In the 1967 Six Day War, Israel captured Gaza, parts of what was then considered Jordan (East Jerusalem and the West Bank), Egypt (the Sinai Peninsula) and Syria (the Golan Heights). UN Security Council Resolution 242 affirmed that Israel must withdraw from the territories it occupied. This has since served as the foundation of Arab-Israeli diplomacy, and the blueprint for a two-state solution.
Israel began relinquishing land in exchange for peace after Egypt and Syria’s joint invasions in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Despite initially serving Israel well, the “land for peace” doctrine reached a road block during the breakdown of the peace process nearly two decades ago. While a two-state solution is still possible and necessary for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian impasse, basing it on the 1967 borders would require ignoring 56 years of historical, social, political, and legal developments. That would be unwise and impractical, if not impossible.
The Golan Heights is a plateau that looms thousands of feet above northern Israel. Indispensable for its security, the high ground enables Israeli forces to monitor troop movements in Syria from miles away. From an existential perspective, it also provides Israel with up to a third of its fresh water supply. Annexed in 1981, the benefits of occupying the Golan Heights far outweigh both the international repercussions to Israel and the risks associated with relinquishing control to a failed state like Syria. Expecting Israel to withdraw from the Golan Heights is wishful thinking.
Israel’s occupation of the Sinai Peninsula more than tripled the territory it controlled in 1967. Anticipating a permanent Jewish presence there, Israel invested billions of dollars to construct major air, naval, infantry and armored corps bases, install hundreds of miles of water, telephone, and power lines, build 17 settlements, and populate them with thousands of Jewish settlers. In 1979, Tel Aviv signed a peace agreement with Cairo. Despite tense confrontations with Jewish settlers and a significant loss of strategic depth for Israel, Israeli forces dismantled the settlements and withdrew from the Sinai Peninsula in 1982 to cement peace with Egypt.
In 1988, Jordan renounced its claims to the West Bank and recognized the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. Six years later, the 1994 Israel Jordan Peace Treaty established full diplomatic relations between the two countries. This settled issues related to border demarcation, security cooperation, and water rights. It also confirmed Jordan’s sovereignty over Al-Baqoura and Al-Ghamr. While the land was leased to Israeli settlers by Jordan for 25 years, Amman regained complete control of both areas in 2019.
The PLO was formed in 1964 to consolidate various Palestinian factions under a unified banner. The PLO conducted several terrorist attacks against Jews in Israel and abroad, including murdering 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Berlin Olympics. After decades of hijacking airplanes, hostage-taking, and other acts of terror, the PLO “renounced” terrorism, recognized Israel, agreed to a two-state solution, and rebranded as the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the 1993 Oslo Accord (1). The PA remains the legitimate and internationally recognized representative of the Palestinian people.
Blanket statements referring to the entire West Bank as “occupied” by Israel is an oversimplification. In fact, the 1995 Oslo Accord (2) divided the West Bank into three administrative zones. Area A, where the PA administers both civilian and security matters, is comprised of Palestinian cities. Area B, where the PA is responsible for civilian matters and Israel for security, is made up of smaller Palestinian villages. Apart from the city of Hebron, Israelis do not live and are typically not allowed to enter Areas A and B. Finally, Area C, administered entirely by Israel, is the largest part of the future Palestinian state and home to virtually all the Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Put simply, the breakdown of the peace process has prevented Israel from transferring complete control of Areas B and C to the PA.
US President Bill Clinton “killed himself” to get the Palestinians a state. In 2000, he brokered a deal which saw Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak offer PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat a peace settlement which included close to 100% of the West Bank, 100% of Gaza, a land-bridge connecting Gaza and the West Bank, and billions of dollars’ worth of transfers to Palestine. A generous offer by any stretch of the imagination, Israeli society believed Barak conceded too much to the Palestinians.
Despite Barak’s generosity, Arafat rejected the deal without providing a counteroffer. Whether premeditated or not, Palestinian terrorist groups – including the PA – launched the so-called “Second Intifada” instead. It had little in common with the “First Intifada”. Protesting and throwing stones at Israeli soldiers in the West Bank evolved into suicide bomb attacks against civilian targets in Israel. The violence lasted nearly half a decade, claiming the lives of a thousand Israelis and thousands more Palestinians.
Feelings of disillusionment with the peace process and a sense of insecurity spread across Israel. Traditionally more centrist, left-leaning and secular in orientation, Israeli society turned inward, embraced conservatism and veered to the right. Traumatized by the tragedy of terrorism, Israel built a “security fence” in the West Bank. In a 2004 advisory opinion, the International Court of Justice requested that Israel dismantle parts of the structure located in Palestinian territory. Israel’s detractors have since criticized the “separation wall” as an element of Israeli “apartheid”. Nevertheless, both Palestinian terrorist groups admit and studies demonstrate that the “security fence” saved countless innocent lives by making it more difficult to launch terrorist attacks against civilians in Israel.
In conjunction with building the “security fence” in the West Bank, Ariel Sharon’s government also dismantled the Jewish settlements and withdrew the Israeli military from Gaza in 2005. This unilateral disengagement was meant to maximize Israel’s security and minimize friction between Israelis and Palestinians. It had the opposite effect. Instead of bridging the gap between Israelis and Palestinians, it compromised Israel’s already precarious security predicament even further. The power vacuum left by Israel in Gaza was filled by Iranian-backed terrorist groups.
Over the years, rifts grew between the Fatah-dominated PA and more militant organizations like Hamas. Israel’s withdrawal culminated in Hamas’ ousting of Fatah and takeover of Gaza in 2007. Since then, Hamas controls Gaza and Fatah administers the West Bank as two separate entities. In that time, Israel has fought three wars against Hamas and other Iranian-backed terrorist groups based in Gaza. To this day, these extremists refuse to renounce terrorism, recognize Israel, or abide by previous agreements between the PA and the Israeli government.
Like Gaza, there are no Israeli soldiers or Jewish settlements built in Area A of the West Bank. Nevertheless, Iranian-backed terrorist groups now thrive there under the PA’s watch or lack thereof. Whether indoctrinating children to become “martyrs”, committing terrorist attacks against civilians, or advocating for the destruction of Israel and America, a trail of suffering, misery and political instability follows Iran and its troublemaking proxies wherever they go: Gaza, the West Bank, Iraq, Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, and Iran itself. In light of this reality, Israel must protect its citizens at home and abroad in an unpredictable security environment while navigating an unfavorable media landscape where half-truths and misinformation spread like wildfire.
To be clear: Building a Palestinian state along the 1967 borders would require ignoring 56 years of historical, social, political, and legal developments. That would be unwise and impractical, if not impossible. While a two-state solution is still possible and necessary, the closest the international community will get to fulfilling UN Security Council Resolution 242 was the peace deal Arafat rejected in 2000. Israel might be willing to dismantle some Jewish settlements in Area C of the West Bank in exchange for peace, as it did in Egypt and Gaza. Nevertheless, the Israeli government is unlikely to make an offer that generous to the Palestinians again. We should all stop pretending otherwise.
George Monastiriakos is a Fellow at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy. You can read his published works on his website.