Among the factors that drove the Joint List’s record 15 seats in this week’s election, and a 16-point increase in voter turnout from Palestinian citizens of Israel from the April 2019 election, was the proposal to transfer Palestinian citizens of Israel in the so-called ‘Deal of the Century.’
In Netanyahu’s false declarations of victory, he drew on arithmetic which effectively erased the voices of Palestinians in Israel. The ‘Deal of the Century’ was no different, mentioning Palestinian citizens of Israel in one clause in 181 pages to propose “land swaps” of “populated and unpopulated area”, placing people in the Triangle communities on Israel’s border in the crosshairs for potential transfer. The affected communities took to the streets, with some surveys placing their opposition at over 90%. Understandably, they do not trust a document and administration characterized by pernicious double-speak and a coaxing of Israeli unilateralism that stipulates the “agreement of the parties”.
This flagrant defiance of the Geneva convention, however, should surprise nobody: this does simply represent Netanyahu’s coalition politicking, trying to tempt Lieberman back into the fray, but the culmination of dangerous domestic trends within Israel regarding Palestinian citizens of Israel, making headway across the entire political spectrum.
The history of the idea of ‘population exchange’
Unlike most Palestinians who found themselves as citizens of Israel after 1948, the Triangle was only incorporated into Israel in 1949 as part of the armistice agreement with Jordan, without consultation of the residents.
The new border separated the residents of 63 communities on the Jordanian side and 8 on the Israeli side from their lands, though Israel and Jordan later took steps to correct the boundaries to make the lives of villagers smoother in areas such as Fakuah and Bartaa.
At this point, security concerns for the newly-established State of Israel overrode the demographic concerns. The nervous and thin state perceived these territories, in Tel Aviv’s backyard, as geostrategic critical. While the population of Arabs living in Israel in October 1948 was 70,000, it rose to 160,000 just one year later. Yet, as Israel’s waist expanded through settlement construction, the horizons for its security, in both physical and demographic terms, also expanded.
The idea of population exchange is rooted in the founding acts of the state of Israel, and in the two foundational pillars that proclaim Israel to be both ‘Jewish’ and ‘democratic’. These demand a perpetual vigilance regarding the number of non-Jewish citizens, which was heightened by the acquisition of new territory and peoples in 1967.
The dormant idea was then popularized by two connected phenomena in the 1990s. Firstly, the growing prominence of the two-state solution, rooted in ideas of separation and ethnic homogeneity, served to abet the logic of transfer. Secondly, as the settlement enterprise became irreversibly entrenched in 1990s boom, these communities started to be understood as bargaining chips for annexation.
By the 2000s, transfer was already part of mainstream discourse. Although most attention is paid to the most violent and unilateral manifestations of this idea, epitomized by Avigdor Liberman’s racist campaign in 2004 to “disengage from Umm el Fahm,” softer versions of transfer found a natural home in a liberal Zionist vision, which sought to end the occupation to preserve a Jewish majority in Israel. Prominent ‘doves’ – from Barak to Peres – have flirted and even endorsed this idea.
The Campaign of Delegitimization
While the sidelining of Palestinian citizens of Israel is nothing new – they have never been part of the permanent status agreements, nor have they been given a seat at the negotiating table – the timing of this exclusion is especially bitter, and especially revealing.
In recent years, the Joint List have shown themselves more willing than ever to recalibrate their nationalist aspirations, even if it is temporary or pragmatic, and focus on domestic issues, such as violence in Arab communities and budgetary inequalities. They have extended their arm beyond what should be reasonably expected of an oppressed community, as shown by their historic recommendation (with the exception of Balad) of Benny Gantz, only to be met with a sharpened campaign against them.
This emanated from the Prime Minister’s office, with hateful rallies and social media posts, legislative proposals to hinder Palestinian voting, and attacks on Arab lawmakers, with MK Heba Yazbak being the latest, but by no means the first, victim. The Knesset voted overwhelmingly to disqualify the Balad MK from running in the election, but this decision was overturned by the Israeli Supreme Court.
However, significant sections of the ‘center’ and ‘left’ proved either opportunistic or paralyzed by cowardice. They allowed the Israeli right to dictate the discourse in the country, and subsequently pandered to a new normal of collapsing democratic standards and the rule of law. Gantz’s announcement that the Joint List “won’t be a part of my government” was the final nail in the coffin. While the Labor-Gesher-Meretz alliance found the time to condemn the UN list of companies tied to settlement building, their silence regarding his comments was deafening. As he is fanning the flames that have enabled this idea to make so much headway in the first place, Gantz’s public rejection of “transfer” can only be read as contrived, especially as his party parrots the racist idea of pursuing a “Jewish majority” to form a government.
The inconvenient existence of this group shatters the clean separationist paradigm, and reveals more atavistic tensions: what does it mean for Israel to be the “nation-state of the Jewish people” when it has over 65 laws which directly or indirectly discriminate against Palestinians? The hollow promise of “equal civil rights for all citizens” in the ‘Deal of the Century’ with no elaboration validates a status quo of stratified visions of citizenship, far removed from a democratic state comprised of and serving all its citizens.
While the transfer of “populated” areas in the document have no precedent in law, in previous negotiations, and in the modern international system, they are the next natural step to the sustained attacks on the civic and political legitimacy of Palestinian citizens of Israel.