By Alon Ben-Meir
As Israel celebrates the 72nd anniversary of its independence, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues to simmer as neither side seems to have learned anything from their seven decades-old conflicts, and dramatic changes on the ground are readily dismissed. Charges and counter-charges against one another continue unabated as if everything was frozen in time. Israelis and Palestinians remain intensely distrustful of one another and blame the other for the lingering impasse. They now face a fateful crossroad and must reassess their positions. Israel must accept that the Palestinians are not a perpetual mortal enemy and that an agreement can be reached, which guarantees its national security. The Palestinians must abandon some of their old and tired demands, which have proven to be fatal to all previous peace negotiations.
The Israeli right-wing political parties, led by Likud with Netanyahu at the helm, have been indoctrinating the Israelis through fear-mongering with considerable success. They maintain that a Palestinian state in the West Bank would inevitably fall under Hamas and pose an existential threat to Israel. This argument, which has seeped into the Israelis’ consciousness, especially since the second Intifada in 2000, is entirely meritless as any peace agreement between the two sides must be based on stringent security arrangements that leave no room for errors and no recourse for the Palestinians.
To invoke Israel’s experience with Hamas as a justification for its refusal to allow for the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank is contrived and disingenuous at best. Israel, which was led at the time by the most ardent right-wing prime minister, Shamir, brought about the rise of Hamas in 1987 by supporting its early leaders both financially and politically, who were ideologically opposed to the PLO. Avner Cohen, a former Israeli religious affairs official who worked in Gaza at the time, stated in 2009 that “Hamas, to my great regret, is Israel’s creation.” Israel’s strategy was to divide and conquer by splitting the Palestinians into two camps to counter-balance and weaken then-Chairman Yasser Arafat’s hand and prevent the Palestinians from uniting into a single body politic.
Prime Minister Sharon’s decision to withdraw Israeli forces almost overnight from Gaza in 2005 without any security arrangements with the PA to ensure long-term security was fatal. As a general, he knew full well that Hamas had the more excellent military capability and was far more deeply entrenched in the Strip than the PA’s security forces. Sharon’s objectives were to deepen the PA-Hamas rift and to rid Israel of the responsibility to provide jobs, healthcare, and economic development to a densely Palestinian populated area that has no strategic importance to Israel.
What made matters worse was Israel’s refusal to accept the results of the Palestinian parliamentary elections in 2006, which gave Hamas a clear victory over the PLO. Israel then imprisoned 33 of Hamas’s newly elected parliamentarians, accusing them of belonging to a terrorist organization. Finally, Israel did nothing to stop the fighting between Hamas and the PA, which ended up, unsurprisingly, with the defeat of the PA, which sealed Gaza’s fate under Hamas in 2007.
The breakout of the second Intifada in 2000 was a turning point for the Israelis as well as the Palestinians. The 117 terrorist attacks that claimed the lives of more than 1,000 Israelis were convincing enough for many Israelis that the Palestinians are a mortal enemy, especially following the 1993 Oslo Accords, which was supposed to evolve into a permanent peace based on a two-state solution. However, Israel ignored the fact that the Palestinians in the West Bank also learned a bitter lesson. They did not forget that the second Intifada invited massive Israeli retaliation that destroyed much of their newly-built infrastructure, housing, and public institutions post-1993.
To suggest, however, that Israel is the sole culprit behind the perpetual Israeli-Palestinian conflict is wrong and disregards the Palestinians’ continuing violent hostilities against Israel, as well as their repeated, missed opportunities to reach a peace agreement.
The Palestinians rejected the 1947 UN partition plan, turned down Israel’s offer to exchange most of the territories captured in the 1967 war for peace, refused to join in the 1977 Israeli-Egyptian peace talks, scuttled the nearly-completed peace agreement at Camp David in 2000 over the right of return, and in 2009 failed to seize the opportunity to make peace over disagreements on the extent of the land swap. What made matters worse is the Palestinians, especially Hamas’ refusal to recognize Israel and its continuing threats against its very existence while purchasing and manufacturing weapons, especially rockets, to give tangible meaning to their threats.
