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Lewis Rosen

Israel’s response to talk of a Palestinian state

In the growing political agitation concerning Israel’s response to recent calls by Western diplomats for a Palestinian state, it is necessary to focus on Israel’s most vital priorities. Two priorities that would be very widely supported by the Israeli public are 1) maintaining a large Jewish majority in the State of Israel, and 2) achieving long-term security.

There is a pro-annexation minority within Israel that has advocated for Israel’s sovereignty over the entire West Bank/Judea and Samaria (and also Gaza.) They totally oppose a Palestinian state. But, annexation would sacrifice the priority of maintaining a large Jewish majority, and most likely would also undermine Israel’s long-term security.

In his October 1995 Knesset speech seeking approval for the “Oslo II” agreement, Yitzhak Rabin presented his vision for a settlement with the Palestinians. He emphasized the priorities of achieving security while maintaining a large Jewish majority in Israel. Rabin stated that Israel’s security border would permanently be located in the Jordan Valley “in the broadest meaning of that term,” and he envisioned a Palestinian “entity” in the West Bank and Gaza that would “be less than a state.” During the last year, Benny Gantz has also spoken about a Palestinian “entity” rather than a “state.”

Establishing a separate political entity for the large Palestinian population in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip would be essential for keeping a large Jewish majority in Israel. In speaking about an entity “less than a state,” Rabin understood that there would have to be significant limits that usually don’t apply to a “state.” Regardless of whether it is called an “entity” or a “state with limitations,” the nomenclature is less important than the steps needed to minimize the risks that such an entity would pose to Israel.

Some of those calling for a Palestinian state speak of it as being demilitarized. That is certainly a vital condition. But, it’s not enough. Other conditions have at times been articulated, one example being Benjamin Netanyahu’s famous Bar-Ilan speech in 2009. For example, Netanyahu stated, “In order to achieve peace, we must ensure that Palestinians will not be able to import missiles into their territory, to field an army, to close their airspace to us, or to make pacts with the likes of Hizbullah and Iran.” These and other limitations mentioned in the speech likely need to be updated.

Einat Wilf, an influential Israeli thinker and highly effective advocate for Israel, has argued that for most of the last 100 years Palestinian leaders (as well as many other Arab leaders) have been more committed to the goal that there NOT be a Jewish state than to the goal of having their own state. The failures of Yasser Arafat in 2000 and Mahmoud Abbas in 2008 to accept serious Israel proposals for a Palestinian state reflected these priorities. UNRWA, established shortly after Israel’s War of Independence to deal with Palestinian refugees, built an education system that has inculcated generations of Palestinian children with the ideas that Israel is illegitimate, should disappear, and will disappear. There remains an absence of Palestinian political leaders publicly committed to “two states for two peoples,” in which the Jewish people is one of those two peoples. And, it’s not just the “leaders” either. The hard reality is that opinion polls of Palestinian residents of the West Bank have shown that large majorities approve of the October 7th attacks and support Hamas. Wilf argues that a change in Palestinian national consciousness is necessary for there to be a durable peace.

Therefore, one of the requirements, if a Palestinian entity is to be established, would be a prior cultural/educational revolution among the Palestinian population and leadership so that they truly prioritize building their own state/entity and abandon the goal of destroying Israel. Is that possible? After World War II there were conscious reeducation programs in Japan and Germany to eliminate the militarism that had led to war. In both countries, these efforts were successful in reorienting values, which helped bring about enduring peaceful relations with their neighbors.

Such changes are crucially important because the security dangers posed to Israel by a Palestinian entity in the West Bank are enormous, much greater than those of Gaza. The topography of the West Bank would enable any Palestinian state or entity to pose a potentially existential threat to Israel’s densely populated coastal plain and Jerusalem. These dangers were made brutally clear to the Israeli public by the terrible acts committed by Hamas against Israeli civilians on October 7th.

Too negative a response by Israel’s government to Western talk of a Palestinian state carries the risk that Israel will have little input into the discussions and the planning for it. But, Israeli input is critical because no other party will care as much about our needs as we do. Failure to “do it right” will likely lead to disaster.

Therefore, the wise response to the talk of a Palestinian state, given the high priority of maintaining a large Jewish majority in Israel, would be to respond positively to the idea of establishing a separate Palestinian entity in the future under appropriate conditions, and to persuade Western diplomats about the specific steps required for a durable peace to emerge. These steps need to be detailed and carefully thought through, including the cultural/educational changes needed. Doing so would serve Israel’s vital interests and, ultimately, those of the Palestinian population.

About the Author
Lewis Rosen is a retired economist who has lived in Jerusalem for 40 years. Born and educated in the US, he worked for the Office of Economic Opportunity for two years in Washington D.C. and was on the economics faculty of York University in Toronto, Canada for 13 years. In Israel he was involved in a wide range of business planning and economic analysis projects.
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