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Israelis ponder a land swap

By Ilene R. PrusherStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 5, 2006


Nabil Saad's roadside restaurant "Hilmi," or "My Dream," attracts hungry travelers - Arabs and Jews alike - who are passing through this Arab town inside Israel.

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But if rising nationalist politician Avigdor Lieberman has his way, the land on which Mr. Saad's restaurant sits - and Umm el-Fahm's population of 45,000 - will simply be transferred from Israel to a future Palestinian state without moving an inch.

That is, if they want to actually stay in Umm el-Fahm. According to Lieberman, whose party suddenly emerged from last week's elections as Israel's fifth-biggest party, residents who wanted to maintain Israeli citizenship could relocate within Israel. But their land would be annexed to the Palestinian West Bank.

A unilateral land swap - trading Israeli-Arab towns inside Israel for Israeli settlements in the West Bank - is based on a perception that this may be crucial to the survival of a Jewish state. It's less about security from suicide attacks, and more about a demographic battle with as many as 1 million Arab citizens of Israel, many who view themselves as Palestinians.

Population math has already become a part of Israel's political arithmetic. Studies regularly show that Jewish birth rates in Israel are far lower than they are among Arabs. Demographers regularly chart the possibility of getting to what has long been viewed as one of Israel's worst-case scenarios: as many Arabs in Israel as Jews, an effective end to a state that is both Jewish and democratic.

The fact that Israel would soon be ruling over as many Arabs as Jews was used by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as a selling point for the withdrawal from the occupied Gaza Strip last summer.

Second-class citizens

Asked if he would prefer to stay in Israel or move into the presumed Palestinian state of the future, Saad says he resents the question. Yet it is one that is being asked with increasing frequency, underscoring the complexities of the approximately 20 percent of Israelis who are also identified as Arab Palestinians.

While many Israeli Jews and Arabs charge that Israel's Arab minority are treated as second-class citizens, they do enjoy one of the best standards of living anywhere in the Arab world, including nationalized health, economic, and educational benefits. Those do not exist next door in the Palestinian territories.

"It's just a state of poverty," says Saad, of life under the Palestinian Authority (PA), which is just the other side of Israel's separation barrier that abuts this city's southeastern edge. In democratic terms, Arab parties just won seven seats in the Knesset, Israel's parliament.

Tuesday, Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said he intended to form a governing coalition with the center-left Labor Party, lessening the possibility that Lieberman's Yisrael Beitanu (Israel Is Our Home) party will have an influential participant in the new government.

Extreme views?

Although many in the Israeli mainstream view Lieberman as extreme, the fact of his electoral success is evidence that his plan is gaining a kind of acceptability in the public parlance.

In truth, it didn't even begin with him, but has been floating around peace architects' drawing tables for at least 10 years.

Indeed, the underlying idea is not far from the two-state solution espoused by the Oslo Peace Accords and backed by the international community. If land-for-peace exchanges are already happening, the theory goes, the demographic viability of the two states would be enhanced. In exchange for annexing Jewish settlements in the West Bank, Israel could give land close to the Green Line - the pre-1967 border - over to the control of the PA.