The rocket and tunnel attacks on Israel from Gaza in July 2014 have heightened Israel’s legitimate security concerns regarding the West Bank. Because of the West Bank’s close proximity to the coastal plain where a majority of the country’s population lives and much of its economic activity occurs, and which includes Ben-Gurion Airport, most Israelis realize the profound existential threat that such attacks would pose. These heightened concerns are making the prospects of the long-sought two-state agreement even more remote. Many commentators say that the only alternative to the two-state solution is a single state from the Jordan to the Mediterranean, an unappealing future. However, there is a third way, which is actually an old paradigm, “autonomy.” It could be based largely on ideas presented by Yitzhak Rabin in his last address to the Knesset on October 5, 1995, just 30 days before his assassination.
The “two-state” concept has a long history, beginning with Great Britain’s Peel Commission in 1937. UN General Assembly Resolution 181, adopted on November 29, 1947, called for the establishment of a Jewish state and an Arab state, with a special status for Jerusalem. Regrettably, Resolution 181 was unanimously and vehemently rejected by all Arab states and by those Arab leaders who represented the Arab residents of Palestine. Israel’s war of independence left Egypt in control of the Gaza Strip and Jordan in control of part of Jerusalem and the area it called the West Bank, both of which it annexed. In 1964, the Palestine Liberation Organization was established. Its goal was not a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, which were not controlled by Israel at that point in time, but rather to eliminate Israel. Following the Six-Day War of June 1967 Israel controlled the Sinai Peninsula, Gaza, the West Bank and the Golan Heights. The Arab response, articulated at Khartoum in September 1967, was the famous “three noes”: “no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with it…”
After Yitzhak Rabin became prime minister in 1992, a series of secret meetings, initially unbeknownst to Rabin, were conducted between Israelis and Palestinians. These led to the Oslo Accords. These accords and subsequent agreements established Palestinian autonomy over parts of Gaza and the West Bank, and envisioned a five year negotiation ending in 1999 for a long term agreement.
Efforts by Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama to promote a settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict through negotiations in 2000, 2007-08 and 2014 all aimed for a “two-state solution.”
Yitzhak Rabin had a long and distinguished military career, which included leading numerous Palmach actions in the pre-state period, rising to the position of IDF Chief of Staff, and serving as Defense Minister. In light of the size and topography of the West Bank, which holds the high ground over Israel’s densely populated and highly industrialized coastal plain, and given that the West Bank surrounds Jerusalem on three sides, military control of the West Bank was essential in Rabin’s eyes.
Yitzhak Rabin delivered a highly important speech to the Knesset on October 5, 1995, one month before he was assassinated. In it, Rabin outlined his vision of the permanent solution between Israel and the Palestinians. His main points were:
- Israel’s permanent borders will go beyond the June 4, 1967 lines.
- Israel’s security border will permanently be located in the Jordan Valley, “in the broadest meaning of that term”.
- The Palestinian entity in the West Bank and Gaza will “be less than a state.”
- United Jerusalem will be the capital of Israel under Israeli sovereignty, while preserving the freedom of worship of members of other faiths.
- Some communities over the June 4, 1967 lines will be part of the State of Israel.
- Israel’s goal is to be a Jewish State with at least 80% of its residents Jews, which effectively ruled out the return of Palestinian “refugees.”
During the failed July 2013-March 2014 negotiations facilitated by John Kerry, the Palestinians refused any long term presence of IDF troops in the Jordan Valley and within the West Bank. In response, the US tried to develop a security plan that would substitute for Israel’s military presence, but this was not acceptable to Israel, a stance consistent with Rabin’s October 1995 vision.
As noted, the recent Gaza war has only heightened the essential requirement that Israel maintain military control of the West Bank. When rockets were shot from Gaza at Tel Aviv, Lod, and other locations in the center, there was notice time of approximately 90 seconds. This, combined with the Iron Dome system, allowed much activity to continue normally. However, were rockets and mortars to be launched from the West Bank towards the airport or Tel Aviv, the notice time would be reduced, probably to about 15 seconds. Normal life and regular economic activity would be severely restricted, much as was the case for communities and cities near Gaza during the recent hostilities. The likely cessation of flights by most or all foreign airlines would be only one of several strategic threats to Israel if it did not maintain effective military control of the West Bank. But, such control is not consistent with an independent Palestinian state.
The recent alarming strength and aggressiveness of the Islamic State (IS) in parts of Iraq and Syria, combined with its highly expansionist worldview, may threaten Jordan and, ultimately, Israel. This development strengthens the need for Israel to control the Jordan Valley. Thus, for reasons of Israel’s security, something less than a state for the Palestinians is necessary.
Politically, for this approach to have any prospect of success, the United States and key European states would have to acknowledge that an Israeli military withdrawal from the West Bank and Jordan Valley in the near or medium term would be an unreasonable demand. While this would mark a significant change in their public position, the recent war, combined with an objective appreciation of the topography of the West Bank and its proximity to Israel, make it an appropriate change. Given the high regard in which Yitzhak Rabin is held, his vision needs to be well-promoted to help persuade Western powers of the reasonableness of Israel’s position. It would also be very welcome were Israel’s Labor Party to return to the more centrist positions it held under Rabin but absent from the recent leadership of the party.
Would autonomy be a permanent solution? In Rabin’s thinking it was. But, we may want to hold out the possibility of moving towards a reduced Israeli security presence in the West Bank if there are some profound long term (20-30 years) changes that make the Palestinian entity less potentially threatening.
These would include serious institution building, with much reduced corruption. During the 1920-40’s David Ben-Gurion presided over the building of important social, economic and governmental institutions and a strongly growing economy. Sadly, the Palestinians have far to go to match such performance and to become economically self-sufficient. Other needed long term changes would include elimination of the anti-Israel and anti-Jew calumnies that currently are prominent in Palestinian educational institutions, media, and mosques. This would include the cessation of glorification of killers of Jews. Hamas and other extreme groups need to be neutralized and the Palestinian areas demilitarized. The transformation of refugee camps into permanent residences is another important step to be realized. All of this would be capped by acknowledgement that Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish People. Such a program will require a new Palestinian leadership that strives for its successful implementation.
Of course, while these envisioned longer term changes in Palestinian society and economy may permit a relaxation of the IDF’s defensive posture in the West Bank and Jordan Valley, it would not mean its elimination, since regional threats, such as the Islamic State, will likely remain a reality or potential reality for the foreseeable future.
Unrealistic? Probably. But the “two-state solution” envisioned by the US government and the EU has proved to be unrealistic and has become more so since the recent war in Gaza.