Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new suggestion that a regional approach needs to be taken to resolve the Israel-Palestinian conflict might involve a variation of ideas proposed by retired Israeli Major General Giora Eiland in 2008. A former head of Israel’s National Security Council, Eiland suggested a new paradigm to be adopted in pursuit of resolving the conflict, one involving land swaps among several neighboring countries. This would replace the traditional paradigm of bilateral negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians and would put more land up for discussion. Such a proposal would indeed be a form of thinking “outside the box,” as Netanyahu has advocated. According to media reports at the end of August, Egypt had offered a sizable area of land adjacent to Gaza to the Palestinians, similar to the Eiland proposal, but Mahmoud Abbas had flatly rejected it. Though subsequently denied, these reports seem plausible enough to warrant attention.
Eiland’s 2008 study, Rethinking the Two-State Solution, was published under the auspices of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. In it, he reviewed in detail the range of final status issues, looking at both Israeli and Palestinian positions. He then explained why the effort to resolve the conflict solely within the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean has faced insuperable difficulties, including providing Israel with defensible borders and adequate security arrangements. Other daunting and divisive issues include the settlements, Palestinian refugees, water rights, the future of Jerusalem, and the relationship between Israel and a Palestinian state. In all the bilateral Israel-Palestinian negotiations that have taken place, the maximum that Israel could offer failed to meet the minimum the Palestinians were prepared to accept.
In Eiland’s view, these difficulties worsened between 2000 and 2008. In contrast to the optimism of the early Oslo years, the years after 2000, which included a protracted period of suicide bombings against Israeli civilians, saw a real loss of faith in the Palestinians among Israelis, who questioned both the Palestinians’ desire for peace and their ability to actually fulfill the commitments they would make. Another important complication was the difficulty of devising security arrangements against the evolving array of military threats such as rockets, mortars, antitank missiles and antiaircraft missiles. Another negative factor was the strengthening of Hamas, both politically and militarily, and the threat that it might take over areas of the West Bank that Israel left. In addition, there was Israel’s experience with disengagement from Gaza, and the difficulties and costs of dealing with evacuees.
Since 2008, difficulties have worsened again, including Hamas’s tighter control of Gaza and its increased military capabilities. Another unhelpful factor: The contrast between the Obama Administration’s usual “kid gloves” treatment of Abbas and their often harsh treatment of Netanyahu did not foster greater flexibility on Abbas’s part. Furthermore, in the wider region, the growing instability and Islamist threat in the wake of the “Arab Spring” have heightened the perceive risk of a change in the West Bank.
Despite the earlier failures of negotiations in 2000, 2007-08 and 2010, President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry again pursued the old paradigm, as they pressured both sides into renewing negotiations in July 2013. In light of the difficulties enumerated by Eiland and others, it was no surprise that the negotiations collapsed in March 2014.
Eiland had developed his land swaps proposal to break out of what appeared even in 2008 to be a hopeless situation. Under his approach, the major land change would involve Egypt ceding about a 600 square mile area adjacent to Gaza, partly along the Sinai Mediterranean coast, to be part of a Palestinian state. In this area he envisaged the building of a seaport, airport and a major new city that could absorb a sizable number of refugees as well as existing population from Gaza. Separately, a tunnel would be built between Egypt and Jordan close to Eilat, to be under Egyptian sovereignty, which would provide a beneficial land link for Egypt to the Persian Gulf states. The tunnel would link Jordan via Sinai roads and rail lines to the Palestinian seaport and airport, providing economic benefits for Jordan. Other small land changes were envisioned as well. Part of the West Bank would be annexed to Israel. The resulting Palestinian state would be somewhat larger than the combined area of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The potential gains for Egypt and Jordan would create incentives for them to support the arrangement. The involvement of multiple parties and additional land would increase the potential for reaching an agreed-upon solution.
Yitzhak Rabin, long perceived as a peacemaker due to his role in the Olso Accords, was highly cautious about Israel’s security in any permanent solution with the Palestinians. In his view, the Jordan Valley had to be Israel’s security border. Rabin was not the only Israeli general to take this position. Others include Uzi Dayan, Moshe Yaalon, and Ehud Barak. This summer’s events, mainly the war with Hamas and the growing threat of the Islamic State, have only strengthened this view, including the need for an Israeli military presence within the West Bank as well.
The risk of a violent Hamas takeover of the West Bank, as occurred in Gaza in 2007 and almost happened this summer in the West Bank, and Hamas’s heavy bombardment of Israel with rockets and mortars in the recent war, would make similar attacks from the West Bank a severe strategic threat to the State of Israel. This is due to the West Bank’s size, topography, and proximity to Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and Ben-Gurion Airport. Apart from the Hamas threat, another risk is that other aggressive factions might take control of the West Bank at some point.
The increasing convergence of interests among Israel and some of its neighbors in the face of the Islamic State and Iran might make a multilateral regional solution for the Palestinians more feasible than in the past. The enlargement of Gaza in adjacent Sinai, with the facilities it would provide, might make it more palatable for the Palestinians to accept autonomy or strictly limited sovereignty in their part of the West Bank in order to meet Israel’s essential security requirements there. The prospects for this happening would increase if the Palestinians are pressed to agree by neighboring Arab states and by Western powers that provide substantial funding to the Palestinian Authority.
However, any optimism about such a solution is dampened by the reality of Hamas and Abbas’s Fatah. Writing in 2008, Eiland noted that Hamas’s power could prevent a peace agreement from being adopted. Since then, Hamas has gotten stronger and maintains an undiluted determination to destroy Israel as part of its goal of establishing an Islamist caliphate. Abbas has walked away again and again from an agreement with Israel, and has shown great rigidity in his public positions. His deep hostility towards Israel, sometimes hidden, was openly displayed in his highly belligerent “genocide” speech to the UN General Assembly on September 26, 2014. This speech verbally burned the bridges towards a peaceable future with Israel.
The critical challenge is how to move from the current Hamas/Abbas reality to a Palestinian leadership that is ready for accommodation with Israel as a permanent and legitimate Jewish state in the Middle East. Without positive and effective new leadership, which can either seriously weaken or eliminate Hamas altogether, an updated version of the Eiland approach would likely fail. However, if several neighboring Arab countries push an “outside the box” land-swap proposal that is consistent with Israel’s security needs, it might foster the emergence of the new leadership that the Palestinians need.