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Fifty Years, and No End in Sight

Ron Skolnik
June 22, 2017


by Ron Skolnik

From the Summer 2017 issue of Jewish Currents

ON THE EVENING of November 4, 1995, I walked home happily to my small Tel Aviv apartment, having just been part of the massive crowd that had come out in support of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the Oslo peace process that he was leading. It was one of many similar pro-peace actions, organized by Peace Now and other groups, in which I took part during the Oslo years. But that era was cut off from the future that very night, derailed from reaching its destination — a two-state settlement between Israel and the Palestinians — by the murder of Rabin by a rightwing Israeli Jewish assassin. More than two decades later, and fifty years since the 1967 Six-Day War, Israel’s peace camp is a shadow of its former self, and Israel’s occupation of the West Bank has no end in sight.

How did we get here?

On June 19, 1967, less than ten days after the end of the Six-Day War, Israel’s Labor Party-led Cabinet met in secret session to discuss the future of the newly occupied territories — the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza Strip, won from Egypt; the Golan Heights, captured from Syria; and the West Bank, which Jordan had occupied during the Israel-Arab war of 1948-49 and subsequently annexed.

Devising a strategy for the Sinai and Golan proved to be the easy part: Israel’s ministers resolved that, in exchange for peace treaties, the country would withdraw the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) to the international borders with Egypt and Syria, respectively. (The offer was eventually rejected by Cairo and Damascus as part of the Arab League’s insistence upon an unconditional withdrawal.)

The West Bank proved to be a far thornier issue, with the Cabinet sharply divided regarding the area’s future. On one item, the majority of ministers was able to agree: As opposed to the Syrian and Egyptian fronts, there would be no return to the pre-war armistice boundary with Jordan, which Israel’s leaders deemed militarily indefensible.

Beyond that item, however, no consensus could be found. Some Cabinet members sought to promote a “Jordanian Option” — that is, negotiating over the West Bank with Jordan’s King Hussein in the hopes of reaching some sort of territorial accommodation. Others believed that Israel should create a weak, demilitarized, and malleable Palestinian mini-state in the northern section of the West Bank that would be surrounded by, and fully dependent on, Israel — an option seen as superior to a Jordanian re-entry west of the Jordan River. Unable to formulate a coherent policy for the West Bank, the Cabinet deferred further discussion until an unspecified future time.

Ultimately, this initial inability to chart a course would morph into an actual Israeli policy known as “deciding not to decide.” Having just concluded a major military victory, Israel’s leaders felt they held the geopolitical upper hand and that time was on their side. For the next ten years, therefore, until Labor was replaced as Israel’s ruling party by Menachem Begin’s Likud, no official plan, public or secret, regarding the proposed fate of the West Bank and its people would be adopted by the Israeli government. Thus began a period of limbo that in many ways still resonates today.

ISRAEL’S PERENNIAL dilemma vis-à-vis the West Bank can perhaps be described by the Hebrew expression, lo l’vlo’a v’lo l’haki — it is something that can neither be swallowed down nor spewed out. Unwilling to relinquish too much territory (for strategic, historical and religious reasons), but repelled by the idea of incorporating the large numbers of Arab residents living there, Israeli political circles have proffered a series of ideas designed to square the strategic circle.

In the period following the 1967 war, two major schools of thought vied for dominance within the Labor Party. Led by Labor Affairs Minister Yigal Alon, the camp of territorial compromise sought a deal in which Israel would retain the parts of the West Bank where the Palestinian population was sparse (about one third of the territory), while handing back to Jordan those areas with higher population density. (This did not include East Jerusalem, which was formally annexed by Israel on June 28, 1967.)

The alternative school, led by Moshe Dayan and Shimon Peres, imagined that Israel could maintain complete military control of the entire West Bank without taking on the day-to-day chores of governing its population. Styling this approach a “hands-off occupation,” its proponents charted a policy under which public services such as education, culture, religion, and the economy were handled on the local and municipal level by the occupied Palestinians themselves. (A variant on this theme, a mooted “functional compromise” between Israel and Jordan, would have had the Hashemite Kingdom provide these services while Israel controlled security, water and land resources and Jewish settlement.)

By 1988, both these schools of thought had essentially gone bankrupt. In April 1976, municipal elections held in the West Bank at the behest of Defense Minister Peres produced a decisive electoral victory for the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). The result was a firm rejection of Peres’ attempt to create a substitute Palestinian leadership that could challenge the PLO’s growing stature and accept a so-called “enlightened occupation.” The first Intifada, which broke out in December 1987, reconfirmed that the Palestinians would not collaborate with the Dayan/Peres model. The Palestinian rebellion also put the final nail in the coffin of the Jordanian option, as it prompted King Hussein to renounce any claims to the occupied territory which, he declared, “belongs to the Palestinian people.”

