Israelis ponder a land swap

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.

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.

But whether it would also be land that is heavily populated by Arabs - thereby decreasing the size of the Arab minority in Israel - is another story.

And the way Lieberman frames it, the "swap" plan paints the Arab sector, as it is often called in Israeli parlance, as one which would happily be traded away. Lieberman's approach also carries a rather loud undertone of dual loyalties: He suggests that all Arabs should have to sign a pledge of allegiance to the state of Israel and agree to do national service.

"Who brought Lieberman here?" says Mohammed Ikbariyeh, a retired builder, repeating an oft-heard dismissal of the head of the Yisrael Beitanu party, who immigrated to Israel from the former Soviet Union when he was 20. For many Israeli-Arabs, who resent the benefits afforded to immigrants, it is a particularly sore point that a Jewish "newcomer" such as Lieberman should tell them where they can live.

Israeli-Arabs citizens are so shocked by the apparent interest in listening to Lieberman's plan that many are unwilling to even discuss it. "We think what Lieberman is actually proposing is to delegitimize the basic right of Arabs in Israel, which is their citizenship," says Adel Manna, the director of the Institute for Israeli-Arab Studies at the Van Leer Institute, a Jerusalem think tank.

"The Jewish majority gets to decide which Arabs will continue to be considered citizens," he says. "Today it's disengagement, maybe next time it will be something else."

To Dr. Manna, a historian, the catch is that no Palestinian state exists, and Lieberman has never professed to support the creation of one. As such, he says, pushing places like Umm el-Fahm - and the whole predominantly Arab region here called dubbed "the triangle" - into PA control is simply "throwing them into the hell of the occupation" under Israeli military control.

"At first they said those are people in the margins and they are crazy. But Lieberman came out with this idea, and suddenly it sounds fine," Manna says. He summarizes what he sees as the selling point: "If those people are saying they are Palestinians and they are not happy with what we give them, so they have an option of being part of the Palestinian state. We'll just draw the border differently, and by that they can stay in their houses."

He says the program is racist and populist. "This is saying, 'Instead of giving the Palestinians some vacant territory to their state ... we'll also get rid of 100,000 Arabs.' "

David Rotem, a lawmaker in Lieberman's Yisrael Beitanu party, rejects criticism about the plan being illegal or racist. "I've got a right as a state to decide to put my borders somewhere. No one will be forced to give up his citizenship," he says. "Anyone who wants to stay can pledge allegiance to the state and do two years of national service," he says, instead of being drafted for the army. "Anyone who doesn't want to stand up during the anthem cannot be a citizen."

The Arab-Jewish divide

The Al-Aqsa intifada, which broke out in September 2000, exacerbated the Arab-Jewish divide inside Israel proper. Within days of the outbreak of violence, Arab demonstrators here took to the streets, many of them carrying Palestinian flags. In clashes, police killed 12 Israeli-Arabs.

Saad watched much of it from his restaurant window. Today, his preference is to fight for equal rights within Israel, not to wake up and find he's now on the other side of the border.

What worries him most, he says, is the rising popularity of looking to religion to solve political problems. The municipality is now run by the Islamic Movement in Israel. "The most important thing that can happen is [not] taking this from a national struggle to a religious struggle," he says. "If it becomes a religious problem, you have no solution."

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