If you do a web search for “unsustainable Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory,” you’ll find there are more than 600,000 results. “Unsustainable” is a word that is regularly—indeed, almost invariably—used to characterize the current status quo in the West Bank. According to Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, the definition of that word is, “not capable of being prolonged or continued.” So, the question arises: Is there good reason to believe that the current situation in the West Bank is not capable of being prolonged or continued; that is, is it unsustainable?
No one can predict the future with certainty. But it seems to me that, notwithstanding the multitude of assertions to the contrary, the strong likelihood is that the status quo in the West Bank, as unsatisfactory as it may be to all parties, is in fact sustainable into the foreseeable future. The relevant history tends to confirm this conclusion.
Israel acquired control over the West Bank in the 1967 war, when Jordan’s military forces were defeated by the I.D.F. and forced out of the territory. Fifty-five years have passed since that conflict—more than half a century. In that interval of time, Israel has, by every relevant measure, become a stronger, more prosperous, more populous, more secure country. In recent years, the Abraham Accords have dramatically improved Israel’s relations with regional Arab states; those improved relations seem to be evolving fruitfully. All of this has occurred despite withering criticism of Israel from prominent N.G.O.s, the U.N., Iran, etc. In light of these facts, a reasonable person would have to conclude that it is likely that the status quo in the West Bank is indeed sustainable into the foreseeable future.
I want to be very clear here. I am not contending that the present situation is satisfactory to anyone. Nor am I suggesting that Israel ought to strive to maintain the status quo into the foreseeable future. As a citizen of the U.S. and not of Israel, it would be inappropriate and presumptuous of me to purport to advise Israelis or their government as to what policies they should adopt concerning the West Bank. My only contention is that, based on relevant history, I see no good reason to believe the status quo in the West Bank is unsustainable.
I would also add—again, without urging that Israel adopt any particular policies—that it is very likely that, for the foreseeable future, there will be no major breakthrough to the much-anticipated, much-discussed and long-awaited “two-state solution.” I make this prediction because I think it would be impossible, as a practical matter, for Palestinian leadership to agree to such a solution.
Here’s why it would be impossible: The Palestinians are ruled over by two mutually antagonistic entities. In 2005, Israel unilaterally withdrew all it troops and citizens from Gaza. In 2007, Hamas gunmen seized control of Gaza from the Palestinian Authority, and Gaza became a base and launching pad for Hamas and other terrorist groups garrisoned there. So, in the West Bank, the government is the P.A.; in Gaza, the ruler is Hamas.
The P.A.—whose president, Mahmoud Abbas, is 87 years old and is now in the seventeenth year of his four-year term in office—asserts that it would accept a Palestinian state living side-by-side and in peace with Israel. Hamas, in stark contrast, is an Islamist terrorist organization that explicitly refuses to recognize or co-exist with any Jewish state on the territory of what was Mandatory Palestine. Hamas claims all of that territory—from the River to the Sea—as an Islamic waqf for all eternity.
Here is the crucial point: If there is to be true peace between Israel and a newly-created Palestinian state, it is the terrorists in Gaza who would have to lay down their arms. It is the Gazan terrorists who launch rockets into Israel, dig tunnels under the border with Israel, and in general pose the greatest threat to Israelis. The P.A. has no influence over those terrorists—none whatsoever. Thus, a “peace treaty” signed by Mahmoud Abbas, or any successor to him as president of the P.A., would be worthless to Israel, because the P.A.—with or without Abbas—has no ability to disarm, control, or even influence the terrorists in Gaza.
No one is more acutely aware of the P.A.’s impotence vis-à-vis Hamas and its terrorist comrades than Mahmoud Abbas. There is a good reason why he has not set foot in Gaza since 2007—he prefers not to be assassinated. Therefore, it makes perfect sense for Abbas (a) to refuse to negotiate with Israel whenever it is prudent for him to do so, and (b) to make clearly unacceptable, unattainable demands when he does pretend to negotiate.
Put yourself in Abbas’ position. Would you refuse to sign any peace agreement, and then be lionized by a majority of world leaders as the honored, respected leader of an oppressed nation that is entitled to receive generous financial support from a sympathetic international community, or would you prefer to sign a peace agreement that your side will then be unable to honor, thus revealing yourself to the entire world as a pseudo-leader who has zero control over the most violent factions in the population you supposedly lead? We know the choice Abbas has made.
Once again, I’m not advocating for or against any particular Israeli policy. I’m only predicting that, for the foreseeable future, Abbas and any successor will refuse to enter into any reasonable peace agreement with Israel. So, for better or for worse, the “unsustainable” status quo might actually be sustained for a long, long time.