This week, Alpher discusses whether the two territorial issues PM Netanyahu’s raised in his recent Washington visit - recognition of Israel’s annexation of the Golan, and a unilateral withdrawal on the West Bank - are serious; if the Netanyahu government's decision to ban the so-called Northern Branch of the Israeli Islamist movement because of incitement there is also related; and whether this approach plays into the hands of people like the Swedish foreign minister, who recently argued that there is a link between ISIS’s terrorism and the plight of the Palestinians.
Q. In the aftermath of PM Netanyahu’s recent Washington visit, it emerged that in his meeting with Obama and at an appearance at a liberal American think tank he raised two territorial issues: recognition of Israel’s annexation of the Golan, and a unilateral withdrawal on the West Bank. Is either idea serious?
A. Both are serious ideas. Both closely involve US-Israel relations--indeed, reflect the course of those relations these days. Both were broached by Netanyahu during a Washington visit that included renewed verbal commitments to the two-state solution and concessions to the Palestinians and was spun by his PR people as a huge success, but was largely dismissed by an understandably skeptical administration. Neither of these territorial ideas is likely to get anywhere.
Netanyahu’s reasons for raising the two propositions could conceivably be linked.
Q. Start with the Golan.
A. In view of what has happened in Syria since 2011, even many Israelis who once advocated returning all or most of the Golan Heights to Syrian sovereignty in exchange for a peace agreement now have second thoughts. Had such a deal been done--and there were “near misses” in negotiations with Syria under both Rabin and Barak--Israel would now confront either ISIS or Iran, or both, on the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee. Israel conquered the Golan Heights in the 1967 Six-Day War in the course of responding to Syrian aggression, and applied Israeli law to the territory in 1981.
Both before and particularly since Netanyahu met with President Obama two weeks ago, the US has been engaged in serious talks with “all major players”--Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and others--regarding an agreement to stabilize Syria with a ceasefire leading to elections in which President Assad might be allowed to participate. Never mind that Syria is in tatters; never mind that the Islamist occupiers of roughly two-thirds of the country are not and would not be involved in this process. Indeed, precisely for those reasons, this could be the beginning of the process of redrawing border lines in the Levant.
This is where Israel--which notably is also not part of that negotiating process even though it, like Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon is a concerned neighbor of Syria--has a potentially legitimate claim for consideration of its security needs. The idea that the time was ripe for the world to recognize Israel’s claim to the Golan was first raised several months ago by far-right minister Naftali Bennett. Now Netanyahu has presented it to Obama, who reportedly did not respond.
Whether, if at all, this Israeli request will find its way to the drawing board where a future Syria is being sketched out, remains to be seen. In view of Netanyahu’s growing isolation internationally and the highly problematic nature of his relations with Obama, the answer--at least for the coming year--is probably in the negative.
Q. And unilateral withdrawal from part of the West Bank?
A. Did Netanyahu toss this idea out to a liberal Washington audience just because he’s Netanyahu--telling every audience what it wants to hear, then moving on? Or could there be something to it? Netanyahu has a quasi-intifada on his hands in the West Bank, now well into its second month and likely to provide a daily menu of “lone wolf” stabbings and shootings for the foreseeable future. His only conceivable Palestinian partner for a coordinated political initiative, Mahmoud Abbas, is losing control in the West Bank and would almost certainly lose an election to Hamas if one were to be held (it won’t be). And US Secretary of State John Kerry is returning to Israel this week, looking for something positive to do in the Palestinian context.
This is where the idea of a limited West Bank withdrawal in largely unpopulated parts of Area C could indeed be broached--by Netanyahu, Kerry, or both. (Area C, under full Israeli occupation, comprises nearly 60 percent of the West Bank. All the settlements are there. Some 10 or 20 percent could easily be turned over to full or partial Palestinian control without touching a single settlement.) Not only does Kerry want to see movement, but Netanyahu himself has been persuaded to offer the Palestinian Authority new concessions such as third generation cell phone capabilities and possibly new industrial zones in an effort to rebuild a minimum of good will and curb the violence. As for the Obama administration, an Area C withdrawal would provide something constructive to coordinate and monitor in the year ahead in the hope of leaving behind a legacy in the Israeli-Palestinian sphere. And it would be helpful for Netanyahu’s relations with Obama, Kerry and the Democrats in general.
