Note: this article was distributed to some Knesset members before the dissolution of the last Knesset. The author is publishing it now unchanged because many questions the article raises are still valid and worth of a public discussion.
Israelis seem to be headed towards a third round of elections in less than one year. While immersed in their heated discussions about the personal merits and demerits of their leaders, one subject has been missing from the political discourse: their future relations with their Palestinian neighbors. It is understandable: Israel seems to have tried everything to solve this problem politically and nothing worked, so it gave up and Israelis are satisfied with the present status quo: a “wall” was built that stopped the suicide attacks coming from the West Bank that had killed hundreds and injured thousands of innocents civilians in the streets of Tel-Aviv and Jerusalem. From time to time there is a limited war with Hamas in Gaza after hundreds of rockets rain over the Israeli communities in the south (but a limited war is preferable over invading the strip and having to take care of the daily needs of two million unruly civilians in Gaza) and an acceptable modus vivendi has been developed with the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.
But if history tells us a lesson, “status-quos” are not sustainable in the long run. Israel should have always its antennas ‘on’ to capture any potential opportunity to change the status quo for the better and do its part for this to happen. What about “The Deal of the Century”? The Trump administration has patiently waited for months to have a stable Israeli government in place to unveil this initiative. However, a third round of elections in Israel could mean a sure death to it: by the time a new Israel government will be in place – hopefully around May 2020 – the attention of the Trump administration will be completely focused inwards towards the November 2020 presidential elections in the US.
The question comes to mind: Is Israel missing a unique golden opportunity to change the status quo vis-à-vis the Palestinians by insisting in having a third round of elections? The common Israeli in the street has very warm feelings towards Trump. On the other hand, the “intelligentsia” is horrified about even the thought of touching anything that comes from Trump, so the “Deal of the Century” is not even discussed in the printed or digital media in Israel.
The White House has been purposely vague about committing to the 2-state approach formula and the economic parameters of “The Deal of the Century”, revealed several months ago, are compatible with a variety of political destinations.
Since the Oslo Accords in 1993, successive Israel governments from Left and Right have tried during the last 25 years to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians based on “the 2-state approach” and nothing came out of this effort, except perhaps for the “wall” separating the West Bank from Israel proper. In the Twitter-dominated era – where young people expect an explanation in 140 characters – the “wall” has been used very effectively to vilify Israel and to breed a growing BDS movement: “walls” in Europe and the USA have very negative local associations.
This paralysis in the political front has also led lately to worrisome developments in the US: cracks in the support of Israel within the Democratic Party have appeared. During the latest presidential debates, leading Democratic candidates for the coming 2020 elections – under pressure to give a one-sentence reply to cleverly articulated one-sentence questions from a few activists embedded in the big audiences – delivered unusually critical statements about Israel. Last month, one hundred and seven House representatives of the Democratic Party (50% of all the Democratic representatives in Congress!) issued a highly critical statement of Netanyahu’s latest intention to annex the Jordan Valley and the decisions by the Trump administration to recognize both the Israeli settlements in the West Bank as compatible with international law and Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. The Israeli leadership should understand and internalize that strong and continuous two-party support for Israel across different US administrations is essential for Israel’s survival.
Tel-Aviv, Jerusalem and Ben-Gurion’s international airport are only a few miles away from the West Bank: Israel does not have the luxury to embark in a second Gaza-type withdrawal experiment in the West Bank. A Palestinian mini-state 40 miles wide by 55 miles long in the West Bank would be overrun by Hamas and the Islamic Jihad – as they did in Gaza in 2007, two years after Israel left the Gaza strip. This mini-state would become a constant source of violence and instability not only for Israel but also for Jordan.
Is there an alternative to the failed 2-state approach in the middle of the upheaval going through the whole Middle East? Yes, there is: the 1967 242 UNSC resolution. Is there a path to return to the 242 approach? Yes: work now towards the reunification of the West Bank with Jordan. This approach has a much stronger chance of success: There are already peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan that have withstood the test of time. Palestinians in the West Bank have rich historical and family ties with Jordan. Half of the Jordanian population today is of Palestinian origin and they are fully integrated in the Jordanian society. A few years ago, the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, in one of his frequent visits to Jordan, described Jordanian and Palestinian Arabs as “one people living in two states”. This statement should not be ignored nor dismissed lightly.
