Land for land for stability for peace

On annexation

A third way – overlooked as usual by the Israeli government and the Palestinians in their hurry to make maximalist claims and deny the rights of the other to anything much.

One of the core issues Israel has in negotiating with the Palestinians is who to talk to – the adage that “there is no peace partner”. Hamas are beyond the pale and even Abbas is irredentist, at least to the Arabic-speaking public, on the idea that there should be no “normalisation” unless and until all Palestinian demands are met, even as they evolve and expand over time, and notwithstanding one-way concessions made by Israel until now.

Abbas has been able to play this card continuously because there has never been, until recently, consistent alignment of wider Arab interests with Israel, and in parallel, consistent albeit often grudging support of the Palestinians through financial and diplomatic means, by the Arab world.

The Trump Plan and Israel’s increasingly open links with much of the Arab world have upset this game. Trump has made clear that there is a price to pay for intransigence, and the Arab world are now openly indifferent enough to the Palestinian cause in the wider scheme of Iran (plus arguably Syria, Turkey and Qatar), Covid etc that they no longer want the PA to be a barrier to a de facto peace with Israel. Should Israel be first to market with a viable vaccine, this will become even starker.

The question is how to make this de facto situation into a de jure one, and bring the recalcitrant Palestinians to the table, rather than the other way round as has been supposed until now, where it has always been assumed that a peace plan will have the bonus of the Arab League falling into line.

With the US elections looming, and every chance of a return to détente with Iran (perhaps even if Trump wins), this is a window of opportunity to cement something with those countries of the Arab world whose interests are closely aligned with Israel’s. And yet the exact inverse is a conceivable outcome of any material unilateral move to annex any substantial part of Judea and Samaria.

Israel is suffering from the usual poor decisions in terminology, having themselves calling it “annexation” in English, a highly politically charged term that has hasbarists tearing their hair out.

They also have to contend with the bad optics of Israel appearing to take advantage of the remainder of Trump’s (first or only) and now very distracted term in office, to ram through as many select elements of his plan as they can. This is causing tremendous pushback, in Congress, the Knesset, the Israeli public, and across Diaspora Jewry. It also jeopardises the progress made with moderate Arab states. And it doesn’t particularly satisfy the territorial maximalists anyway.

It turns out that Bibi is also hedging his bets, apparently by having four different grades of plan already drawn up, and now of course claiming that Israel has other priorities, as if it didn’t a few weeks ago when he first mooted this move.

Any or all of these plans could have included the granting of major concessions that do not require immediate cooperation from the Palestinians, which would have blunted a lot of criticism of what otherwise looks like a naked land grab, and allowed for continued rapprochement with the Arab world, in fact wedding their long-term interests to ours, and demonstrating that “normalisation” is not a dirty word but something entirely in the Palestinian, Israeli and regional interest.

The Trump plan contains clearly defined areas for a land swap in principle, predominantly along the Israel-Egypt border, with the idea of enlarging Gaza’s living space. The maps proposing this turn out not to have been drawn very accurately, but the basic concept is established and broadly accepted by most Israelis.

Egypt has consistently offered to provide Gaza with land on a ceded or leased basis from the eastern Sinai Peninsula, which is largely desolate and uninhabited. In fact, anything that provides a security buttress against continued lawlessness and an increasing presence of extremists is in their interests. It would make sense for this land to adjoin these Israeli territories, and make a proper, contiguous and viable extension to the Gaza Strip.

The Trump Plan could have been launched by Israel proactively starting the process of ceding or leasing these Negev territories at the same time and on the same basis as the Egyptians. It would not have to be unilateral – it would need to be coordinated with Egypt, the USA and probably the wider Arab League, with funding to start creating the infrastructure needed to eventually make this part of Gaza.

There is precedent in Rawabi, Qatar’s assistance of Hamas’ civil infrastructure, and the recent aid flights from the UAE, for the Gulf states to provide funding and logistical support via Israel, despite the obvious “normalisation” this entails, and how much that irritates the Palestinian Authority.

