New Israeli thinking on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict
A number of proposals for how Israel can act to change the status quo in the Israeli-Palestinian arena have risen in prominence on the Israeli centre-left. BICOM’s Senior Research Associate Toby Greene examines these strategic level proposals for a permanent change to the status quo and addresses some of the political challenges they face and how the international community might help overcome them.
This piece was originally published in the Fathom Journal.
Is there anything new under the sun?
In recent years, after so many failed efforts, the Israeli centre-left has struggled against a tide of public apathy with respect to resolving the Palestinian issue. A majority of the Israeli public (57 per cent according to the Israel Democracy Institute’s December 2015 ‘Peace Index’ survey) remains in favour of a two-state solution since they value having a Jewish majority over holding onto all the historic Land of Israel (with its large Palestinian population). However, they assume that no viable agreement is possible since there is no credible Palestinian partner, and associate previous territorial concessions to the Palestinians – whether under Oslo or through the 2005 disengagement – with increased violence against Israelis. This has made centre-left parties wary of making ‘peace’ a centrepiece of their manifestos, since in Israel it has the ring of naïve idealism out of touch with reality.
However, breaking the status quo with the Palestinians may be creeping back up the Israeli political agenda. For one thing the P5+1 deal with Iran has reduced the salience of the Iranian nuclear threat. For another, Israel is suffering a rising death toll from deadly Palestinian violence since September 2015, with Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon offering no clear path to end the violence. This is a blow to their argument that the best option for the West Bank is to ‘manage the conflict’ and maintain the status quo.
In a recent high profile speech, IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot pointedly spoke of the difficulty for the IDF in coping with a new type of threat, characterised lone wolf attackers who have no organisational affiliation and strike without warning. He spoke of the need to create hope for the Palestinian civilian population as part of the effort to contain the violence.
Can a fresh Israeli approach, or an old idea whose time has come, offer a viable Israeli policy alternative? For most Israelis it seems there is nothing which has not been tried. John Kerry’s big push to secure a framework agreement collapsed in April 2014. It was the third official attempt to broker a negotiated, bilateral final status agreement to fail, after the Barak-Arafat talks in 2000-2001 and the Olmert-Abbas talks of 2007-2008. Meanwhile, the unilateral route to separation pursued by Ariel Sharon in 2005 led to Hamas controlling the Gaza Strip and rockets fired at every city in Israel.
Certainly changing the status quo requires a feasible plan that realistically addresses the complex issues on the ground. But that is not enough. Israel is a democracy. Decisions relating to the Palestinian arena are rightly perceived by Israelis to have implications not only for security but for the future existence of the state. Any Israeli leader proposing a decisive step requires a political constituency of sufficient weight to buy into their vision and leadership.
Why can’t the two sides just cut a deal?
Surveys show a majority of both Israelis and Palestinians share a broad vision for solving the conflict based on two states or at least prefer that alternative to a one-state solution. So what’s the problem?
First, opponents to the two-state solution are a very potent minority in both Israeli and Palestinian societies, with a lot of spoiling power. Second, the majority who accept in principle the two-state solution have lost faith that it can be implemented in practice, and do not trust the other side. For this reason, they do not mobilise to pressure their leaders to try and make peace. Third, even when the leaders have been put together in the negotiating room, it turns out that there are still fundamental gaps on the core issues in solving the conflict.
On the Palestinian side there is an additional crisis of internal legitimacy and leadership, with rival Hamas and PA governments operating in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, no elections for a decade, and an octogenarian President with waning credibility who has no clear successor. The tide of violent attacks on Israelis by young West Bank Palestinians underlines the growing irrelevance of the Palestinian political leadership.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has declared that he considers negotiations a failure and has drawn up an ever growing list of preconditions for Israel to meet before he will even enter talks, including the release of prisoners, a settlement freeze, and agreement to settling borders first based on the 1967 lines. Rather than bilateral talks he has preferred symbolic steps such as seeking international recognition. These steps are domestically popular, but change nothing on the ground, and in some cases expand the conflict to new diplomatic and legal arenas, such as the International Criminal Court.
That is not to say there has been no progress in previous talks. According toDavid Makovsky, an advisor to US envoy Martin Indyk during the 2013-2014 talks, there was significant flexibility from Israel on territory and from the Palestinians on refugees. But on sharing Jerusalem, establishing a security regime which meets Israel concerns, and on the terms of mutual recognition (including Israel’s demand that the Palestinians recognise Israel’s character as a Jewish nation state), there was no such progress. According to Makovsky, negotiating security arrangements to meet Israeli concerns in the context of the instability to the east of the Jordan Valley was particularly problematic.