Here is where, knowing Netanyahu’s predilections, the Golan might enter the picture. In order to sell even a minimal West Bank withdrawal to his right-religious-messianic party and coalition, he needs more than the American arms package he expects as compensation for the Iran nuclear deal. Assurances from Washington regarding Israel’s claim to the Golan Heights would work well as a territorial quid pro quo. It’s easy to see Netanyahu linking the two in his talks with Kerry.
Yet, with or without linkage, a limited West Bank withdrawal has little chance of becoming a real option for Netanyahu. Not only would he lose the far right wing of his coalition. Not only would his Likud party balk. Not only does he himself not wish to concede West Bank territory--he has already informed his devoted and gullible supporters back in Israel that he was misquoted in Washington (hard to justify: see below) and was in fact talking about unilateral Israeli actions against terrorism. But the Palestinians would also object loudly, arguing that such a limited withdrawal--particularly with American complicity--would render all the more permanent Israel’s settlements, its overall control over the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and the Palestinians’ limited autonomy status. Besides, Netanyahu was careful at his talk at the Center for American Progress to condition the idea on steps that are inconceivable under current circumstances: “Unilateralism…I suppose that’s possible too, but it would have to meet Israeli security criteria and that would also require broader international understanding than exists.”
Still, from Netanyahu’s standpoint these territorial ideas could give him something to talk about with Washington and the international community for the coming year. They could help him rebuff European Union boycott pressures (“Quiet, we’re negotiating serious concessions”). They could give him time to build more settlements. Just as he sought to buy time and good will in the US with empty gestures—recanted once back in Jerusalem--to the Reform and Conservative movements, so he may have bought time with the administration with empty talk about territories.
Q. Meanwhile, the Netanyahu government has decided to ban the so-called Northern Branch of the Israeli Islamist movement because of incitement. This hardly looks like a confidence-building measure. Is there linkage here too?
A. Indeed, the move was controversial even inside Israel: the Shabak (General Security Service) reportedly opposed it, arguing that it is easier to monitor the activities of Israel’s Islamist extremists when they operate and incite openly rather than driving them into the underground. Undoubtedly, the Northern Branch has for years been inciting Palestinians in both Israel and the West Bank to believe that Israel intends to destroy the Temple Mount mosques and build a Third Temple. Undoubtedly, too, this is patently false, even if Israel’s increasingly extreme messianic Jewish right likes to kick the idea around and is not strongly restrained by a tolerant right-wing government. And clearly, Israeli Islamist incitement played a major role in igniting the current wave of Palestinian violence.
But Netanyahu is well aware that banning an Israeli Arab Islamist movement that itself is not accused of armed activities is highly problematic in terms of Israel’s human rights record, which is regularly scrutinized by critics in the West. Hence he timed the move to coincide with the immediate aftermath of the bloody ISIS attacks in Paris. When the French are talking about amending their constitution to give the state more aggressive tools for dealing with their own Islamist problem--including ideas like revoking citizenship that Netanyahu has talked about but not dared invoke--this is Israel’s opportunity to ban its own radical Islamists, renew settlement construction and legalize West Bank outposts.
Q. But doesn’t this approach play right into the hands of people like the Swedish foreign minister, who recently argued that there is a link between ISIS’s terrorism and the plight of the Palestinians?
A. It does, but not without complications.
Sweden’s Foreign Ministry appears to have adopted a narrative that has no basis in fact. A month ago, another senior Swedish diplomatic argued in a conference I attended that ISIS’s propaganda refers frequently and repeatedly to the Palestinian issue as a rationale. I confronted her and asked to be shown a single such reference. There was none. In this connection it may be relevant that Sweden’s Foreign Minister Wallstrom, when challenged, seemed to back away from a direct ISIS-Palestine link.
As far back as September 2001, al-Qaeda only “remembered” to invoke a Palestinian rationale for the 9/11 atrocities after the fact, when it suddenly realized it needed more PR ammunition to explain itself to the world. ISIS only thought to threaten Israel at all a mere few weeks ago, and only after it was prompted to do so by Qaeda leader al-Zuhairi, who accused ISIS of ignoring the Palestinian issue.
Linking the Paris attacks to Palestinian violence against Israelis is as baseless as the reverse linkage--arguing, as the Netanyahu government does, that now we and Europe are “all in the same boat”. Let both Israel and the Swedes take note. The ISIS “hit list” of Middle East countries essentially does not refer to Israel. ISIS, whose roots, like those of Qaeda, lie in Saudi Arabia’s official Wahhabi branch of Islam, is all about revolution within Islam. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is about narratives, territory, history, even religion. It is not about ISIS and its barbarity.