None of this, however, suggests that if and when a Palestinian state is established in the West Bank, it will become, as many Israelis say, another Hamastan. The precipitous Israeli withdrawal from Gaza without any security arrangements and Israel’s subsequent treatment of Hamas is what has galvanized the rise of Hamas as a force and a significant player.
Thus, only a fool would advocate that Israel should withdraw from the West Bank without the most comprehensive security arrangements that address Israel’s real or perceived security requirements. Whether the Palestinians like it or not, if they want a state of their own, they must realize that their demands from decades ago are no longer applicable or doable and need to concede on several key sensitive issues:
The Palestinians must accept that the right of return of the Palestinian refugees is based on the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative that called for a “just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem,” which from my firsthand knowledge was understood by its framers to mean compensation and resettlement. They must also accept that much of Israel’s presence in the West Bank is permanent, as Israel will not under any circumstances relinquish all the settlements, especially the three blocks along the 1967 borders (although this can be resolved through land swaps, as was agreed upon in previous peace talks). Finally, the Palestinians have to agree that Israel will, at minimum, jointly administer East Jerusalem because of the Jews’ irrevocable historical and religious affinity to the holy city, and because of the interdispersement of Jews and Arabs in East Jerusalem and its surrounding neighborhoods.
Israel, on the other hand, must agree to the establishment of a Palestinian state, and to that end, it should not annex any more Palestinian land. Approximately 80,000 Israeli settlers residing in a score of small settlements scattered throughout the West Bank must be relocated to allow for a contiguous landmass for the Palestinian state. Israel must also agree to negotiate with Hamas based on mutual recognition to reach a peace agreement jointly with or independently from the PA.
Hamas’ leadership knows that Israel is a formidable military power, and no matter how many rockets they accumulate, they will be defeated soundly should they ever pose a real danger to Israel. Israel, however, also knows that Hamas in Gaza is there to stay, with frequent violent flare-ups and the terrible cost that Israel must bear to maintain security. Former Mossad chief Efraim Halevy stated that “Hamas can be crushed…[but] the price of crushing Hamas is a price that Israel would prefer not to pay.” Their choice is clear: maintain the status quo with the Israeli blockade in place from which the Palestinians in Gaza suffer the most or reach a peace agreement that would free Israel from the heavy burden and Hamas’ continuing threats that unsettle many Israelis.
The complete lack of trust between the PA, Hamas, and Israel, and the existence of radicals in all three camps who still want to have it all, makes it imperative to establish a mutually agreed-upon security apparatus that addresses Israel’s security in the West Bank in particular. This is indeed a prerequisite to any peace agreement, which the PA must agree to if they want an independent state of their own.
This includes extensive joint patrolling of the Jordan Valley to prevent infiltration of weapons and radicals from Jordan, who opposes any agreement with Israel regardless of its nature, sharing intelligence to avert terrorist attacks, and establishing joint economic development projects. These and other joint programs will, over time, foster trust, which is conspicuously lacking, as well as instill vested interests by both sides to maintain a collaborative and mutually gainful relationship.
Regardless of the violence and regional instability that may ensue, the new Israeli government is planning to embark on further annexation of Palestinian land by the beginning of July—while Trump is still in office and Israel can count on his support. For Trump, such a move by Israel, which is a central part of Trump’s “deal of the century,” would further enhance his political standing in the eyes of the evangelicals, whose support he must have if he stands any chance of winning the next election.
The Palestinians, on the other hand, have no real backers. Much of the international community, including their traditional supporters, the Arab states, and the EU, are preoccupied with domestic and regional issues of major concerns. They are paying little or no attention to the Palestinian problem, and with the absence of a significant power that can exert real pressure, Israel will not change its plans as long as the US continues to lend its full support.
If Israel proceeds with its plans of annexation and the Palestinians continue to hold onto their dead-end position, the result is all but inevitable. Continuing and escalating violent conflict will rob the Palestinians of a state of their own for the foreseeable future, which would exact a heavy toll on Israel while making it a pariah state that lives by the gun.
Time is of the essence; both sides must carefully reevaluate their positions before it is too late.
About the Author:
Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.