An increasing number of Israeli leaders and policy makers who have been deeply invested in the search for a peace agreement believe that forcing the parties into negotiations once again at this point, only for them to fail again, will simply make things worse.
From ‘Peace Now!’ to separation now!
The Israeli right, which dominates the current government, encompasses two main views on the peace process. The first, held by part of the Likud, is the that the status quo is as good as it gets. This is based on the assessment that the Palestinians are not ready or not willing to make the compromises necessary for peace, and that regional insecurity in any case makes territorial concessions unwise. According to this analysis, the best course is to try and manage the situation, reduce friction, make whatever economic improvements are feasible for the Palestinians, but little more than that. They oppose any Israeli unilateral move to separate from the Palestinians, arguing that this would be giving the Palestinians something for nothing, and would further reduce Palestinian motivation to compromise in negotiations.
The second view, represented by Naftali Bennett and his Jewish Home party, and the right of Likud, rejects in principle the two-state solution, and giving up Jewish sovereignty over the ‘Land of Israel’, and is committed to entrenching Israel’s position in the West Bank through settlement expansion and even annexation of some or all of the West Bank.
So what do members of Israel’s opposition suggest? All the Zionist opposition parties on the centre and on the Left of the political spectrum in Israel (centrist Yesh Atid, centre-left Zionist Union, and left-liberal Meretz) believe that the status quo is bad for Israel, since it threatens Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state, and its international standing. The approaches to change the status quo from within these circles can be broken down into two broad categories: Plan A which emphasises a negotiated agreement, and Plan B, which calls for Israeli unilateral separation initiative.
These basic paradigms are not new. The bilateral negotiated track with the Palestinians was pursued by Labour-led governments under Rabin and Barak between 1992 and 2001 and the Olmert government in 2007-2008. The unilateral track was pursued by Ariel Sharon in the 2005 disengagement. Recently, however, there is an increasing consensus in this camp that Israel should not wait for an agreement with the Palestinians to advance towards a two-state reality.
The most potent argument for continuing to focus on negotiations as opposed to unilateral moves is that Israel should try to strengthen the Palestinian moderates who share the two-state vision and oppose violence at the expense of Hamas. They want to avoid repeating the experience of the Gaza withdrawal, which Palestinians interpreted as a victory for Hamas’s terrorism, and negation of the PLO’s diplomatic strategy. However, the despair at the ability of Abbas to make any agreement with Israel is leading more and more Israelis in the pro-two-states camp to support Israeli unilateral steps to bolster the two-state solution, in parallel to any effort to secure a negotiated agreement. So what can Israel do to change the game outside of bilateral negotiations?
Practical changes in the West Bank
The approach which is gaining the greatest traction by far is the call to act unilaterally to establish a clearer physical separation between Israel and the PA in the West Bank, thereby moving in the direction of a two-state reality on the ground.
There are a wide range of potential measures proposed in this respect. The most far reaching would be to forcibly evacuate all settlements to the east of the security barrier. The main precedent for this is the unilateral evacuation of approximately 8,000 settlers from the Gaza Strip and four small settlements in the northern West Bank in 2005. However, few believe that forced evacuations are politically viable right now, and the number of Israelis living beyond the built and planned route of the security barrier reached 85,000 by the end of 2014. In addition, whilst most Israelis supported the disengagement at the time, they consider its outcome, particularly the Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip, to be highly problematic. Unilateral separation advocates therefore typically propose a series of measures short of forced evacuations, and also stress the need to leave the IDF in areas critical for Israeli security, especially along border between the West Bank and Jordan. The steps proposed include:
-freezing construction and cutting subsidies in communities beyond the settlement blocs;
-passing a law to compensate settlers who voluntarily relocate from isolated settlements;
-completing the West Bank security barrier and strengthening the settlement blocs which Israel intends to keep in a final status agreement;
-dismantling settlement outposts which have been built without authorisation in contravention of Israeli law;
-establishing a separation in Jerusalem between Jewish and Palestinian populated areas.
Whilst a wide range of organisations and individuals have advocated unilateral separation in recent years, the Institute for National Strategic Studies (INSS) has done most to articulate and lend credibility to it, and opposition Isaac Herzog is the latest Israeli leader to get behind it. In February 2016 the Israeli Labour party formally endorsed a plan which includes completing the security barrier, freezing construction in areas beyond the barrier (about 92 per cent of the West Bank), and expanding PA civil powers in areas beyond the barrier, including to Arab villages in East Jerusalem. With Arab areas of Jerusalem, which are rarely visited by Jews, being the source of many demonstrations and violent assaults in recent months, the public have in recent months become more open to the idea of dividing the city between Jewish and Arab areas.
