Half a century after the victory in the Six-Day War, 40 years after its most important political benefit in the separate peace with Egypt, half a decade after the implosion of the Arab structures around it, Israel needs a different strategy vis-à-vis the Palestinian issue. Israel should have adopted such a strategy at the latest when the “Peace Process” predictably failed in Oslo, Camp David, and Annapolis. But it’s not too late to finally abandon the fantasy of peace with the Palestinian national movement and move to an admittedly less desirable yet much more realistic proposition of unilateral disengagement from the overwhelming majority of the West Bank. Three questions beg a detailed and responsible answer: Why isn’t peace a possibility? Is there a viable alternative? How would it work?
Why no peace?
Peace, in the sense of termination of conflict and end of claims, where both sides are free to pursue their own separate nation-building projects—an Arab state of Palestine and a Jewish state of Israel—has been consistently rejected by the Palestinian national movement. Manipulative or ignorant Arabs, Westerners, and Israelis who claim that the Palestinians have all but abandoned their insistence on the “right of return”—the destruction of the Jewish state by demographic means—can no longer successfully cheat mainstream Israelis. “Let me put it simply,” said President Abbas, in January 2014: “The right of return is a personal decision. What does this mean? That neither the Palestinian Authority, nor the state, nor the PLO, nor Abu-Mazen [Abbas], nor any Palestinian or Arab leader has the right to deprive someone of his right to return. … The choice is yours. You want to return? You will return. … Even a father cannot forgo his children’s right.”
Palestinian leaders not only consistently rejected a state (notably in 1947, 2001 and 2008) but demonstrated their profound lack of interest in any constructive enterprise when the nation-builder they were lucky enough to have as prime minister—Salam Fayyad—could not muster any significant public support in the PA kleptocracy. For almost a quarter of a century of controlling most of their population—and with contributions, goodwill and assistance on a magnitude never before showered on a small people—Palestinian elites have produced little except for excuses and a discourse of perpetual victimhood. They have never taken responsibility for the consequences of their misguided decisions and have demonstrated no motivation to take charge of their future in an independent state.
Based on their national record since the emergence of a Palestinian people almost one hundred years ago, the State of Palestine, if it is born, will be a failed, violent, corrupt state, adjusted even less than other Arab entities in the region to meet the challenges of the 21st century. As long as they are under occupation the Palestinians have the supreme attention of the world, billions of dollars to live off and scheme bribes off, perfect excuses to invest nothing in their future, and armies of gullible supporters in Western democracies that help them delegitimize Israel. All this will go away if the Jews can no longer be blamed. Since the Palestinians are not willing to terminate the conflict and have no motivation to establish a state and undertake the responsibilities that statehood entails. Next to the Palestinian addiction to victimhood, the other unbridgeable obstacles for peace—including security and the barbaric Hamas regime in Gaza representing half their people—dwarf in comparison.
This is bad news. A negotiated peace with the Palestinians is important and could provide the best political solution to one of Israel’s deepest and most difficult problems and help in its relations with other regional players. But while peace with Palestinians may be the preferred instrument for ridding Israel of its undesirable control over millions of Palestinians, it is not the ultimate goal of the Zionist enterprise. It is an instrument.
Maintaining a state that is both Jewish in terms of its overwhelming majority of citizens and democratic in terms of its “one person one vote” regime is indispensable for Jewish survival and welfare. If peace cannot deliver the desired outcome because the Palestinians reject it—other means must be employed to deprive them of their veto power over the realization of a precondition to Zionism’s future. If there is no partner for a bilaterally acceptable solution, a unilateral fallback strategy must kick in.
An alternative to peace
To secure a state that is both Jewish and democratic Israel must get out from the heartland of the West Bank. Abandoning the ancestral cradle of the Jewish people in Judea and Samaria may not be historically just in terms of the Jewish past, but it is essential for the Jewish future. Security measures, including a temporary military presence, may be required for an extended period to prevent Palestinian terrorism and a consequent re-occupation. But the project of massive settlement seeking to incorporate this heartland in the state of Israel needs to stop.
This requires a far-sighted and determined leader in Jerusalem and an unwavering strategic partner in Washington—something like Ariel Sharon and nothing like Barack Obama. Most of the preconditions for this policy shift already exist—the domestic circumstances in Israel and the regional balance of power are as conducive as they will ever be.
Most mainstream Israelis can be convinced. It will take less than they were willing to swallow when Rabin initially sold them Arafat (until Arafat proved to have remained what they already knew him to be).). They don’t really care for the project of Judaification of the West Bank. It’s not that they believe the Palestinians deserve a state, nor do they believe that withdrawal will bring peace. They simply want a solid Jewish majority and don’t want to incorporate millions more Arabs (in addition to the one and a half million Arab citizens) into their state, rendering it, in effect, binational and eventually Arab. They are concerned primarily about security and they profoundly mistrust the Palestinians. They had a bitter experience with the unilateral withdrawals from Lebanon (2000) and Gaza (2005) and need to be convinced that the region closest to their homes will not become a launch pad for violence by a society that rewards and glorifies terrorists as role models.
