David Horovitz, the founding editor of the Times of Israel, is correct in his assessment that “the Palestinians will continue with their intransigence and will not want a deal on any terms Israel could accept” (Times of Israel, Jan 29, 2020). Should then Israel decline to consider any US initiative and postpone any decision in matters vital to its future until that time far-away in the future when the Palestinians will, hopefully, change their mind?
Benny Gantz, who succeeded for two consecutive election runs to be everything to everyone under the programmatic slogan “Anything but Bibi” in order to garner the maximum number of votes to get the coveted post of Prime Minister and succeed where ex-cabinet ministers in previous Netanyahu’s coalitions (Lapid, Ya’alon and Liberman) failed, lost this unifying message last week when he was forced to say something about Trump’s plan. Faithful to his election campaign strategy, he tried to be as vague and non-committal as possible, stating “I will advance [Trump’s] plan immediately after the elections in full coordination with the governments of the US, Jordan, Egypt, others in the region and the Palestinians.” (Times of Israel, February 1st, 2020). Well, trying to coordinate with everyone in the Arab world and the Palestinians to get something done in the few months between the swearing of a new Israel’s government around May 2020 and the November 2020 elections in the US is a feat that even Houdini would not be able to deliver. But even this tepid support of Trump’s plan got Gantz punished: the Arab members of the Knesset, the Joint List, immediately withdrew their previous support to let him form a government. Never mind: this time, when called by President Rivlin after the March 2nd elections, Gantz will get instead the explicit support of Liberman to form the next government, ending up again in a 50+ against 50+ deadlock: for Liberman, internal politics in Israel are more important than Trump’s proposal. Liberman already criticized the release of Trump’s plan before the March elections and his latest twist is: “There won’t be a unity government, but a Zionist and liberal government” (Ynet, Feb 4, 2020). He might get his wish: several Likud MKs would do anything to avoid accepting a Palestinian state on any part of Judea and Samaria, as envisioned in Trump’s plan.
Benjamin Netanyahu has the experience in the international arena that Gantz does not have. He knows that the time is ticking and he has only a few months left to get the job done. He invested a lot of work with the present US administration and all the fundamental pieces of the puzzle he helped build are almost in place: get the support of the US administration to Israel’s claims to the Golan Heights and Jerusalem, and recognize the right of the Jewish people to live in Judea and Samaria. But the future of the West Bank and Jerusalem has to be put together into a concrete and detailed border, inked and signed before the next US Presidential elections in November 2020. However, he committed a tactical error and was rebuked by Jared Kushner: he tried to push pieces of Trump’s plan now, before the March 2nd elections, to keep the Likud as the largest party in the March 2nd elections and get President Rivlin’s nod to form the next government. Some members of his Likud party are vehemently opposed to any recognition in any form of a Palestinian State in any part of the West Bank and this pre-election annexation would have appeased them.
The reason for Jared Kushner’s criticism is understandable: internal politics in the US are also important. Although the present US administration is very friendly, the State Department needs to know exactly and till the smallest detail what the US is going to finally sign and support. This involves several months of intense work, US and Israeli teams going through detailed maps till the last square inch. Empty declarations or applying patches here and there will not work. The US administration indicated that they will not accept half-baked plans or proposals: Trump wants to avoid the embarrassment of remaining silent (the US press will not allow him to, especially in a US Presidential election year) or plainly disapproving an uncoordinated move by Netanyahu.
What Israel should do?
The 1967 war between Israel and its neighbors opened a new chapter. After 50 years it is time to close this chapter. With one single step. Israel should sit down in the coming months with the US administration and come with a completely detailed “final” border for Israel that can be proclaimed by the Israeli government and get the seal of approval and recognition from the US administration on the same day. One single bold stroke. No grandstanding unilateral proclamations now, like annexing the whole West Bank, which will have to be ignominiously withdrawn in the future. Neither “creeping” additional annexations in coming years that will try to alter the reached and signed understandings with the US in 2020.
