In an earlier article, I identified 10 milestones that profoundly affected Israel’s security during the period from 1948 to 1990. With the same caveat that the list is neither exhaustive nor reflective of the full impact of each event, I offer the following key moments of the last thirty years.
The Oslo Accords – In 1993, Israelis and the world were shocked to learn that Israelis and Palestinians had secretly negotiated a framework for peace. Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin exchanged letters of mutual recognition that paved the way for a series of agreements that were meant to end the conflict and allow the Palestinians some form of independent entity (the Palestinians thought a state, Rabin said it would be something less). For the first time many Israelis were optimistic that peace was at hand. Israelis demonstrated they were prepared to take great risks and concede territory, but the Palestinians did not abandon their armed struggle and hopefulness faded.
The Islamization of the Conflict – The belief of many Muslims that Jews should not have a state on “their” holy land or rule over Muslims dates to the Mufti of Jerusalem’s virulent opposition to the establishment of a Jewish state. After Israel became independent, political opposition to its existence took precedence over religious antagonism. The growth of Hamas began to reverse this trend, and the group’s popularity forced the relatively secular PLO to adopt Islamic rhetoric symbolized by Arafat’s 1996 speech calling for “Jihad, Jihad, Jihad, Jihad” and the subsequent repetition of the “al-Aqsa Mosque is in danger” libel.
The Settlement Boom – When the decade of the 90’s began, roughly 76,000 Jews lived in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip. Most of those in the West Bank lived close to the Green Line. The possibility of a two-state solution seemed achievable if the number of settlers who needed to be evacuated was considered manageable and the location of the settlements did not significantly interfere with the contiguity of a future Palestinian state. The Palestinians could have frozen the growth of settlements at any time if they agreed to end the conflict. It appeared they realized this in 1993, after the number of settlers had nearly doubled, and they decided to negotiate, but they would not agree to peace. Israel never promised to stop building settlements and the number has now grown to 131 with a population of 450,000. The number of settlers who would have to be evacuated, and the location of the settlements, has made the likelihood of a two-state solution remote, if not impossible.
Second Lebanon War – In 2006, Hezbollah conducted a cross-border raid in which they killed eight IDF soldiers and abducted two others, provoking a war that led to heavy losses on both sides and an inconclusive outcome. Hezbollah’s bombardment of northern Israel with hundreds of rockets revealed the vulnerability of the civilian population. The Winograd Commission criticized the IDF’s preparedness prompting the military to correct the deficiencies. Meanwhile, Hezbollah has built up its capabilities and is estimated to have as many as 150,000 rockets targeting Israel that pose an ongoing danger.
The Camp David Talks – In 2000, Ehud Barak, Yasser Arafat and Bill Clinton held talks in Washington during which the Israeli prime minister hoped to reach a final peace agreement rather than continue the incremental Oslo approach. During negotiations, Barak offered the Palestinians almost everything they claimed they wanted, a Palestinian state in roughly 97 percent of the West Bank (with land swaps equal to the remaining 3 percent) and 100 percent of Gaza; Palestinian sovereignty over part of Jerusalem, and a solution to the refugee issue. Arafat rejected the offer. This appeared proof that no conceivable solution would satisfy the Palestinians, a view reinforced when Mahmoud Abbas rejected a similar proposal in talks with Ehud Olmert.
The Palestinian War – Even before the Camp David talks collapsed, Palestinian leaders had begun to incite violence, though they would later blame the September 2000 visit of Ariel Sharon to the Temple Mount for the subsequent upheaval. Usually referred to as the “al-Aqsa intifada,” violence continued for five years during which more than 1,000 Israelis were killed, many in heinous attacks on civilian targets. The terror created by repeated suicide bombings and other attacks traumatized the public. The intifada had a devastating impact on the economy largely because tourism dried up.
Construction of the Security Fence – The increase in the number and severity of terrorist attacks prompted Israel to construct a barrier to prevent infiltrators from entering the country from the West Bank. The project had the overwhelming support of the Israeli public and was deemed legal by Israel’s Supreme Court; however, it provoked international condemnation. Criticism has only died down in the last few years, but, more important, the fence has dramatically reduced the number of terror attacks. In 2002, before the first segment was completed, 457 Israelis were killed. The following year the figure was 213. In 2018, the number was 14.
Disengagement from Gaza – The myth that Israel could have peace if it made territorial concessions to the Palestinians was shattered when Palestinians in Gaza launched thousands of rockets and escalated their terror attacks following the evacuation of Israeli soldiers and civilians. Israel launched two operations to quell the violence but failed to end the threat. The Israeli public subsequently moved rightward, expressing greater skepticism about ceding territory in the West Bank out of fear of it becoming “Hamastan.” Israelis also recognized the trauma and difficulty of removing 9,000 Jews from Gaza would be magnified if tens of thousands of Jews were to be evacuated from the West Bank in a future peace deal.
The Iran Nuclear Deal – Israel fears the nuclear deal is so full of loopholes it cannot prevent the Iranians from eventually getting a bomb. Moreover, by excluding constraints on Iran’s sponsorship of terror, ballistic missile development and destabilizing actions in the region, the agreement failed to curb its malevolent behavior. Arab leaders now see Israel as a strategic ally to counter Iranian efforts to gain hegemony in the region. Israel’s opposition to the deal worsened relations with President Obama and Democrats in Congress but inspired President Trump to abandon the agreement.
Trump Changes the Calculus – After decades of emphasizing the Palestinian issue as the source of American problems in the region, and U.S. officials believing Israel had to be pressured to make concessions for peace, Donald Trump cut aid to the Palestinians for their intransigence and subsidies to jailed terrorists. In one stroke, he took the most contentious issue, the status of Jerusalem, off the negotiating table by recognizing it as Israel’s capital and moving the U.S. embassy. Despite hysterical predictions, reactions in the Arab world were muted. Reports about the administration’s peace initiative suggest the two-state solution may be jettisoned and Israeli annexation of parts of the West Bank endorsed. In contrast to his predecessor, Trump has praised Prime Minister Netanyahu. Nevertheless, Trump’s actions have alienated many American Jews and exacerbated tensions between Israel and the Democrats, and some Israelis and American Jews.