Lebensraum in Palestine

Prior to World War II, Adolph Hitler developed the concept of “Lebensraum” or “living space,” a concept that he had formulated in his manifesto, Mein Kampf. In brief, Lebensraum envisioned a conquest of parts of Europe inhabited by people inferior to Germans or “Aryans.” A superior German people would need space to develop their innate talents, and that might mean that Germany would have to conquer more territory and remove or exterminate inferior populations, among them Jews.

In Palestine, Israel occupied the West Bank after the 1967 “Six Day War” with surrounding Arab countries which had still not accepted the presence of a Jewish state in Palestine. Israel pre-emptively launched the war to stave off an imminent invasion by a number of Arab countries. At the end of the war Israel occupied four formerly Arab territories–the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip from Egypt, the Golan Heights from Syria, and the West Bank from Jordan. Israel believed that these territories would provide a security barrier from any future threats from adjacent Arab countries.

With the 1978 Camp David Accords Israel gave up control of the Sinai Peninsula in return for recognition of the state of Israel by Egypt. In 1981 Israel essentially annexed the Golan Heights from Syria. And Israel withdrew any control of the Gaza Strip in 2005 despite the potential threat from Hamas but with assurances from Egypt.

The only territory whose status remains unclear is the West Bank. In the early 1980’s under Prime Minister Menachem Begin Israel began to allow Jewish settlers expanded access to settlements on the West Bank. While inconsequential in the beginning, today Israel directly controls large portions of the West Bank and jointly controls other areas with Palestinian authorities. Including east Jerusalem, about 500,000 Israelis populate the West Bank alongside 2.8 million Palestinians.

It seems fair to say that the Israelis inhabit a dangerous neighborhood. From Hezbollah to Hamas to Syria’s Assad to various militant splinter groups to Iran, Israel has reason to worry for its security. It is also reasonable to say that even without a formal defense treaty the U.S. would guarantee Israel’s existence as a country.

Many Israelis see control of the West Bank as crucial to their security because Israel cannot trust everyone on the other side to accept its existence. However, an assertive settlement policy makes it more likely that even moderate Palestinians cannot abide the prospect of working and compromising with Israel.

The relentless Israeli expansion of settlements, blessed by the previous Trump Administration, makes a Palestinian state increasingly unlikely. Is it unreasonable to assume that Palestinians hold dear the dream of an independent state, a dream once shared by persecuted Diaspora Jews around the world? Israel’s aggressive settlement policy is making a one-state solution the only alternative. What will be the status of Palestinians in that state? Apartheid or citizenship? Listening to some Israelis, mainly on the right, the liberal expansion of settlements seems like an intentional policy that resembles the German policy of Lebensraum.

Now please do not rush to judgement. I am not equating Israel and Jews with Adolph Hitler and the Nazis. But the Realpolitik in Israel’s expansion on the West Bank combined with some of the voices of conservative and Orthodox Israelis does bear a resemblance to Hitler’s Lebensraum. After all, are Palestinians allowed to grab territory in the West Bank as Israeli settlers do?

And please do not label my criticism of Israeli policy as “anti-Semitic”; resorting to such simplistic labels reminds me of a politician who uses catch phrases to gloss over inconvenient facts and avoid meaningful discussion.

It is tragic that at one point Israel seemed willing to give the Palestinians much of what they wanted in a state only to be rebuffed by the Palestinian leadership. At that point it seemed Israel was willing to trust in a moderate Palestinian state and also willing to deal with the militant malcontents on the Arab and Muslim side.

Maybe it is time for Israel to call the bluff of moderate Palestinians once again, to see what kind of two-state solution can be worked out. Otherwise Israel’s dilemma regarding the status of Palestinians in a Greater Israel, including the West Bank, becomes the very definition of a “rock and a hard place.” Would the U.S. be willing to issue an ultimatum on aid and relations if Israel chose the path of apartheid? In that case maybe the Palestinians would have to wait for a riper moment in history and adopt the old Jewish slogan, “Next year in Jerusalem.”