The Diplomatic Dilemma
The acceptance of Palestine as a non-member state at the UN is almost a certainty. Within the next few years it is highly likely that the US will abstain from a vote in the UN Security Council on the acceptance of Palestine as a full member state. Like in past cases where the US abstained on issues critical to Israel this will be the result of a dirty deal made by the United States and some other international powers, most likely the Russians. This is not going to change the facts on the ground but it will lead to additional diplomatic pressure on Israel. Many unrelated aspects of Israeli international relations will start to have strings attached to Israeli policy in the West Bank. For now Israel’s international diplomatic position is not hopeless because it is anchored in the US-Israeli relationship, but it does suggest that the status quo cannot be sustained in the long-term without significant diplomatic and economic risks. More importantly this is a situation that can only get worse and there is absolutely no likelihood of any future improvement.
Annexing the West Bank or the settlements doesn’t change this reality. The annexation will not be recognized internationally and is going to have no impact on the diplomatic challenges facing Israel. As such, it still leaves Israel with the primary responsibility and diplomatic blowback for every settlement plan approved, every confrontation between settlers and Palestinians, every price tag attack and any other event in which Israeli citizens, politicians or military are involved.
The solution proposed by many on the left is negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. Unfortunately it doesn’t seem likely that there is sufficient trust on either side for serious negotiations to take place and there are many reasons to believe that a permanent resolution of the conflict is going to continue to prove elusive. Additionally, the Palestinian negotiating position is actually improving substantially as the years go by which to some extent makes them believe that time is on their side. This is partially the result of a weak US administration which the Palestinians have repeatedly challenged with no consequences and partially the result of the inability of Israel to present credible unilateral plans that would resolve or alleviate the diplomatic dilemma described above. Such a situation leaves the initiative entirely on the Palestinian side and Israel permanently on the defensive.
The Judea Option
There is an alternative scenario which would leave Israel with significantly more room for diplomatic maneuvering. That scenario involves gradually decoupling Israel from the West Bank thus gradually removing direct Israeli responsibility for day to day governance. However, this doesn’t have to mean an Israeli withdrawal from locations vital to Israeli security or an end to Jewish life in the West Bank. A splinter state – Judea – can arise in the West Bank claiming the right of Jews to self-determination in the areas in which they predominate. This state could take on the tasks of internal policing, construction, education, and other affairs of state within its borders. Additionally Judea could enter into wide-ranging diplomatic, military and economic arrangements with Israel, including those allowing for the stationing of Israeli forces on its territory. This state would be similar in its behavior to the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. These are all de facto independent but internationally unrecognized states kept afloat by their more powerful patrons. Such states have relative freedom of action within their own borders while partially shielding their patrons from diplomatic pressure. The patron countries pursue a policy of providing diplomatic, military and economic support while insisting on playing the role of mediator or guarantor in conflicts their client states are involved in. Thus the patron countries manage to maintain effective military control while avoiding responsibility for day to day governance in their client states.
In the case of Israel a similar state could be brought into existence through the gradual transformation of the current Israeli system of governance of area C of the West Bank into that of a state in waiting. This would involve creating the conditions for the rise of a representative government with independent economic, judiciary and military power. Israel could then gradually transition its diplomatic strategy from focusing on denying the Palestinians diplomatic achievements to one of demanding the recognition of the government and residents of the state of Judea as parties to the conflict in future negotiations. Alternatively Israel could demand a weak federated state in the West Bank with Israel as the guarantor of the Jewish autonomous areas via a military presence. It isn’t likely that these demands will be accepted by the Palestinians or most other players in the short-term but nonetheless it leaves Israel in a significantly more flexible diplomatic position than the current status quo. For one thing the new state would probably redefine the borders and lines that are under discussion and still leaves open other options such as having the residents of the state of Judea vote to be annexed by Israel. Additionally as the independence of such a state grows Israel will suffer decreasing diplomatic damage from day to day incidents in the West Bank.
The Viability of Judea
The government of Judea can be established by conducting elections for a representative assembly among the Israeli residents of the West Bank. Initially such a body could be used for coordination and consultation between Israel and the Israeli residents of the West Bank. Over time, as the independent resources and responsibilities delegated to this assembly increase it could take on the role of a governing body and establish an executive to conduct affairs.
Economically the state of Judea would be reliant on providing goods and services to the Israeli market along with exporting labor to Israel. It is possible that over time Judea would have trade restrictions placed upon it by various governments, so economic development would have to focus on such sectors as technology and research which are difficult to sanction.
Funding for the government of Judea would come from several sources, the primary of which would be local taxation, the transfer of taxes of the residents of Judea employed in Israel and financial aid from international Jewish communities. This should be sufficient for a minimal core of government bureaucracy. Higher levels of spending in Judea can be sustained by transfers of money from the Israeli treasury as payment for the lease of military bases or through various forms of financial aid.
The state of Judea would continue to operate under the Israeli security umbrella. It would need its own forces for internal security and for routine confrontations with Palestinian forces. Such forces can be established by gradually transitioning parts of the existing Judea and Samaria Division to Judean control while filling up the ranks with recruits from Judea. Manpower shortages can be covered if necessary by allowing Israelis to fulfill their national service obligations via service in the Judean units. Under these conditions it seems safe to suggest that the Judean forces will have a reasonably high level of recruits and morale.
The trickiest aspect of this is in gradually establishing a separate national identity for the state of Judea so that it operates at least partially independently of the state of Israel. This is a long-term identity building project that would need to be run in parallel to the changes in government and governance over the territories. Borders of the state are also tricky, but theoretically it could encompass most of what is currently Area C in the West Bank while leaving the Palestinians with some transportation contiguity between their areas.
The diplomatic dilemmas faced by Israel are long-term problems for which Israel currently has no viable long-term strategy. It is stuck saying no to the various initiatives pushed forward by the Palestinians while lacking any proactive means of changing the strategic reality. Over time Israel will have a much harder time finding credible justifications for the continuation of Jewish settlement in Judea and Samaria. This is a result of a long-term Palestinian strategy to bolster the Palestinian claim to the entirety of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem by pushing forward their proposals for a Palestinian state within the 1967 lines. Up until now Israel has been unable to present a counterclaim that doesn’t rely on the security argument as a justification for the continuation of what most of the international community considers occupation. When one side is making a claim of ownership and the other makes due with technical reasons for possession it is entirely predictable which side is going to win the argument.
The state of Israel must pursue a plan that demonstrates to the Palestinians the existence of a long-term unilateral Israeli strategy that would undermine the current trajectory of Palestinian diplomatic successes. Pursuing the establishment of a state of Judea in the West Bank is such a strategy. It is a long-term approach to defending Israeli security interests in the West Bank while gradually defanging the Palestinian strategy of diplomatic attrition and diplomatic pressure against Israel. Ideally the pursuit of such a strategy would cause the Palestinians to be more flexible in future negotiations. Even if this does not occur, a strategic reality in which Israeli security interests are ensconced in even an internationally unrecognized Judean claim to self-determination is superior to the current Israeli position of oscillating between doggedly protecting a long-term unsustainable status quo and putting faith in an unending peace process whose fruits are not very sweet.