A demilitarized West Bank, as part of Jordan, will not hurt the national feelings of sovereignty of anyone: It already works fine for many years with Egypt’s Sinai. Netanyahu’s latest proposal to annex the Jordan Valley (perhaps with the intention to entice a member or two of some minor parties to join his 55-seats block in the Knesset) unnecessarily jeopardizes the good will towards Israel from many Democratic representatives in the US Congress and makes more difficult any future political separation from the Palestinians. The annexation proposal should be fast thrown into the waste basket. The long-term security of Israel can be better attained by means similar to the ones included in the Egypt-Israel peace treaty: a series of monitoring stations along the Jordan River, manned by the US, to assure the complete demilitarization of the West Bank.
What about the Jewish settlements in the West Bank? Jews have deeply historic roots in the West Bank spanning more than two thousand years. The Palestinians also have deep roots in this piece of land. There are presently 1,600,000 Palestinians living within the boundaries of Israel proper. There are about 400,000 Israelis living in the West Bank (excluding Jerusalem). The idea or any thought of removing or exchanging these populations is inhuman. The 1,600,000 Palestinians living in Israel and the 400,000 Israelis living in the West Bank (as part of Jordan) will be the best emissaries for peace and open borders between Israel and Jordan. The 1949 armistice lines between Jordan and Israel will need some mutually accepted changes to become international recognized border lines, as envisioned by the 242 resolution. Topography and the well-being of these two populations will be factors in the determination of the final borders between Jordan and Israel.
The economic vision of the “Deal of a Century” is akin to a “Marshall Plan for the Palestinian People”. Geopolitically speaking, it will help Jordan reintegrate the West Bank, it will elevate the living standards of all the inhabitants of Jordan, including the West Bank, it will ensure that Jordan remains a strong ally of the US for many years to come and help shield Israel and Jordan from the upheaval, instability and wars ravaging the Middle East. The economic and political reunification of the West Bank with Jordan should proceed unimpeded by the stalemate in Gaza. In a practical perspective, the solution described above might take many years to fully implement. However, the political destination should be clear: implementation of the 242 UNSC resolution vis-à-vis Jordan.
What about the Gaza strip? The economic vision of the “Deal of the Century” has come with some ingenious solutions to the needs of its civilian population, while at the same time avoiding from Hamas’ war-machine to benefit from them: adding economic development zones in the Sinai in close proximity to the Gaza strip, will benefit both Egypt and Gaza and, at the same time, will ensure that the economic investment is shielded from and not diverted to finance the wars of Hamas and the Islamic Jihad. It will thus contribute to the overall US goal of providing stability and development of the region encompassing Jordan, Israel and Egypt, a strategic bridge between Africa and Asia. The political future of Gaza will be decided by its people at a later time when Gaza will cease to be ruled by a terrorist organization bent on destroying the State of Israel. Gaza could flourish as an independent state, like Monaco or Singapore, or strive to join Egypt or Jordan, the only condition being of becoming fully demilitarized. There is nothing that stands between the people of Gaza and a better future for their children, except for their present destructive approach towards Israel.
What about Israel? A stable government should be established as soon as possible in the coming weeks. Further delay might force the Trump administration to shelve the initiative and concentrate exclusively in the critical 2020 US presidential elections. Israel would then miss the golden opportunity to change course from the dead-end 2-state approach and towards the original 242-based solution vis-à-vis Jordan with a supportive US administration. Israel should take the initiative to erase the negative narrative that is taking hold in the Democratic Party before it becomes entrenched. There are two tracks to avoid a third round of elections in Israel. The first track is a unity government along the lines proposed by Israel’s president Rivlin. With a bit of good will this can be achieved. Personally, I find it amusing to prosecute a Primer Minister for receiving cigars and liquors as gifts. It might be an indication of the zealotry of a prosecution or their out of touch with common good sense. I can imagine a decent Prime Minister that unwillingly ends up stuck with a lot of cigars and bottles in his home from his many years of public service. And this image does not disturb me. But what about the $3,100 in jewelry gifts received by Sara Netanyahu? Personally, I would rather let the courts tell my wife to return the jewelry and pay a fine than having a fight with my wife … There are much more serious problems in the life of a country. The other track is a last moment initiative to charge the Knesset speaker Yuli-Yoel Edelstein with the task to form a stable government. Again, from my limited perspective, the Knesset speaker – besides being well-received by the Israeli public – seems to have the right personal biography to represent Israel in the international arena.
One final point regarding religious coercion – one of the sticking points hindering the formation of a stable government in Israel: I am a strictly secular Jew, religious coercion irritates me, but workarounds like offering free basic public transportation during the Sabbath are a small price to pay for Jews to get along in Israel until this young democracy matures and better solutions can be provided. In the meantime, let us solve the problem of how to make safe for Jews – all Jews, secular and religious – to live in their country with a Middle East in turmoil and a genocidal regime in Iran.