NONETHELESS, a future in which Israel can possess the land without the encumbrance of the people dwelling there has remained the proverbial pot of gold. In the elections of 1977, Menachem Begin’s victorious Likud party ran on a platform calling for the annexation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. But while the plan called for Israel to declare sovereignty over the territory, its residents were another story: The annexation plank of Likud’s platform denied naturalization and enfranchisement to the “[Arab] residents of the liberated territories,” who would “continue to hold their previous citizenship.” West Bank Palestinians, in other words, would remain citizens of Jordan and not be incorporated into Israel’s body politic.

Notwithstanding their annexationist bravado, Begin and Likud once in power realized that their plan was impracticable. Choosing to jettison his party’s official agenda as part of his peace diplomacy with Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat, Begin unveiled instead a West Bank/Gaza Strip autonomy plan that drew on many of the elements of the Dayan/Peres approach. Dayan, in fact, served as Begin’s first foreign minister.

While autonomy was a significant departure for the maximalist Likud, this program, too, allowed Israel to maintain full military control and ultimate authority while keeping the Palestinians outside the Israeli commonwealth. Under Begin’s plan, an “administrative council” elected by the “residents of Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip” would attend to education, transportation, construction and housing, industry, commerce and tourism, health and other basic needs, while “[s]ecurity and public order . . . will be entrusted to the Israeli authorities.”

For the PLO, the idea was a non-starter. And although the 1979 Israel-Egypt peace treaty included a call for a five-year, transitional “self-governing authority” that would provide “full autonomy,” negotiations with Cairo over the ultimate end-goal swiftly broke down and petered out.

With the autonomy plan withered, more radical ideas began to gain traction on the fringes. American Rabbi Meir Kahane, who had founded the Jewish Defense League before immigrating to Israel in 1971, reasoned that if the Palestinian residents of the territories could be completely removed from the picture, Israel would indeed be able to swallow the land whole. Forming the extremist Kach (“Thus”) party, Kahane preached the forced expulsion of all Arabs (including the Palestinian citizens of Israel). After electoral failures in 1977 and 1981, Kach managed to gain a seat in the 120-member Israeli Knesset in 1984. Four years later, with polls indicating that the party stood to quadruple its Knesset representation in the upcoming election, Kach was banned from running, the Supreme Court disqualifying it due to the party’s racist incitement. Still Kach’s prescriptions continue to have a following in Israel today, where t-shirts, posters and graffiti reading “Kahane was Right” and bearing the rabbi’s image are a not-uncommon sight.

When Kahane’s platform was deemed to be beyond the legal pale, its place was taken by a slightly more palatable model, the “Transfer Plan,” forwarded by Rehavam Ze’evi’s Moledet (“Homeland”) party. As opposed to the expulsion advocated by Kahane, Ze’evi called for mass Palestinian emigration which, he insisted, would be entirely “voluntary.” But such claims were bogus: Under Ze’evi’s plan, Israel would deny Palestinians both employment and educational opportunities, making their lives so difficult that they would have little choice but to migrate elsewhere. Unlike Kach, which was shunned even by other rightwing parties, Ze’evi’s Moledet, with the two seats it won in 1988, would eventually be welcomed into the coalition government of Likud Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir. The party would later integrate into the far-right Jewish Home, a senior partner in Netanyahu’s coalition.

LIKUD LOST POWER to Yitzhak Rabin’s Labor Party in 1992, and backchannel conversations with PLO leaders would soon usher in the Oslo accords. While many heralded Oslo as the gateway to a two-state compromise and the end of occupation, some on the Palestinian side expressed concern that Israel, by allowing the creation of an autonomous Palestinian Authority, was actually setting a honey-trap and effectively sneaking “enlightened occupation” in through the back door. Some Israelis, on both the right and left, insist that Rabin never intended to allow the Palestinians a fully sovereign entity.

Rabin indeed kept his cards close to his chest, so in the absence of archival material, his true end-game and the extent of his political evolution remain matters of speculation. But as the Palestinian Authority, conceived as a five-year interim framework, nears its quarter-century mark, and with Israel’s settler population (excluding East Jerusalem) having increased four-fold over that span, it is fair to say that Oslo-skeptics have been given significant grist for their mill.

Seven months after Rabin’s assassination, a young Binyamin Netanyahu defeated Shimon Peres and became Israel’s prime minister. His first term (1996-99) did little to instill confidence that the limbo of Israeli occupation policy was ending. After campaigning on a platform of “slowing down” the Oslo process, Netanyahu was later recorded bragging, apparently on a hot mic, that he had “brought the Oslo accord to a halt.” When his first term was over, he explained that his strategy had been to “pay a minimal price” and hand over “two percent” of the West Bank in order to stop the “stampede” to the 1967 pre-war lines. Back in the late 1970s, Begin had taken a similar approach: Ceding the Sinai back to Egypt and uprooting Israeli settlements there in order to maintain the status quo in the other territories.

