Discussing the current impasse in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, a recent leader in the Jerusalem Post put Israel’s dilemma in a nutshell. “The real problem is that Israel lacks a clear and decisive policy of what it wants…Israel is living in a reality of indecision.”
Within the broad spectrum of Israeli public opinion there is no shortage of clear and decisive policies for resolving the Israel-Palestine stalemate, but the four administrations led over the years by Benjamin Netanyahu have plumped for none of them. The result, as the leader writer pointed out, is the anomaly of the government officially supporting the two-state solution while continuing to build homes in the West Bank on the very land that would be earmarked for inclusion within a sovereign Palestine.
Recent Likud-led governments have confined themselves to managing the issue on an ad hoc basis, but in doing so they have adhered to fairly rigid guidelines. One mantra repeated endlessly has been that a resolution can be reached only through face-to-face negotiations between the principal parties – Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA).
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It is time that particular sacred cow was slaughtered. Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the PA, leads a Fatah party whose constitution states quite unequivocally that Palestine, with the boundaries that it had during the British Mandate – that is, before the existence of Israel – is an indivisible territorial unit and is the homeland of the Arab Palestinian people.
Why then, one might legitimately ask, has Abbas spent the past ten years nominally supporting the two-state solution? Because, unlike Israel, the PA does have a clear and decisive policy. Pressing for recognition of a sovereign Palestine within the boundaries that existed on 5 June 1967 – that is, on the day before the Six-Day War – is a tactic inherited from Abbas’s predecessor, Yassir Arafat. It represents the first stage in a strategy ultimately designed to gain control of the whole of Mandate Palestine. This objective was spelled out by Arafat.
“We Palestinians will take over everything, including all of Jerusalem,” said Arafat, in a secret meeting with top Arab diplomats in Stockholm’s Grand Hotel on January 30, 1996, adding that the PLO plans “to eliminate the State of Israel and establish a purely Palestinian State.” This unchanged objective underlies everything that Abbas says in the Arabic media, but which he never mentions in his statements to the world.
World opinion in general has elevated the two-state solution to the status of the Holy Grail, and Abbas, in nominally supporting it, has succeeded in swinging world opinion to the Palestinian cause. But from the Palestinian perspective the insurmountable obstacle lodged within the two-state solution is that one of the states must be Israel – and Israel’s very existence within Mandate Palestine is anathema.
The time has come to acknowledge that face-to-face negotiations between Israel and the PA have been tried to destruction, and that to persist in asserting that this is the only way forward is perverse. Some alternative approach is called for.
Speaking to the UN General Assembly in September 2014, Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, said: “A broader rapprochement between Israel and the Arab world may help facilitate an Israeli-Palestinian peace.” Such a rapprochement has, in effect, been achieved, forced into existence by the growing assertiveness of Iran, following its nuclear deal, and the mayhem created by the rampant Islamic State. In today’s pragmatic Middle East, Israel collaborates on a broad range of security issues not only with Egypt and Jordan, but with Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, inter alia.
Take Netanyahu at his word. An Arab-Israel peace conference, at which the Arab interest was represented by the Arab League, might be charged with settling the future geo-political configuration of what was Mandate Palestine, starting from the perhaps unpalatable, but nonetheless undeniable, presumption that Israel is here to stay.
Simply to create a Palestinian sovereign state more or less on the pre-Six Day War boundaries would simply not do. Hamas, the extreme Islamist organization that seized power in Gaza, rejects the right of Israel to exist at all, and is dedicated to destroying it. It would not take long for Hamas to seize power in a new sovereign Palestine, just as it did in Gaza. The new state would then become a Gaza-type launching pad for the indiscriminate bombardment of Israel. This prospect in itself may not concern the PA leadership overmuch, but what does worry them is the likelihood of losing power to Hamas. Like it or not, they would need stronger defences against “the enemy within” than their own resources could provide.
Just as threatening to an independent Palestine would be Islamic State (IS) which seeks to embrace the whole region within its self-declared caliphate. IS would pounce on a new sovereign Palestine, entirely dependent on its own weak military for its defence, like a cat on a mouse. IS is already harrying both Israel and Jordan on their northern borders with Syria. Defending Jordan, Israel, and a new sovereign Palestine against the incursions of IS would be of paramount importance in any final settlement.
An even more fundamental issue militates against the classic two-state solution. Vying with Hamas on the one hand, and extremists within its own Fatah party on the other, the PA has glorified the so-called “armed struggle”, making heroes of those who undertake terrorist attacks inside Israel, continuously promulgating anti-Israel and anti-Semitic propaganda in the media and in the schools, and reiterating the message that all of Mandate Palestine is Palestinian. The end-result of its own narrative is that no Palestinian leader dare sign a peace agreement with Israel. The consequent backlash, to say nothing of the personal fear of assassination, have made it impossible.
A possible answer? At the instigation, and under the shield, of the Arab League the PA might be invited to an Arab-Israeli peace conference dedicated to the establishment of a sovereign state of Palestine, but within the context of a new three-state confederation of Jordan, Israel and Palestine – a new legal entity to be established simultaneously, dedicated to defending itself and its constituent sovereign states, and to cooperating in the fields of commerce, infrastructure and economic development to the benefit of all its citizens – Jordanian, Israeli and Palestinian alike.
Such a solution, based on an Arab-wide consensus, could absorb Palestinian extremist objections, making it abundantly clear that any subsequent armed opposition, from whatever source, would be disciplined from within, and crushed by the combined defence forces of the confederation. A confederation – one for all; all for one.