by Ron SkolnikFrom the Autumn, 2014 issue ofJewish CurrentsMARTIN INDYK, SPECIAL ENVOY FOR ISRAELI-PALESTINIAN NEGOTIATIONS, made it official on Friday, June 27th: He was resigning and returning to his position at the Brookings Institution in Washington. Obama’s man on the ground had given up.
Coming two full months after the latest U.S. effort to broker an Israeli-Palestinian agreement had passed its deadline and been indefinitely relegated to the deep freeze by President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry, Indyk’s exit was in some sense the quintessential non-event. But even if it constituted more a whimper than a bang, the stalwart diplomat’s decision to call it quits was a potent reminder that the U.S.-led peace process we have sat through for two decades is in full-fledged disarray.
Of course, no one living in Israel and Palestine actually needed to be reminded. On June 12th, the tinderbox again met its spark, as reports arrived of the kidnapping of three Israeli teens in the West Bank by Palestinian terrorists. Their bodies were discovered several weeks later.
The mess quickly got messier: an Israeli crackdown in the West Bank aimed at Hamas, whom Israel held responsible (Hamas denied Israel’s accusation and media reports suggest a murkier reality); a brutal revenge killing of a Palestinian youth by Jewish Israelis; and intensified exchanges of fire between Hamas-held Gaza and Israel, leading Prime Minister Netanyahu to declare “Operation Protective Edge.” As this column was being written, the two sides were squaring off: Hamas indiscriminately (and ineffectually, in part due to Israel’s Iron Dome intercept system) firing Qassam, Grad, and Khaibar rockets at Israeli communities; Israel, with its massive air power, inflicting heavy losses on Hamas and, tragically if inadvertently, also on Gaza’s civilian population, before launching a ground invasion.
Eventually, both sides will have grown weary, mediation efforts will likely succeed, and an official or unofficial ceasefire will probably be put into place. What then? Netanyahu keeps his cards close to his vest, and is careful never to reveal too much. But a picture is beginning to emerge of a prime minister intent on devising a strategy that would turn a no-peace reality into a livable (for Israelis) long-term solution.
In this respect, one of the more interesting aspects of the latest Israel- Hamas war has been its lack of strategic ambition and the relative rhetorical restraint exercised by many of the government’s “talking heads,” especially when compared to the bombast of Israeli leaders during 2008-09’s “Operation Cast Lead.” Senior Likud politicians such as Gilad Erdan and Ofir Akunis, nightly guests on Israel’s primetime news during the war, drove home the message that there was “no magic solution” to the problems besetting Israel. Victory in Operation Protective Edge, they explained, meant no more than sapping Hamas’ strength and achieving a longer period of quiet until the next round of hostilities began, not removing Hamas from power in Gaza.
Netanyahu’s somewhat non-aspirational military approach must not be confused with political moderation, however. Netanyahu has shown himself to be no closer than before to making the concessions needed to allow a two-state deal. To the contrary, at a press conference held on the fourth day of bombings in Gaza, Israel’s prime minister seemed to rule out such a deal entirely, uncharacteristically going off script to proclaim that he would never, “under any agreement... relinquish security control of the territory west of the River Jordan” — he’d never, in other words, hand over the West Bank to a Palestinian government.
WHATS DOES ALL OF THIS AD UP TO? Amir Oren, Haaretz’s security affairs columnist, has sardonically dubbed Netanyahu’s updated approach “three states for two peoples,” with a “West Palestine in Gaza [and an] East Palestine in the West Bank.” Oren is not far off the mark. Netanyahu certainly does not actually want two fully sovereign Palestinian states on Israel’s borders. The Likud leader was a staunch opponent of any Palestinian statehood for decades, warning that it was an existential danger and promoting instead the idea of a stateless Palestinian autonomy, surrounded by Israel, as a permanent solution. When Netanyahu eventually did agree to utter the two-state formula, he did so under duress: an energized, recently-inaugurated President Obama had just gone to Cairo to make an overture to the Muslim world and to “personally” commit to achieving a two-state outcome. Facing international isolation, Netanyahu realized he had to “get with the program,” at least in semantic terms.
