit national suicide.

Following the conference, the organisers issued a report in which they made several recommendations to defuse the “demographic timebomb”. Many more Jewish immigrants had to be brought to Israel; the citizenship rights of some Israeli Arabs should be revoked; and the Palestinian Authority had to be encouraged to sign up for “land swaps”, handing over areas adjacent to the West Bank heavily populated with Israeli Arabs in return for much of the territory on which Jewish settlements have been built.

The new strategy was confirmed by the Herzliya Conference of December 2003. It was then that Sharon revealed his unilateral disengagement from Gaza, a tiny strip of land but nevertheless one that posed the most immediate demographic threat to Israel. By cutting adrift Gaza’s 1.4 million Palestinians, the Jewish state was buying itself a few years of breathing space.

But the loss of Gaza offers only a temporary reprieve. This week, in a chorus presumably designed to keep the Herzliya delegates’ eye on the ball, Israel’s demographic gurus, Professors Sergio Della Pergola and Arnon Sofer, separately warned of the imminent destruction of the Jewish state unless further action was taken against the “menace” of Palestinian birth rates.

Della Pergola advised that even after the Gaza withdrawal, the moment of numerical parity was fast approaching. “If the [demographic] tie doesn’t come in 2010, it will come in 2020,” he cautioned in the liberal daily Haaretz. Sofer, meanwhile, told readers of the biggest-circulation newspaper, Yediot Aharonot, that Ehud Olmert, the acting prime minister and the man widely believed to have converted Sharon to the cause of disengagement, had written reassuring him: “The time has come to stop thinking in theoretical terms and to take ethical decisions and provide real answers to ensure Israel continues to have a clear, overwhelming Jewish majority.”

That was also Olmert’s message this week at the Herzliya Conference, as he delivered the keynote address on the eve of the Palestinian elections. The man who has inherited the leadership of Sharon’s Kadima party and is expected to be Israel’s next prime minister, is far less coy than his predecessor about the demographic imperatives at the heart of Israeli policy-making.

He hinted that a further disengagement, this time from the West Bank, was all but inevitable. Israel was going to have to establish its “final borders”, he said, and thereby create a Palestinian state. “The choice between allowing Jews to live in all parts of the land of Israel and living in a state with a Jewish majority mandates giving up parts of the Land of Israel. We cannot continue to control parts of the territories where most of the Palestinians live.”

So what sort of “state” do Olmert and his political rivals — most of whom will end up joining together in a coalition government the far side of the Israeli general election on March 28 — intend to offer the Palestinians in order to salvage their Jewish state and its Jewish majority?

Herzliya again offers clues. Speakers from Amir Peretz, leader of the Labor party, to Shaul Mofaz and Tzipi Livni, high-profile Likud recruits to Sharon’s new party, insisted that the Palestinians would be given a state on whatever is left after the large settlement blocs in the West Bank had been enveloped on Israel’s “side” of the wall. All agreed that such a state most certainly will not include the eastern, Palestinian side of Jerusalem, illegally annexed by Israel after the 1967 war.

Even Binyamin Netanyahu, leader of the rump Likud and arch-opponent of Sharon’s disengagement, set his own priority at Herzliya as moving the wall deeper into the West Bank to annex more territory, presumably to determine unilaterally the shape of a future Palestinian state.

Israel’s leaders are agreed. A Palestinian state will be minus its only possible capital, East Jerusalem, and squeezed into a series of enclaves behind a “security barrier”. If, as appears likely, Israel also refuses to allow any connection between the West Bank and Gaza, the job of destroying the unity of the Palestinian people and any chance of a meaningful Palestinian state will be complete. There will be one compensation, though: the Jewish state will have been saved.

Six years of Herzliya conferences prove that peaceful negotiations over Palestinian statehood have never been of concern to Israel’s leadership. It will matter little whether Hamas or Fatah are heading the Palestinian Authority. The Jewish state made up its mind long ago about how best to protect its interests.

Jonathan Cook’s book “Blood and Religion: The Unmasking of the Jewish and Democratic State”, published by Pluto, is due out in April.

Related Links

  • Herzliya Conference
  • Palestinian population exceeds Jewish population says U.S. government, Michael Brown, Ali Abunimah, and Nigel Parry (1 March 2005)
  • Racism thrives at Israel’s Herzliya conference, Arjan El Fassed (18 December 2003)
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