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Israel has been backed into a strategic corner

Bren Carlill, Australian Jewish News, 3 July 2020

According to the Israeli government’s coalition agreement, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is this week entitled to present to cabinet a plan to unilaterally extend its sovereignty over parts of the West Bank. If he does so – this piece was written before any proposal was made – international condemnation will be instant. The intensity of that condemnation will hinge on just how much is slated to be incorporated into Israel, and the perceived impact it will have on the viability of a future Palestinian state. The reason Israel might do this, according to many commentators, is linked to the populist nationalism of Netanyahu and his right-religious bloc of supporters.

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But Netanyahu has been in power since 2009, and his current coalition government is much more centrist than most governments under Netanyahu over the past 11 years. Yet only now is he contemplating making this move. His reasoning goes well beyond nationalist politics. Rather, it is linked to the strategic situation in which Israel finds itself.

Try as it might, Israel cannot end its occupation of the West Bank through negotiations. This is because the Palestinians refuse to negotiate. Israel has attempted ‘final status’ negotiations with the Palestinians on four occasions (2000, 2001, 2008 and 2014). On each occasion, the Palestinians have either said no to Israeli or American offers—without making a counteroffer—or merely left the talks without responding at all. (Well, to be fair, in 2001 the Palestinians did make a counteroffer, but this walked back previously-agreed concessions.) Since 2014, Palestinians have refused to negotiate.

For a people so apparently eager for statehood, this refusal to negotiate might appear odd. However, there are three broad reasons for it. First, given that international public opinion is increasingly against Israel, the Palestinians are happy to sit back and watch pressure on Israel mount.

Second, the Palestinian leadership is unwillingness to compromise. The outline of a negotiated two-state outcome is well known, and requires both Israeli and Palestinian compromise: a Palestinian state, where Israel retains part of the West Bank in exchange for parts of sovereign Israel and a ‘right of return’ for Palestinian refugees to the new state of Palestine, but not to Israel (though a family reunification scheme would be implemented).

The problem is, the Palestinian leadership has not prepared its people for the compromises they will have to make. The unreconstructed (and unrealistic) vision of Israel eventually being replaced by Palestine—and, in the meantime, the Jewish state allowing its Jews to become a minority by means of a complete Palestinian ‘right of return’—is still the primary message received by Palestinians both in the territories and in the diaspora. Moreover, due to ineptitude, nepotism and endemic financial corruption, the Palestinian Authority is despised by its own people. Bereft of political capital, the Palestinian Authority has no ability to change its narrative and sell the necessary but difficult compromises that enabling statehood will require.

The Palestinian leadership found a very clever way to get around this problem (and this is the third reason why Palestinians refuse to negotiate). Since 2012, Palestinians have joined all manner of international organisations, starting with an upgrade of their status at the UN and peaking with them joining the International Criminal Court (ICC). Doing so allows them to increase pressure on Israel internationally by means of ‘lawfare’ without the Palestinians having to compromise. The tactic has been wildly successful. The ICC, having politicised itself into accepting as a State Party a party that isn’t actually a state, is now very likely to launch an investigation that will deem Israeli settlements a war crime. (Whatever one’s views of Israeli settlements, the ICC was conceived to punish those responsible for crimes against humanity, not for civilian housing in disputed territory.)

Some might suggest that, in the face of the Palestinian refusal to negotiate, Israel could always end the occupation by withdrawing unilaterally. Certainly, the Israeli majority would end the occupation tomorrow if it could do so in a way that would not undermine Israeli security. The problem is, Israel unilaterally withdrew from occupied territory—Gaza—in 2005, and has endured three wars launched from Gaza since that time. Most people concede that the only thing keeping Hamas at bay in the West Bank is Israel’s military presence. Unlike Gaza, which is on Israel’s periphery, the West Bank abuts the Israeli civilian, industrial and economic centre. Understandably enough, Israel doesn’t want a Hamas-run, Gaza-like, rocket-spewing entity to emerge in the West Bank, and won’t be leaving until it is convinced the Palestinians are both willing and able to keep the peace.

In short, Israel can’t end the occupation as a result of negotiations, and it can’t end the occupation unilaterally. Despite this, Israel is facing increasing international pressure for maintaining the occupation. The Jewish state has thus been backed into a strategic corner.

Enter US President Donald Trump. His ‘Deal of the Century’, announced in January, provides for a Palestinian state, but only in four years, and only if Palestinians manage to politically unite Gaza and the West Bank and have all armed groups lay down their weapons—a formula that has escaped the Palestinians ever since Hamas literally threw Fatah officials off Gazan roofs when it took over the Strip in 2007. Further, the plan sees Israel retain up to 30 per cent of the West Bank, and permission to incorporate that land as soon as a US-Israeli mapping exercise is completed.

The chance of Trump’s plan being implemented is extremely low, but it does reveal a very Trumpian tactic. Trump is known to put massive pressure on his business, legal and diplomatic opponents without regard to what they think of him. A common result is that the opponent eventually compromises. The Trump plan, with its up-front prospects for Israeli incorporation of a whole lot of land the Palestinians want for a state, puts a lot of pressure on the Palestinians. Israel is playing its part.

Certainly, there are key risks for Israel. It needs to keep the Trump White House happy, but it also knows that any move to unilaterally incorporate any land in the West Bank will be thoroughly criticised by the rest of the international community and result in significant dissent within Israel. Certainly, if any extension of Israeli sovereignty renders unviable a future Palestinian state or denies to incorporated Palestinians the option of full Israeli citizenship, Israel would have scored some significant own goals, to put it mildly.

As for the Palestinian leadership, it has been confronted with a rather rude shock. After saying no to peace for 20 years, after refusing to enter negotiations since 2014, and after pursuing an internationalist path (which, I might add, contravenes their commitments under the Oslo agreements), Palestinians have woken up to the hard truth that their rejectionism isn’t cost-free. Add to that these two facts: First, the international community is distracted by a global pandemic and resultant global recession. And second, regional Arab states, while annoyed at Israel, are much more concerned with Iran (and Israel is a key partner on that front). The Palestinian leadership might just think a perfect storm is forming over Ramallah.

Palestinians initially refused to have anything to do with Trump’s plan. But recent days have seen the Palestinians announce that they’ve offered a plan to the diplomatic ‘Quartet’ (the EU, Russia, UN and US). They’re not revealing many details, but it apparently includes a demilitarised Palestinian state in most of the West Bank and Gaza, with some land swaps.

If the Palestinian plan looks serious enough (and if the Palestinians start sounding like they’re willing to enter into negotiations), I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the White House abruptly puts the brakes on Netanyahu’s plans for the West Bank. I hesitate in calling Trump a tactical genius, but I bet that he envisioned this as a possible outcome. Trump is, ultimately, guided by what is best for Trump. And Trump wants to be known as the man who brought about Israeli–Palestinian peace. He doesn’t care much for who eventually controls what in the West Bank; he just wants the job done.

With a possible Israeli plan to be tabled in the coming days or weeks, attention will be focused on how much and what land is proposed to be incorporated into Israel, and the status of the Palestinians living therein. But this is where the key risk lies for Israel; it needs to work with Trump, but nor does it want to generate too much domestic or international dissent. If Palestinians think Israel is serious, it just might be the push they need to finally accept the need to come back to the negotiating table. Ultimately, true Israeli–Palestinian peace will only come as a result of talks based on both sides fully acknowledging that neither is going anywhere and that the end result is two viable and secure states alongside each other. The sooner this happens, the better for everyone.

Dr Bren Carlill is the public affairs director of the Zionist Federation of Australia. His PhD examined the intractability of the Israeli–Palestinian dispute.