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A Potential Middle East Solution

Guest Column
Maxim Shusteff and Jake Solomon

This past Sunday, MIT Students for Israel hosted Israeli Knesset Member Benny Elon for a special lecture on the situation in the Middle East. For those of us in the organization, the open-mindedness and diversity of the audience and the unfettered question and answer session following the lecture epitomized the true realization of the academic spirit at MIT. We felt proud of the academic community here for providing us an environment free of the threats and intimidation that have beleaguered pro-Israel students at other universities in North America, most recently at Concordia in Montreal.

About a month ago, we first heard that Elon would be traveling through Boston. Our first reaction was to jump to take advantage of this unique opportunity for MIT students to hear directly from an active participant in the politics of the Middle East. However, as time went on, members of MIT Students for Israel raised various fears and objections. Should we be afraid to sponsor such a controversial speaker? Would there be unruly protests?

Many members of MIT Students for Israel don’t personally agree with Elon’s political platform. Would we be misrepresenting ourselves and the Israeli and Jewish community at MIT as a whole? In the end, we agreed that no matter what he might say, Elon would present an honest, well-reasoned perspective that would lead his audience to a better understanding of the challenges that the peoples of the Middle East presently face. We were not disappointed.

Elon opened his speech by analyzing what caused the degeneration of the Oslo Accords into the current Intifada. He suggested that the Oslo Accords failed because the negotiators chose to procrastinate with endless interim agreements, rather than face the difficult issues.

One such issue is the return of the Palestinian refugees, which, as Elon pointed out, no serious Israeli politician can ever agree to, since it would negate the definition of Israel as a Jewish state and eradicate its fundamental raison d’etre. However, simply expecting the issue to disappear without being addressed was a catastrophic shortfall of the Oslo framework.

Another key issue that most Israeli politicians have failed to seriously consider is the stability and viability of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. Any such state would likely never satisfy the Palestinians. It would necessarily completely depend on Israel for almost every natural resource, as well as have its economy inseparably tied to Israel’s.

The lack of territorial contiguity between Gaza and the two sections of the West Bank would forever hamper this state’s integrity. Also, it would be simply suicidal for Israel to consent to the military independence of a hostile state several minutes drive from every major Israeli population center. In short, in a state in the West Bank and Gaza, Palestinian statehood would be compromised from the very beginning, and Palestinians would never be able to properly exercise true national self-determination in peace with Israel.

Acknowledging that his ideas might go against current notions of political correctness, but stressing the need for independent, creative, and honest thinking in order to deal with the unique challenges in the region, Elon then outlined an approach to a solution.

First, he pointed out that, following World War I, the British Mandate of Palestine included present day Israel, the West Bank, Gaza and Jordan. This original territory was first divided some years later, in 1922, when the British handed about three-quarters of historic Palestine (everything east of the Jordan River) to King Abdullah, great-grandfather of present-day Jordanian King Abdullah, creating the modern-day Hashemite State of Jordan. To this day, the vast majority of Jordan’s citizens -- about 70 percent -- consider themselves Palestinians.

About 860,000 Jewish refugees came to Israel from Arab lands starting in 1947. Elon noted that, given a viable home to move to and the opportunity for national self-determination, these refugees did not cultivate the desire to return to the Arab lands where they had lived in most cases for nearly 2,000 years, despite all the possessions and property they had left behind. In contrast, the approximately 600,000 Arab refugees who left Israel in the same time period for the surrounding Arab lands remain in refugee camps to this day, intentionally unabsorbed by the local Arab governments.

Elon concluded that in a gradual and peaceful way, by consent of all nations involved, negotiators ought to formulate a plan to integrate the Palestinian population in the refugee camps with the Palestinian population in Jordan to form a viable nation capable of self-determination with the necessary territorial integrity for independence. To begin, doing this successfully with even a single refugee community would set a precedent and demonstrate the feasibility of the idea. Elon suggested re-channeling U.S. aid money in the Middle East toward this new “Marshall Plan” to settle Palestinian refugees in Jordan and build them real homes and real lives.

Elon presented his plan not as one that would please every individual affected by it, but as one that would constructively seek a regional political resolution to what he sees at the major problem in Israel. The idea of physically separating two intertwined peoples in bitter conflict opposes some entrenched notions of political conventional wisdom, but the idea’s potential to stop bloodshed and achieve a peaceable settlement was amply demonstrated by the population exchange between Turkey and Greece in the 1920s, in which nearly two million people on both sides were relocated, and for which Dr. Fridtjof Nansen won the 1922 Nobel Peace Prize. The plan’s results today are peaceful diplomatic relations free of violent conflict, and Elon suggested that a similar approach could do the same for the Israelis and Palestinians.

Whether the plan is feasible or desirable was left up to the listener to decide. As was clear from the question period after the talk, the range of responses from audience members was extraordinarily broad, but it was plain that everyone present came away given something to think about by Elon’s reasoned analysis of the situation and the conclusions he drew.

Maxim Shusteff G and Jake Solomon G are members of MIT Students for Israel.