The problem is not with Israeli society, but with the failure of Israel’s political system to effectively represent the huge mainstream bloc in the middle of the political spectrum. The left is discredited and has been electorally punished for advocating unrealistic “peace,” blaming Israel for its failings and manipulatively denying the fact that there is no real Palestinian partner for a peace deal. The deep right is radicalizing and manages to intimidate and often paralyze the moderate right. Since Ariel Sharon, the Israeli center has had no credible political leadership that represents its own healthy combination of profound mistrust of the Palestinians with a willingness to make major territorial concessions and take major security risks. Many, arguably most, of its supporters vote for parties they don’t like and for leaders they don’t trust.
A leadership that could do what Israel needs to do must come from the center-right. But the politically dependable base of Netanyahu’s ruling coalition rests on radical elements in the national-religious, the ultra-orthodox and his own Likud constituencies. The combination of this domestic obstacle, the structural instability in the region and the profound Israeli mistrust of the Obama administration made any Israeli initiative impossible since the beginning of the present decade.
With Obama gone and the relevant regional turmoil seemingly contained, continued Israeli paralysis is primarily the product of real domestic political impediments and the inability of its leadership to break through them. The society is ripe and potentially willing, but the political system may not show the responsibility and energy necessary to seize the day.
The regional environment was never so favorable for Israel: no major Arab conventional threat, a strategic alliance with Egypt and Jordan, a deep community of interests with Saudi Arabia and Gulf entities. This is all a part of an unprecedented regional coalition against its major regional enemies—Iran and the Muslim Brothers. This coalition—tense and not altogether coherent though it may be—is finally backed by the U.S. president (however problematic in other ways), after eight years of an incompetent administration that emboldened the enemies of America at the expense of its allies.
If and when an Israeli leadership emerges that is willing to rise to the challenge, it can adopt a measured and responsible strategy with a good chance of significantly turning Israel away from squandering its national resources on conflict with the Arabs. This will bring the Jewish state back to the constructive course that is responsible for Zionism’s original success.
How would it work?
The most important task is to convince mainstream Israelis, disregarding the die-hard rightists who are dogmatically committed to historic justice and to an outdated concept of security, as well as the die-hard leftists who are dogmatically committed to hallucinatory versions of peace, regional harmony and the blessings of “the international community.” Those in the mainstream majority can be expected to consider a unilateral move positively if they know that the IDF will remain in overall charge of security, unless a dependable Arab army replaces it, if and when Israel sees fit. This support will deepen as they witness the outrage of the Palestinians and their allies when they realize the de-facto inclusion under Israeli control of the settlement blocks (about 6-8 percent of the territory, housing 80 percent of the Jews living in the West Bank). If and when this process of disengagement and the interim reality it produces is backed by a solid understanding with the United States, the prospects of gaining majority support in Israel seem very promising.
The choices in this region are not between good and bad political realities but between tolerable dissatisfactions and precarious arrangements on the one hand, and full-scale calamities on the other.
Israel can seek the crucial support of the United States if it credibly promises to gradually dismantle the occupation by removing its citizens from the heartland of the West Bank, without demanding American de jure recognition of the lines Israel will unilaterally impose—leaving final borders as a question for negotiations if and when the Palestinians are ready for them. Israel will expect the United States to make this possible by accepting the completion of the security fence around the settlement blocks and help Israel to blunt the edge of hostile responses from Europe and international organizations. This process will take a few years, which will be needed for the resettlement of up to 100,000 people (in the pre-1967 lines, in the Golan or the settlement blocks).
The American motivation to go along with an Israeli disengagement plan depends on the level of US realism in evaluating the alternatives. The president may go for such a deal if he realizes that a mutually acceptable accord is even more unrealistic than the perpetuation of the status quo or imposing “peace” on Israel. In that case, getting Israel willingly out of more than 90 percent of the West Bank may look very attractive in Washington.
For hundreds of thousands of Israelis—the evacuees and their immediate environment—this will be a major personal trauma. Even after it is democratically legitimized by plebiscite, it will threaten to tear the Israeli society apart. An unprecedented number of settlers—in the tens of thousands—will have to be forcefully removed from the homes and communities in which they made their lives. To avoid the needless hardships of the disengagement in Gaza, Israel will offer the settlers comparable substitute housing in the Negev, the Galilee, the Golan or the settlement blocks, to be delivered as they evacuate their homes in the heartland.
