Lewis Rosen
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The Rabin-Netanyahu Palestinian Policy

There's an unexpected correlation between the two Israeli leaders

In a previous blog entry, I argued that instead of the two-state solution, as it is usually understood, and the one-state solution, a third approach was preferable. This would establish a Palestinian entity that would be “less than a state,” as proposed by Yitzhak Rabin in his last speech to the Knesset on October 5, 1995. Events of this summer have made this option even more compelling.

Since Rabin’s assassination, his image has been used as an icon of the peace movement in Israel. And, during the same period, the Western media’s favorite adjective for Benjamin Netanyahu has been “hardline”. Ironically, despite this glaring disparity, Netanyahu’s views regarding the Palestinians probably place him more in line with the solution articulated by Rabin in 1995 than any other political leader in Israel today.

In his speech, Rabin rejected annexation of the West Bank and Gaza and argued instead for a permanent solution that included: The State of Israel as a Jewish state; its borders “beyond the lines which existed before the Six Day War”; a Palestinian entity that would be “less than a state”; Israel’s security border to be located in the Jordan Valley “in the broadest meaning of that term”; and united Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty, while preserving the rights of members of the other faiths to freedom of access and worship.

Netanyahu has made numerous statements that are quite similar. For example, although Netanyahu used the term “Palestinian State” in his 2009 Bar-Ilan speech, probably due to intense international pressure, he insisted on serious limitations on its sovereignty that, effectively, would make it the same as Rabin’s “less than a state” entity. In addition to demilitarization, Netanyahu described these limitations as follows: “we don’t want them to bring in missiles or rockets or have an army, or control of airspace, or make treaties with countries like Iran, or [with organizations like] Hezbollah.”

Probably the best description would be autonomy or a limited-sovereignty state. In fact, such autonomy has been in effect in part of the West Bank in recent years. However, it could turn into a much greater success over time were it accompanied by: the abandonment of irredentism in education, the media, and religious settings; more responsive and less corrupt self-government; movement towards a self-sufficient economy; permanent housing for “refugees”; and the development of cultural, political, and governmental institutions truly aimed at bettering the lives of its people.

While Netanyahu has pursued policies towards the Palestinians that are very much consistent with Rabin’s vision, other Israeli politicians have embraced views that diverge considerably from it. For example, Labor party leader Isaac Herzog would negotiate based on the 1967 lines with land swaps, and has suggested “arrangements” for Jerusalem that likely would mean a division of the city, inconsistent with “united Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty.” Tzipi Livni, leader of Hatnua, uses the shorthand expression “two states for two people”, whose parallelism is at odds with Rabin’s view of a Palestinian entity that is “less than a state.” And while Yair Lapid, leader of Yesh Atid, has been committed to a united Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty, Ofer Shelah, Yesh Atid’s faction leader, is receptive to Palestinians having a capital in east Jerusalem in an agreement based on the 1967 lines.

Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni have repeatedly stressed the overriding importance of reaching agreement with the Palestinian Authority (PA). At times, Yair Lapid has also expressed the urgent need to reach an agreement. Such urgency, combined with some of their above-mentioned views, implies that they think Israel has not made enough concessions and that they would offer more. Their posture about negotiations with Mahmoud Abbas tends to increase rather than reduce his demands.

If most of those to the left of Netanyahu have abandoned some elements set forth in Rabin’s speech, some of those to the right of Netanyahu, including an increasing number within his own Likud party, seek partial or full annexation, moving in the direction of one state. Netanyahu has prevented this, again aligning himself with Rabin’s position.

What now?

Yitzhak Rabin was not the only Israeli with strong military credentials to argue that Israel must maintain security control of the Jordan Valley and West Bank. And, the imperative for retaining this control has only been strengthened during this violent summer in three ways:

1) Extrapolating from the rocket, mortar and tunnel attacks launched by Hamas and its allies from Gaza, Israelis understand clearly that were such concerted attacks to originate from the West Bank they would pose an existential threat to the State and its residents, most of who would be in close range. This includes the Jerusalem and Tel Aviv metropolitan areas, Ben-Gurion Airport, and, to a lesser extent, the Haifa region. With only about 15 seconds to respond to an alarm, normal activity would be severely curtailed and most or all foreign airlines would likely cease flying to Israel.

2) In the absence of an Israeli security presence in the West Bank, nothing would have prevented Hamas from carrying out its plot to stage major attacks from the West Bank on Israeli targets and a coup against the PA—a plot reportedly averted by the IDF and Shin Bet General Security Service.

3) The emergence of the highly aggressive, expansionist, and, at times, barbaric Islamic State, represents a new regional threat in addition to Iran that necessitates a long term Israeli security presence along the Jordan Valley.

The US suggestion that non-Israeli forces replace the IDF for crucial security tasks in the West Bank and Jordan Valley is a non-starter for Israel — the use of foreign forces has been tried various times, generally with poor results. For example, the first UN Emergency Force was pulled from Sinai when Egypt ordered it out in May 1967; EU monitors on the Egypt-Gaza border fled in 2007 after the violent Hamas takeover; and since 2006, the EU-led UNIFIL peacekeeping forces has failed to prevent Hezbollah from smuggling an estimated tens of thousands of new rockets into Lebanon in violation of UNSC resolution 1701.

Especially now, when many international voices (and some Israeli voices) are pressing for a return to negotiations with Mahmoud Abbas, one hopes that the various center/left political leaders within Israel will internalize the implications of this summer’s developments and publicly affirm the need for Israel’s continued military control of the West Bank/Jordan Valley.

It is perhaps more important for the US and leading European governments to do the same, alter their unrealistic demands regarding Israel’s military presence in the West Bank/Jordan Valley, and press the Palestinians to accept autonomy/limited sovereignty. It is time for the Obama administration to change its stance vis-à-vis the PA, which it has been reluctant to criticize publicly, even in the face of some egregious words or actions. The bedrock UNSC Resolution 242 commits to Israel having the “right to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries free from threats or acts of force.” Autonomy/limited sovereignty for the Palestinians is much more likely to provide this than would an independent Palestinian state.

Perhaps one of the reasons for the prevailing US posture has been the view that Netanyahu is a hardliner. If the Obama Administration could free itself of this misperception, recognizing the great similarity of Netanyahu’s positions on the Palestinians with those of Yitzhak Rabin, who is so highly regarded, it may have an easier time pressing the Palestinians to accept autonomy/limited sovereignty.

It would be a dramatic development indeed were either Abbas or his Fatah successors, as a result of strong international pressure, to come to terms with autonomy/limited sovereignty and embrace it as their political goal. Unfortunately, there little evidence that such a change will happen any time soon. In that case, Israel will have to go on coping with a problem that has no solution.

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.