In practice? Netanyahu’s father, Professor Benzion Netanyahu, sitting alongside his son in a 2009 interview, reassured Israel’s rightwing base that, while his son might have used the words “Palestinian state,” he would attach such severe conditions to the concept that it could never materialize. Not a word of demurral was ever issued by the son. Nor did Netanyahu ever ask his Likud party to endorse a two-state approach (which it officially opposes), let alone his coalition government. Aside from a brief hiatus in 2009-10, his policy of settlement expansion rumbles on unabated. The Israeli public has understood for quite some time that their prime minister’s moderation was pure lip service.
Although Netanyahu is unwilling to contemplate full Palestinian sovereignty, he has, since his first term in 1996, entertained the possibility of an entity that a senior aide once called “autonomy-plus... or state-minus.” Against the background of Palestinian disunity, the break between Gaza and the West Bank, and the current war, Netanyahu now sees an opportunity to lock in a situation in which two disconnected and even weaker vassal entities are under Israel’s thumb.
Speaking to Israeli journalists during Operation Protective Edge, a “senior military official” offered a window into Netanyahu’s thinking. The Israeli government’s war directives, he revealed, were to allow Hamas to continue to rule Gaza, but to reduce it to “a responsible power, militarily-weakened, restrained and enforcing restraint.” As former Mossad chief Efraim Halevy summed it up for CNN: Netanyahu seeks a “cowed Hamas.” The prime minister, in other words, is prepared to coexist with a Hamas statelet in Gaza, provided he can demilitarize it, dominate it, and effectively seal its borders.
From Netanyahu’s perspective, this is the least of all possible evils. Almost no one in Israel wishes to go back and occupy a hostile Gaza Strip again, and have to provide services to its almost two million residents, most of whom are poor, half of whom are refugees. Yet Israel’s security officials are acutely aware that if Hamas were driven out without the Israeli army taking over, Gaza could soon face an anarchic, Somalia-like situation, or be run by Islamists of an even more fanatical variety.
SOME ON THE ISRAELI LEFT are encouraging the prime minister to launch a process that could weaken Hamas among its people and reunite Gaza politically with the West Bank under moderate leadership. But such ideas are nowhere on mainstream Israel’s radar. Fomenting Palestinian internal division and weakness has historically been part of Israel’s playbook, and the greatest potential threat to Netanyahu’s political vision would come from a unified Palestinian leadership committed to a non-violent path to sovereignty. Par for the course was his immediate, unconditional rejection of the Palestinian unity agreement in June, which established a government of technocrats committed to the Quartet’s “three conditions” — opposition to violence, acceptance of existing agreements, and recognition of Israel.
When Netanyahu looks to the West Bank, where the international community and most Israelis expect a Palestinian state to arise, he sees little real impetus for change. From his perspective, things there are working just fine. As with Gaza, Israel has little appetite to reoccupy West Bank cities and towns, so official Jerusalem is delighted to have the day-to-day administrative burden handled by the semi-autonomous Palestinian Authority. The PA draws upon international largesse to pay its bills, so Israel is spared the expense. Israel also controls all of the West Bank’s borders as well as 60 percent of its land, while the PA’s forces provide Israel with extensive security cooperation, as Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman recently gushed to American Jewish leaders. “Deluxe Occupation,” the Israeli saying goes.
ONCE A CEASEFIRE IS REACHED, pressure on Israel is likely to grow to return to negotiations aimed at ending the occupation and determining the final status of both Gaza and the West Bank. The U.S. and E.U., as well as Arab states such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, who have no love lost for Hamas, want to see the region stabilized and forces loyal to Abbas in charge of a state of Palestine. But expect neither Netanyahu nor Lieber- man to hurry towards any dramatic changes.
Where Netanyahu and Lieberman do diverge is regarding tactics for subduing Hamas. Netanyahu is wary of a full-blown Gaza invasion. He is cognizant of international opinion and fearful there might not be a successful exit strategy. He has warned members of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, according to Haaretz reporter Barak Ravid, “that Israel cannot allow itself to act the way other countries do when they’re at war. ‘We can’t do what the Russians did in Chechnya,’ [Netanyahu] said.” Lieberman, by contrast, is unrestrained. Before Operation Protective Edge even got started, he called for the full reoccupation of the Strip and railed against the option of a limited military action coupled with an improved ceasefire arrangement. Lieberman has pooh-poohed concerns about Israeli entanglement and insisted that the army could carry out a several-month operation in Gaza to uproot terrorism and then withdraw, without leaving a dangerous power vacuum.