As settlements in the heartland are gradually removed, Israel will progressively transfer large portions of area C (full Israeli control) to an area B status (where Israel controls security) and some portions of area B to area A status (full Palestinian control), seeking to create ever growing contiguous parts of the West Bank where the Palestinians can freely do whatever does not harm Israel in Israel’s own judgement. In due course, Israel can rid itself of its control of most Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem and of its responsibility for about a quarter of a million Palestinians who live there. The IDF will remain in control of overall security, leaving for the Palestinian security forces every antiterrorist function they want and can effectively perform.
Not a solution
The proposed strategy does not offer a solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (let alone to the Arab-Israeli conflict), nor does it promise the patently unattainable objective of “peace in the Middle East.” The choices in this region are not between good and bad political realities but between tolerable dissatisfactions and precarious arrangements on the one hand, and full-scale calamities on the other.
Israel’s immediate Palestinian neighbors in the foreseeable future will be two: in Gaza—the barbaric Hamas regime that is committed to killing Jews and is not even trying to offer a better future for its own children; in the West Bank—a profoundly irresponsible society and elites who are unwilling to engage in constructive nation-building. Both Palestinian polities prefer to glorify and finance terrorists and perpetuate narratives of unlimited grievance vis-à-vis the Jewish state. The Gazans were not impressed by the total Israeli withdrawal that rooted out about 9,000 settlers, and West Bankers will not be impressed by a partial withdrawal that roots out about 10 times as many. Both are obsessed by their vision of “historic justice” that requires dismantling the Jewish state.
In the regional Arab public arena, even where nobody respects the Palestinians or cares for their cause, very few will openly legitimize the Israeli strategy even as an established interim reality from which negotiations can proceed. This is true even with the public positions of Israel’s intimate Arab strategic partners. They are not willing to compound the legitimacy deficits of their own regimes by adding that extra burden.
Nor will this unilateral Israeli withdrawal and massive rooting-out of Jewish populations dissolve or significantly alleviate the animosity and resentment toward Israel in hardcore “progressive” circles in Europe and America, particularly in the media, academia, and the arts. There, the simple-minded identification with the Palestinian “victim” who is never required to take responsibility for the consequences of his actions has become a true article of faith, beyond analytical, political or moral reproach. The frequent overlap with widespread anti-Semitic sentiments, primarily in Europe, only serves to consolidate this trend. A tiny but vocal radical fringe in Israel often serves to legitimize it.
Needless to say, the United Nations and other international organizations will not be impressed. Their relevant agencies are mostly obsessed with a depraved hatred of the Jewish state, engaged predominantly with defaming Israel and in prostituting Western values in the service of autocratic, sometimes downright barbaric regimes.
So why do it?
So if it promises no solution, no peace, no regional or international legitimacy, no alleviation of hostility, no end to terrorism, not even a respite, why embark on an extremely painful process that threatens to tear political and social systems apart?
The answer takes us back to the essence of Zionism—to the constructive imperative that is lodged at its heart. This national movement is all about securing the future of the Jewish people through nation-building in its ancestral homeland. Fighting radical Arabs and other enemies may be a necessary precondition for national survival, but dominating them and caring for them for over half a century is not. Neither is waiting for them endlessly to agree to national coexistence with a Jewish state, or to abandon the glorification and financing of terrorists.
Mainstream Israelis don’t want to squander their national resources on the Palestinians or incorporate them into their state. Watching the rampant violence and the endemic failure of Arab societies all around them, as well as the manipulative irresponsible and underhanded manner of the Palestinians, they have already all but given up on a speedy peace with their immediate neighbors. They realize that by irrationally waiting for a “land for peace” deal, they will be stuck forever with millions of Palestinians living under their jurisdiction on that land. In spite of the rockets and terrorist attacks on Israel from the unilaterally-evacuated Gaza strip, nobody wants to go back there and be burdened by its violence-addicted people.
These Israelis may not articulate their position as emanating conceptually from a commitment to nation and society-building and despair from the promise of peace. But give them security that does not rest on trusting the Palestinians (or Europeans or international organizations), and they are riper than ever to follow a bold leadership with a practical approach of disengagement from most of the West Bank. For them the price in terms of security and historical attachment is high, but the prize of getting rid of responsibility for the Palestinians (who will be rid of Israeli settlers) is dramatically higher.
One last note on those who are expected to blame Israel even for its risky and painful concessions: on radical Arab public opinion, on some European elites, on a wide variety of hardcore “progressives” and on international organizations. The overwhelming majority of Israelis, with the exclusion of only the isolated bubble on the deep left (not even most Haaretz readers), are well aware that criticism of the occupation has become a threadbare excuse for the double standards applied to Israel. They know that the resentment towards the Jewish state, the absurd allegations, and the ridiculous prognosis are rooted much deeper—at best in a hallucinatory perception of the world and at worst in the new mutated strain of anti-Semitism that may cause some relatively minor damage, but can usually be ignored.
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Dan Schueftan is the Director of the National Security Studies Center at the University of Haifa.