The new border should be based on two pillars: First, be contiguous and keep Israel distinctly “Jewish and Democratic”; and second, should be reasonable enough that will enjoy strong bipartisan support from the US Congress and discourage any future US administration, perhaps not so friendly to Israel, from trying to reverse the US recognition of the new Israeli borders by the present Trump administration. Leaving the Jordan Valley as Israel’s security border (that is, desist from trying to impose Israeli sovereignty over the Jordan Valley) will go a long way towards achieving this goal. With good work and thoughtful thinking of the Israel government these goals can be achieved.
A Palestinian state could be established in the future in the West Bank, outside Israel’s new borders, as envisioned by Trump’s initiative, but it will be left open to the Palestinians and Jordanians to decide what is best for them: two states, one state or a confederation between them. The status of this territory (security, economic and other arrangements with the Palestinians) will remain unchanged for the foreseeable future until meaningful negotiations with the Palestinians will take place. Jewish settlements in this territory will not be uprooted: their rights and obligations will be similar to the rights and obligations of the Arab population in Israel. Natural growth could be accommodated by the principle that new approved Jewish towns in this territory in the future (after the four year freeze required by Trump’s plan) could be balanced with new similar-sized approved Arab towns in Israel proper.
And then, stand firm, let the world adapt to the new reality and move on. Israel will have satisfied its vital security needs and have the internal unity and moral strength needed to confront the protracted conflicts in the Middle East.
Impeachments and indictments
Israel cannot miss the opportunity provided by Trump’s initiative: technical teams must begin working now – because time is short – and not wait till a new Israeli government will hopefully be sworn in May 2020. Gantz and Netanyahu could begin working now together for the good of the country: they know that they will need each other to form a stable majority government, since both will experience desertions in their existing blocks, some Knesset members because for them a Palestinian state is unacceptable, for others because they consider that the Palestinians should be at the negotiating table before any decision is taken. If necessary, several alternatives can be worked through and begin being discussed with the American administration, to avoid delaying by several months these necessary discussions and come with a plan thoroughly discussed that can be implemented without glitches or embarrassing reversals.
Talks cannot really even start if one part refuses to recognize the right of the other part to choose who will be at its top and represent them. I am not talking about Palestinian-Israeli talks, and whether the corrupt, self-appointed Abbas (15 years since last elections were held!) should be allowed to sit at negotiation talks with Israel: I am talking about Israel’s coalition talks and Blue & White’s refusal to sit down with Netanyahu. The objection raised that Netanyahu will be very busy in the coming months dealing with his personal problems for him to be able to perform properly is disingenuous and has no basis whatsoever: his personal problems have not slowed down him even a bit during the last year. Witness his latest achievements in the international arena: US, Russia, India, China and Africa. The objection that Netanyahu has been indicted does not stand either: a man is innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.
In a Democracy, elections are the right tool to put Presidents and Prime Ministers out of office when we dislike their personal behavior, policies or results.
In a recent public appearance of US Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, he warned against overreaching prosecutions. He said that there are so many federal laws in the US (more than three hundred thousand) that “any citizen above 18 years old could be charged for committing a federal crime”. Of course, he was not referring to President Trump’s trials (nor Netanyahu’s) but to the ordinary citizen, many times unable to afford paying defense lawyers in a costly trial against a zealot prosecution. Justice Gorsuch’s subtle hint was that prosecutors should exert common sense before charging anyone for any infraction to an existing law. Otherwise, their actions (and charges) could be seen as the result of zealotry, or worse: tainted and driven by ulterior motives.
Israel should learn from the latest experience in the US: What do the US voters think about the drive to remove an elected President through impeachment? They all (Democrats and Republicans) feel cheated and angered and the US society as a whole has become extremely polarized. The drive to replace the political discourse and the ballot box by a team of prosecutors has made difficult for the people in the US to find common ground and solve common problems. Is this what we want for Israel too?