There is recent polling suggesting that the public, for many years cold on unilateral separation, may be warming to it again. A recent INSS surveysuggested that 49 per cent of Israelis would even be willing to evacuate smaller settlements and an additional 10 per cent would be prepared to evacuate all settlements in a unilateral ‘realignment’ move. Meanwhile Herzog cites survey data indicating that 65 per cent of Israelis support his separation plan.
There are also a wide range of more modest actions which might incrementally expand PA control in the West Bank, without necessarily advancing towards separation. In particular Israel could expand PA control in parts of Area C, the 60 per cent of the West Bank under full Israeli control. This could be done formally, as a transfer of territory to PA control as under the Oslo Accords, or could be done through quieter measures to allow greater PA building and planning in parts of Area C without formal changes to its status.
Unilateral separation was brought briefly onto Israeli front pages by commentsmade by Netanyahu at a progressive Washington think tank in November 2015. He acknowledged that if Israel could maintain security control – and a repetition of the Gaza experience of Hamas’s rockets and tunnels be avoided – a unilateral move might be possible. Netanyahu’s comments triggered an immediate confrontation with Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett, and once back in Israel he hastily backtracked.
Recognising Palestine without a final agreement
Another proposal to change the diplomatic status quo is for Israel to immediately recognise the State of Palestine, creating a new basis for negotiations between the two states on the final status issues. This proposal currently has much less public support or interest than separation. Though some Israeli public figures signed a letter to British MPs in October 2014 supporting the proposal to recognise Palestine, none were active political players. However, in a policy paper launched in the summer of 2015, Israeli Labour party Secretary General Hilik Bar backed Israeli recognition of Palestine.
Israeli policy makers have until now generally opposed Palestinian moves to secure international recognition as a state, arguing that they undermine the potential for a two-state agreement, since it grants to the Palestinians their central demand without them in turn conceding on any of Israel’s core demands. These include Palestinian recognition of Israel as the Jewish nation state, compromising on the ‘right of return’ for Palestinian refugees from 1948 and their descendants, and address Israeli security issues including demilitarisation. It is argued that the Palestinians use international recognition to confront Israel legally and politically, for example triggering investigations in the International Criminal Court, and by joining in recognition of Palestine, Israel would encourage others to lend a hand to this Palestinian strategy. A further concern is that the Palestinians may be emboldened to try and assert their sovereignty in Area C of the West Bank in ways which might trigger confrontations with Israel on the ground.
By contrast, Bar argues that Israeli recognition of a Palestinian state would fend off the threat of a bi-national state; clarify Israel’s goals and intentions domestically, to the Palestinians and to the Arab world; reduce international pressure on Israel, and place additional obligations on the Palestinians to comply with international law. He attempts to address Israeli concerns about pre-empting the outcome of negotiations by proposing Israel make clear that borders are still to be negotiated, and coordinating the move with the US and other international stakeholders ‘in order to prevent a situation in which Israel would be dictated guidelines for ending the conflict.’
Another proposal designed to put Palestinian statehood first, is the idea of negotiating a Palestinian state in interim borders as proposed in the 2003 Quartet backed Roadmap. The most difficult problem with this approach is that the PA leadership has repeatedly rejected it, arguing that the interim deal will give the Palestinians a rump state, and allow Israel to push the core issues off into the long grass. The fears of the two sides are often summarised by saying that Israelis fear that a permanent agreement will become temporary and the Palestinians fear a temporary agreement will become permanent.
A regional diplomatic approach
A common theme in the Israeli political and geo-strategic wonkosphere right now, is the opportunities for deepening regional alliances with Sunni Arab states, who share Israel’s fears of Iran, Islamic State, and US retrenchment. There have been some very modest signs of thawing relations under the current Israeli government, such as the opening of an Israeli office in Abu Dhabi accredited to the International Renewable Energy Agency, and public contacts between Israeli foreign ministry director general Dore Gold and Saudi media and former officials.
Though the interest in warming ties with Sunni Arab states spans the political divide in Israel, there are different views of how this relates to the Palestinians. Netanyahu has suggested that improved relations with Sunni Arab states could facilitate progress on the Palestinian issue. However, the centre-left argues that Israel’s unclear position on the Palestinian issue places limits on any deepening ties with Sunni Arab states. A common cry, led by Yesh Atid party leader and former finance minister Yair Lapid, and shared by Zionist Union, is that Israel should clarify its position by formally responding to the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative (API) and promoting a regional peace conference. The Israeli Peace Initiative, an organisation led by Yuval Rabin, son of Yitzhak Rabin, has promoted support for this approach, and more than 100 ex-IDF generals and other security officers signed an open letter in November 2014 with the same intention.
