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Posted at: Oct 23, 2015, 12:31 AM; last updated: Oct 22, 2015, 10:14 PM (IST)

West Asia’s paradox: Peace in a Jewish state

As if West Asia was not sufficiently chaotic, confused and strife-torn, leading to a catastrophic, humanitarian disaster, the escalating Israeli-Palestinian dispute threatens to add considerably to the misery of the Arabs.
West Asia’s paradox: Peace in a Jewish state
President Pranab Mukherjee, (left), with the Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, laying a wreath at the Hall of Remembrance, Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial, in Jerusalem. AFP

President Pranab Mukherjee made a significant remark during his recent State visit to Israel. He said: “Religion should not be the basis for the formation of a State, as this has never been successful. For instance, in a large number of Arab countries, Islam is the religion, but on the basis of religion the Arab countries have not converged into one State”. In a telling parallel, he pointed out: “Pakistan was created out of India on the basis of religion in 1947, but a large chunk had come out of Pakistan and become an independent sovereign State within 25 years”.  
 
The President's comment was significant because over the past several years Israel, under Benjamin Netanyahu, has added a new condition, namely, Palestine, and the world, must recognise Israel as a Jewish State. “Jewish State” was not on the agenda at all in Israel's conditions until Netanyahu came on the scene. The Palestinians will never agree to this demand since it would effectively, legally and perennially reduce the Palestinians living in Israel, who constitute 20 per cent of its population, to second-class status. As the head of the largest and most inclusive democracy, the President was reminding his hosts that a State belongs to its citizens and not to any particular religion. In his address to the Knesset, the President remained silent on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a fact which seemed to have upset Netanyahu, who said, he speaks to “my friend Modi” quite often. He quoted Modi as telling him that “India needs Israel”. During his visit to Palestine, the President reiterated, in unequivocal terms,  India's strong support  for an independent Palestinian state, with East Jerusalem as its capital. He added that “the entire political leadership of India” remained committed to the Palestinian  cause. 
 
The recent mounting tension and violence in Jerusalem and elsewhere is due to the belief of the Palestinians that Israel is planning to make changes to the current regime on Al Aqsa/Temple Mount, according to which Jews are not supposed to pray there.  Netanyahu's public assurances about maintaining the status quo has not carried conviction with anyone. 
 
Even the US State Department spokesman echoed President Abbas's concerns, suggesting that Israel's policy leaves open the possibility of change at the site. The tempo of violence is increasing by the day. Are we witnessing the beginning of the third intifada? The first intifada took place in 1987 and the second in 2000. Going by  Netanyahu's past record and current statements, he will employ all means, however ruthless, to suppress the uprising. But when a people feel that their core religious beliefs and attachment to a religious site are under attack, no amount of force is likely to contain violence.
 
The root cause of the present tensions is the continued illegal occupation by Israel of Palestinian territories. The Oslo Accords, which were signed by Yasser Arafat, since demonised by Israel, were interpreted by the Palestinians as paving the way for their independent state. Netanyahu had voted against Oslo. He has subsequently graciously accepted the notion of two states. But according to his formula, Palestine will have only 40 per cent of the West Bank. 
 
The West Bank constitutes 22 per cent of the original mandate, which means that the future Palestine will have only 8.8 per cent of Palestine as it was in 1947. US Secretary of State, John Kerry, got it right when he said at Harvard University on October 13: “A massive increase in settlements built by Israel in recent years has led to the frustration and violence now stoking the region and that frustration is growing”. He added: “Unless we get going, a two-state solution could conceivably be stolen from everybody”.  He will be visiting, yet again, the region to plead for patience and restraint. However, America is in no position to put pressure on Israel and further alieanate its ally after having successfully rebuffed Netanyahu's determined objections to the Iran deal. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas declared in his speech to the United Nations last month that Palestine would no longer consider itself bound by Oslo Agreement. He is under tremendous pressure from his people. Despite his moderate approach, the achievement of self-determination remains as elusive as ever. 
 
There is a growing body of opinion in Palestine, as also among sections of Israeli thinkers, that the Palestine Authority ought to be dissolved, thereby making Israel responsible for administering the angry Palestinian people living in occupied territories, including feeding them and maintaining their security. This is an almost-impossible task, considering that the number of settlers, all of extremist ideology, has swollen to 600,000 from 250,000 some years ago. 
 
This would eventually lead to the “one- state” solution, in which Palestinians will outnumber Jews, an outcome that is completely unacceptable to the Jews. Unlike other countries in the region, the solution to the crisis in Palestine lies with Israel. 
 
If its security concerns can be taken care of — and they can, with the help of the international community — the problem can be resolved. Husum Zumlot, an adviser to President Abbas, recently said that Hamas will soon join the PLO.  This is significant, since Hamas has been demanding this for a long time. The PLO has been reluctant to agree, since it suspects, with good reason, that once Hamas joins the PLO, it would slowly but surely come to dominate and take over the organisation. He also expressed the hope that Prime Minister Modi would include Ramalla in his itinerary when he visits Israel. He ought to have no doubt on this score. Of course, he will.   

The writer is India’s former Permanent Representative to the UN.

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