Ariel Sharon, prime minister from 2001 to 2006, would later employ a comparable tactical retreat, withdrawing Israeli forces and settlers from the Gaza Strip in 2005 in order to ward off international pressure for a deal over the West Bank. Indeed, Sharon’s senior adviser, Dov Weisglass, openly admitted that the purpose of the prime minister’s Gaza disengagement plan was to reinforce the state of cantonized autonomy that existed on the West Bank. In an interview with Haaretz in 2004, even before disengagement was implemented, Weisglass frankly confirmed that Sharon’s aim was “freezing the peace process,” comparing the initiative to “formaldehyde,” the fluid used to preserve dead bodies. He elaborated:

And when you freeze that process, you prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state, and you prevent a discussion on the refugees, the borders and Jerusalem. Effectively, this whole package called the Palestinian state, with all that it entails, has been removed indefinitely from our agenda. And all this with . . . a[n American] presidential blessing and the ratification of both houses of Congress.

AS OPPOSED to Netanyahu and Sharon, Israel’s “two Ehuds,” prime ministers Barak (1999-2001) and Olmert (2006-2009), seemed genuinely willing to end the state of limbo. When Barak began his term, he appeared to believe that he could repurpose Alon’s old Jordanian option and now convince the PLO to accept a state on two thirds of the West Bank (plus Gaza). By the end of his brief term, however, Barak’s flexibility had grown by leaps and bounds, and the Israeli and Palestinian negotiating teams at the Taba talks, held just weeks before Israeli elections, were significantly narrowing the gaps. Olmert, meanwhile, an ex-Likudnik who took over as prime minister when a stroke felled Sharon, reportedly went ever further than Barak in his negotiations with Mahmoud Abbas. But both Ehuds fell before they could seal the deal — Barak at the ballot box, following a drastic loss of public support amid a wave of suicide terrorism, and Olmert in the wake of corruption charges, which led to his resignation, a bribery conviction, and jail time.

Barak and Olmert were buoyed by a growing sentiment in Israel that the PLO and the Arab states had, albeit begrudgingly, come to terms with Israel’s existence and that Israel was powerful and stable enough to finally cross the Rubicon and take calculated risks. “A Strong Nation Can Make Peace,” proclaimed one of Peace Now’s many bumper stickers. Whereas a two-state deal based on the 1967 lines had once been a subversive idea backed only by the predominantly Arab, Soviet-leaning Rakach (later Hadash) party along with a gaggle of maverick, leftwing Zionists, in the 1990s and 2000s it came to be embraced by a growing portion of the establishment. In 2003, for example, dozens of mainstream Israeli political and ex-military figures joined with Palestinian counterparts in the “Geneva Initiative” and hammered out the details of an unofficial, model agreement.

Following Hamas’ electoral success in the 2006 Palestinian Authority elections, however, and its armed takeover of the Gaza Strip the following year — not to mention its continued shelling of southern Israel following Sharon’s disengagement ­— Israelis’ confidence about Palestinian intentions began to nosedive. Disappointment and fear would soon bring Netanyahu back to power, and the Likud leader would set about turning the clock back on the two-state solution.

After running in the 2009 elections on a platform of “economic peace,” i.e. efforts to improve the Palestinian economy while putting negotiations on hold indefinitely, Netanyahu’s return to the prime minister’s office began with an official disavowal of Olmert’s commitments in the course of the “Annapolis Process” set in motion by President George W. Bush. And while later that year Netanyahu seemed to adjust course by tepidly endorsing the idea of Palestinian statehood in a speech at Bar-Ilan University, it appears, based on remarks by his former chief of staff, Natan Eshel, that this, too, was an exercise in procrastination. Eshel recently reminisced with reporters that early 2009 was a time of growing pressure from the new Obama administration. The prime minister’s aide recounted that he had advised Netanyahu that, in order to stave off that pressure, he would need to choose — either talk the talk or walk the walk, and Eshel strongly suggested the former. “The bottom line,” he boasted to journalists, “is that the speech . . . gave us quiet throughout Obama’s term.”

Netanyahu has not publicly commented on Eshel’s remarks, but in a pre-Shavuot interview with Israel’s Army Radio, the prime minister made clear that he remains far from the two-state idea. Israel must always retain complete “military and security control over all of the territory west of the Jordan [River],” he stated. Couple that with the remarks made on the same day by his deputy minister for public diplomacy, Michael Oren, and one can see that, fifty years later, many in Israel’s central policy circles are still struggling to have it both ways.

In a recent wide-ranging public interview, Oren, Israel’s former ambassador to Washington and a relative moderate in Netanyahu’s coalition, argued that 90 percent of West Bank Palestinians “never come into contact with Israelis . . . we’re not in their lives.” Consequently, he submitted, the Palestinians already enjoy the right to self-determination and in practice live in a “two-state situation” (elsewhere he has called it “de facto sovereignty”) even if Israel has overall power. Maintaining that Israeli-Palestinian differences are unbridgeable, Oren suggested that true Palestinian statehood might never happen (“maybe someday”) and that Israel needs to focus on improving the Palestinian economy and freedom of movement, and on “separating from the Palestinians” on a day-to-day level while “also deepening their [economic] dependence on us.”

In other words, “enlightened occupation.” Perhaps somewhere Moshe Dayan is smiling.

Ron Skolnik is associate editor of Jewish Currents.