Israeli reservations about the API in the past have related in particular to its ambiguity on the right of the return, and the question of whether the initiative is a ‘take it or leave it’ proposal, or a basis for negotiations. In the past Israel has also generally assumed that a negotiation format involving multiple Arab players, such as that held in Madrid in 1991, was inimical to its interests, since it would leave Israel isolated, and pressured into a disadvantageous deal. Now however, Israelis may have reason to hope that Arab states could provide political cover for a Palestinian leadership and even act as a moderating force on them. In April 2013, several Arab foreign ministers demonstrated this potential by declaring in Washington their support for the principle of land swaps in the context of a final status agreement.
Engaging the Sunni Arab states in the process also has the potential to provide greater peace dividends to Israel than the Palestinians could on their own. In 2009 US President Barack Obama asked Saudi Arabia to offer incremental steps towards normalisation of relations with Israel in return for an Israeli settlement freeze, but got a cold response. Whilst those same Arab states may feel greater motivation to put something on the table in the current climate, it would still probably still require a significant Israeli clarification of its position, such as a formal response to the API, to turn this approach into a meaningful process. This diplomatic approach could of course be pursued in parallel to unilateral action on the ground if it was made clear Israel’s actions were consistent with its intention to reach a negotiated agreement.
Updating the vision of the end game
While some are considering how to break the diplomatic status quo or advance towards separation in the short to medium term, others are seeking creative solutions to some of the problems in realising a permanent two-state agreement in the long term.
As an example, the idea of an Israeli-Palestinian confederation has resurfaced lately. Confederal approaches involving – in various combinations – Israel, the Palestinians and Jordan – have been explored in the past, but the idea of an Israeli-Palestinian confederation has re-emerged recently with two significant figures associating their names with it: current Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, and Oslo Accords architect Yossi Beilin. It should be stressed that confederation runs against the current tide of public opinion, in that instead of calling for a clear separation between Israel, and the Palestinians, it envisages close interaction between the two. The essence of the proposal is still two separate states, but with special relations in certain fields.
Confederation offers solutions to a number of practical problems with the classic two-state model. Beilin highlights three in particular. The first is an inherent problem with separating the small territory West of the Jordan into two states based on the pre-1967 ceasefire line which has no geographic logic. It is argued that the best management of issues such as planning, water usage, or agriculture, would be through shared management.
The other two issues are functions of the current political situation. One is the growth of the Jewish settlement population in areas which will form part of a future Palestinian state. The challenge of relocating these settlers is increasing all the time. In a confederation model, they could choose to remain residents of Palestine but citizens of Israel. By the same token, a similar number of Palestinians who are now outside Israel and who may wish to live in Israel (i.e. a limited number of Palestinian refugees), could do so as citizens of the State of Palestine.
The second difficulty that confederalism addresses is the deterioration of regional security. Earlier models for a two-state solution incorporated the idea that a future Palestinian state would have limited arms – an idea that Palestinian negotiators accepted. But in an era where groups such as Islamic State threatens any weak state or ungoverned regions, this presents a risk to Israelis and Palestinians alike. Beilin proposes a joint security system, in which the IDF would be the dominant player and the party responsible for defending the borders.
For veteran supporters of a two-state solution like Beilin, the confederation approach offers creative solutions to practical problems. For a veteran Revisionist Zionist like President Rivlin, it may be that confederalism answers more ideological rather than practical problems: how to reconcile the ideological commitment to Jewish sovereignty over all the Land of Israel, with the commitment to liberal democracy, given that there is no clear Jewish majority in the territory west of the Jordan River. Rivlin has spoken of a confederal solution with open borders between Israeli and Palestinian entities. Symbolically, confederalism in this sense may soften the edges of the two-state solution, still allowing Jews some political stake in the area of the Land of Israel under Palestinian control, as well as avoiding any Jew being forced to leave their home.
Whilst confederalism may offer a vision of two states which addresses some of the traditional models problems, it does not offer any new routes to get to a negotiated solution. In addition, the idea of open borders seems counterintuitive to most Israelis in the current climate. A recent survey found that 59.1 per cent of Israelis (67.1 per cent of Israeli Jews) preferred that a two-state solution would have a closed border with guarded passages and entry permits, and 34.3 per cent (25.1 per cent of Jews) would prefer an open border so that people from both sides could pass freely from one state to the other.
Nonetheless, updating the vision of what the end game may look like, in light of present realities, enables two-state proponents to fight back against those who claim that the two-state agenda is dead.