With the creation of this first “emirate” in the north-western Negev and eastern Sinai), any Palestinian would be permitted to buy properties there, and the Egyptians would need to agree a laissez-passer to be able to fly in and out, at least via the dedicated airport terminal. This is substantially more frictionless than the current procedure for Palestinians in either Gaza or the West Bank to travel abroad.

If the PA and/or Hamas decide to even prevent this somehow, through punitive measures against their own residents, the properties could be offered to the Palestinian Diaspora. If even this is successfully deterred, then some kind of medium-term lease of the underlying land, say 5-10 years, back to Israeli and Egyptian sovereignty would be considered for the time being, with clauses that all property can only be rented out on a rolling basis up to the lease end date, so this idea can always be restarted later. Essentially it would be like building a new Yamit but with the predetermined intention to turn it over to Arab occupants eventually.

The idea of doing all this is threefold; provide a quid pro quo that constitutes proper grounds for executing elements of the Trump Plan that overlap in any case with basically every putative peace deal anyway, do something that publicly normalises Israeli relations with the moderate Arab states and locks them into a committed programme for 5-10 years, and show the Palestinian people that Israel and the Arab states are serious about their wellbeing in a way that their own leadership sadly is not, with a view to either holding the latter to account or providing the nudge to be rid of them.

Of course, all of this is also about ensuring that there is somewhere for people to go other than the grotesque grasp for the oxygen of publicity of the Peter Beinarts on the hard left claiming a two-state solution is dead, long live the one-state solution, or the machinations of an increasingly disliked populist Netanyahu on the right, who claim the same in effect but have no intention to give citizenship to the Palestinians, or the same tired tropes of the classic and long outdated two state solution espoused by Biden and many European leaders (including in the Israeli press).

This is the first step towards middle-ground models that actually come from across the political spectrum, such as Keidar’s emirates plan, or the kind of strategies of Micah Goodman’s Catch-67, or various federal or confederal proposals.

Should the PA remain intransigent, even after the multiple years needed to make the area habitable, given that there are already two effective sovereigns (Hamas in Gaza and the PA in the West Bank), why not simply create a third autonomous region? If it turned out to not be corrupt or terror-prone, it could be a model for a change in other areas.

This is not dissimilar initially to Mordechai Keidar’s “emirates model” – we are simply creating another emirate – possibly working with the Egyptians to provide sea port access and perhaps a dedicated airport terminal in the style of Basel or Geneva airports, which are simultaneously Swiss and French, and which could eventually serve Gaza too (El Arish is the nearest active civilian airport, El Gora is even closer and is a little-used military airfield that could be repurposed).

At a later date, if the “emirates model” aggregates sufficient peaceful, autonomous Palestinian regions, and the PA continue to pursue an unrealistic all-or-nothing policy on statehood, these areas could be invited to join a confederation with Israel in which they would to all intents and purposes be living in an independent Palestine.

These regions would share their own Palestinian flag, passports and government (either in Ramallah or its own entity), but have many of the benefits of contiguity with Israel, without jeopardising Israeli security or the majority-Jewish and democratic nature of the state.

It should be noted that the confederation proposal is to the left of Keidar’s in that it does envisage an eventual independent entity called Palestine in the same way as the UAE exists to represent Dubai, Abu Dhabi and the other five emirates at a diplomatic level, and form common policies on a large array of matters. It is however to the right of the Federation Movement in that mainstream Israelis or Palestinians do not particularly want to share any apparatus of government beyond the absolute minimum of relatively apolitical fields such as infrastructure.

This moment of annexation would have been a great opportunity for Israel to seize the agenda, create a third way that drew in the EU, US and Arab League, and made the PA either irrelevant or propelled them back to the table with less room to manoeuvre. Instead it is likely to end up doing the opposite, and possibly without even going through with the actual extension of sovereignty over our own citizens, in areas where it was not particularly contentious to do so.

At least after 72 years, we know that we are indigenous to the region, as we too never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.

About the Author
Michael is Executive Director of Asquith Israel Merchant Bank, which seeks to go "Beyond the Start-Up Nation" by investing long-term in Israeli growth companies.
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