While Lieberman might not be concerned by Israel’s image around the world, Netanyahu has enough savvy to know it matters, and he is aware that he needs an answer to growing impatience with the onerous occupation. Three days before the kidnapping, a political ally seemed to float a trial balloon: Danny Dayan, the former chair of the “Yesha” (Judea, Samaria, and Gaza) Settlers Council, who stepped down last year to support Netanyahu’s election campaign, published an op-ed in the New York Times that swept aside the two-state model (“a bygone idea”), inventively coined the term, “peaceful nonreconciliation,” and fantasized a benevolent occupation that could be sustained indefinitely.
Insisting that “Palestinians deserve drastic and immediate improvements in their everyday lives,” Dayan proposed that “burdensome... [b]arriers, checkpoints and military restrictions on movement... be lifted.” Palestinian workers would have “complete freedom of movement,” enabling them to “reenter the Israeli job market” and replace foreign workers from Africa and Southeast Asia, so that they could earn a better living. Israel, “in conjunction with the international community,” would improve water, sewage, transportation, education and health services. Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority would maintain its role, and Palestinian security forces would “continue carrying out the same tasks they do today.”
But some Israeli rightwingers have bigger eyes. Naftali Bennett, leader of the pro-settler Jewish Home party, which is a key partner in Netanyahu’s coalition, believes the implosion of the peace process is an opportunity not only to put the two-state solution to rest, but to give it a formal burial. Whereas Netanyahu and Lieberman see no useful reason to upend the diplomatic apple cart, Bennett took to the Wall Street Journal in May to issue a plan for an Israeli annexation of the West Bank’s “Area C,” comprising 60 percent of the territory (but home to only 4 percent of West Bank Palestinians). Thumbing his nose at the international community and calling Israeli-Palestinian peace “utopian,” Bennett confidently predicted that the world will holler but eventually come to terms with the annexation — as was the case with East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights.
Dubbing his proposal a “Stability Plan,” Bennett’s ideas for the 40 percent of the West Bank still run by the Palestinian Authority differ little from the outline sketched by Danny Dayan — economic development, freedom of movement, and a PA to which Israel allocates the management of “schools... building permits and... health-care.” Why not annex all of the territories? Because that, Bennett indicates in a YouTube video posted by the “My Israel” movement he founded, would mean a binational state that would eliminate Israel’s Jewish majority.
As for Gaza, Bennett has allied himself with Lieberman, supporting a massive “iron fist” approach. Over the long run, the Strip merits barely a mention in Bennett’s plan, which calls for “the current borders with... Gaza [to] remain,” while Israel redoubles security to “prevent penetration by the descendants of Palestinian refugees.” Gaza, in other words, would remain out of sight and out of mind.
WRITING AN ARTICLE ABOUT ISRAEL during wartime is like trying to capture a moth in flight using a small, hand-held camera. It’s almost impossible to predict where the bug’s headed next — and the result will almost always be fuzzy. As the guns of war continue to resound, however, and as frightened, angry, and sometimes vengeful Israelis rally around their leaders and military, it is safe to predict that moderate voices will be more drowned out than ever.
While this article has sought to analyze Israeli government approaches, it is not meant to whitewash the negative role played for decades by Hamas, whose terrorism has intensified Israeli fears and resistance to compromise. Hamas has not yet shown any real sign of embracing the two-state solution as the template for the end of the conflict.
The options on the menu, therefore, at least for the moment, offer little hope for a peaceful resolution of the conflict any time soon.
Ron Skolnik, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is an American-Israeli political analyst and columnist. Until recently he directed the non-profit Partners for Progressive Israel, and for many years served as political adviser to the British Embassy in Israel. You can follow Ron on Twitter at @Ron_Skolnik.