The political problem
The central problem faced by those in Israel who wish to move proactively towards a two-state solution is political. A successful, proactive Israeli approach to change the status quo – as in the case of Rabin and Sharon – requires a leadership of enormous determination and political skill, capable of mobilising a critical mass of public support, ready to face down fervent opposition from a sizeable part of the population, and ready to absorb great personal and political risk.
Netanyahu, while acknowledging the threat that the status quo may lead to a bi-national state, and occasionally flirting with the unilateral alternatives to an agreement, is sustained politically by coalition and political base which is opposed to such moves. Historical precedent would suggest that he would have the potential to carry out a major step if he were willing to break with his traditional base and band together with centre-left opposition parties, in the way that Ariel Sharon did in 2005. This remains a possibility, and the option for the Zionist Union to join the coalition remains an issue of frequent speculation in Israel. However, Netanyahu’s record in government gives little reason to believe he is minded to take a major political risk in the way Sharon did in 2005.
What are the prospects of Netanyahu being replaced with a leader who has a mandate for change? In the three elections since 2009, the centre left parties have proven incapable of finding a way to replace Netanyahu. The state of regional insecurity bolsters the case against territorial concessions in the current climate. Meanwhile, the limited polling data available indicates that the recent spate of Palestinian violence only shifts the Israeli public to the right on the Palestinian issue.
However, a future election producing a centre-left bloc capable of replacing Netanyahu as Prime Minister is not beyond the realms of possibility. Israel’s political system has a habit of reinventing itself for every new election, with new party configurations and leaders capable of fast-tracking their entry into the system. However, if a centre-left government were formed with a Prime Minister explicitly committed to change, he or she would have to contend with fierce opposition within Israeli society.
The role of third parties: yes to realism, no to despair
Third parties, including European governments, should engage constructively with any proposal that offers the prospect of advancing towards a two-state reality, as long as it is consistent with the possibility of a future permanent status agreement.
In the case of an Israeli unilateral separation move, enormous international support would be needed to help ensure the Israeli public felt the benefits. A critical element in Ariel Sharon garnering domestic support for the disengagement with Gaza was securing from President Bush a letter which in effect recognised that the major settlement blocs would remain part of Israel in a future agreement. This helped Sharon face down domestic critics and show that Israel was not giving something for nothing. In a situation where the Palestinians are unwilling or unable to reciprocate an Israeli move towards a two-state reality, third parties, in particular the US and European states, have the potential to fill that gap.
The potential for Arab states to play a role has already been mentioned. The EU also has many potential incentives to offer Israel. These include symbolic steps, such as endorsing Israel’s character as the nation state of the Jewish people and being clearer about the solution for Palestinian refugees and their descendants not being a ‘right of return’ to Israel. They also include practical steps, such as deepening trade and other forms of cooperation. So far the EU has offered incentives to both Israelis and Palestinians for reaching a bilateral agreement in the form of ‘Special Privileged Partnership’. It has also used legal tools to force on Israel a distinction between Israel and the West Bank, by strictly enforcing its position that its agreements with Israel do not apply beyond the Green Line. A potentially more constructive intervention would be to seek ways to incentivise unilateral Israeli measures which advance towards a two-state solution and are consistent with a future negotiated agreement. In a context where the PA leadership is unwilling or unable to make concessions which would reciprocate constructive Israeli steps, it may be that third parties need to step in and balance the equation.
At the same time, third parties, including European governments, should avoid interventions for advancing the peace process which do not engage with Israeli as well as Palestinian core concerns. External interventions which do not respond to concerns held widely in Israel – especially elating to Israel’s legitimacy as the Jewish nation state and its security concerns – are likely to fuel the argument of the status quo camp in Israel that these interventions should be resisted as harmful to Israeli interests.
It is equally important that third parties avoid being the voice of doom, by pronouncing on the imminent death of the two-state solution, or that ‘the window is closing.’ Such pronouncements are music to the ears of the opponents of the two-state solution. For all the difficulties the two-state solution presents, there is no conceivable alternative that presents a realistic prospect of reconciling Israeli and Palestinian aspirations. A better response to the challenging situation on the ground is to reassert that there is no viable alternative to a two-state solution; to express support for all practical steps that advance in that direction; and to be open to creative solutions which can enable the two-state model to adapt in the face of changing demographic, political and strategic realities.
This requires a basic change of thinking about Israeli-Palestinian peace making. It is not a question of one last heave to get to a deal, it should not be assumed that we all know what the final status looks like, and the situation should not be seen in binary terms of peace or conflict. We need to think in terms of what actions can be taken in the short, medium and long term which reduce tension and expand the possibility for Jews and Palestinians to each enjoy self-determination in the narrow territory they both inhabit.