January 17, 2017 - The four most recent treatments of the Israel-Palestine issue; Netanyahu’s legal troubles

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Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

This week, Alpher discusses four new or renewed treatments of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and ways to deal with it; the Bret Stephens’ January 9 Wall Street Journal argument against a Palestinian state solution; Dennis Ross' and Stuart Eizenstat's “Plan B”; the Paris Peace Conference; and the “Commanders'” provocative ad in the Israeli press and on billboards stating, in Arabic, “We’ll soon be the majority”; and the current corruption investigation against Netanyahu and what it could mean for the Palestinian issue; how you address the current corruption investigation against him and what could this mean for the Palestinian issue.

 

Q. The past week or so has witnessed the publication of four new or renewed treatments of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and ways to deal with it. Can you address them?

A. The four--by my count, and assuming I didn’t miss anything--are Bret Stephens’ January 9 Wall Street Journal argument against a Palestinian state solution, “Plan B” of Stuart Eizenstat and Dennis Ross in the Washington Post (January 12), the January 15 Paris Conference appeal to save the two-state solution, and the publicity campaign launched the same day by Israel’s “Commanders” to alert Israelis that the Jewish majority in Israel and the areas under Israeli control is in danger.

 

Q. Let’s start with Stephens.

A. Stephens, a former editor of the Jerusalem Post who is identified with the Israeli right, offers a basket of arguments against a Palestinian state. He claims the Palestinians have neither a preferential nor a moral claim to a state. A two-state deal will have no effect on broader Middle East chaos generated by ISIS and Iran. Israel has accommodations with its neighbors without it. Kurds and Tibetans have more powerful historical claims to a state of their own. The Palestinian Authority is corrupt and does not rule Gaza. The PLO rejected serious Israeli offers in 2000 and 2007 (correction: Olmert’s offer was in 2008). Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip in 2005 and was rewarded only with terrorism. In theory, Stephens concludes, a two-state solution would be good for Israel’s Jewish and democratic character. “But Israelis don’t live in theory. They live in a world where mistakes are mortal.”

Just about everything Stephens says is technically correct. Here is what he doesn’t say--the critical issues he doesn’t deal with, thereby rendering his arguments dangerously simplistic and one-sided. First, if Israel under Netanyahu had the slightest interest in maintaining the two-state option it would stop settlement construction, which increasingly forecloses that option. Second, the current Israeli government incorporates the representatives of the messianic settler movement who openly reject two states and educate and legislate to that end. Third, unlike Tibetans and Kurds, Palestinians are the only minority in question whose residents have no citizenship whatsoever. Fourth, the entire world rejects Stephens’ and Netanyahu’s position, as evidenced by the recent UN Security Council Resolution 2334. Fifth, there are plenty of unilateral steps Israel can take immediately to improve the situation without endangering Israelis.

I could go on. But here is point number six. An apartheid state is no longer “theory”. It is increasingly the reality. Mistakes are indeed mortal, and this is Israel’s biggest.

 

Q. On to the Eizenstat-Ross “Plan B”.

A. Eizenstat and Ross recognize that a two-state solution is not currently possible, but they have a proposal for interim measures for the incoming Trump administration. The idea is to promote security and peaceful coexistence and generate Palestinian prosperity and closer economic links with Israel. Accordingly, settlement construction would be restricted to the settlement blocs that hug the green line 1967 boundary, the West Bank security fence would be completed, and private-sector development funds would be channeled to the West Bank. By increasing the number of Palestinians legally commuting to day jobs in Israel, issuing building permits for Palestinians in Area C (60 percent of the West Bank, under full Israeli control), providing more essential services and linking Israeli and Palestinian banks through the SWIFT system, Palestinian gross domestic product could be increased by 35 percent. This would “change conditions so that meaningful negotiations not feasible today might become possible over time”.

Eizenstat and Ross are veteran and very knowledgeable Middle East peace negotiators. Everything they propose makes sense. Nor can anyone quarrel with the notion that economic development is just and fair and good for Palestinians. But will it “change conditions” for peace? This is the old “economic peace” formula that argues that Palestinians with full stomachs will be more amenable to coexistence with Israel. Netanyahu loves it. Trump presumably will too.

But economic peace has never worked. Moshe Dayan tried it after the 1967 war by opening the borders and encouraging economic integration. It blew up in our faces with the first intifada 20 years later. Indeed, every intifada has broken out at times of relative prosperity. Even the 1936 Arab revolt against the British Mandate in Palestine erupted under relative prosperity created by Jewish immigration. Palestinians are inclined to view “economic peace” as colonialist and patronizing.

This is not an economic conflict. It is a political and increasingly a religious conflict. Go ahead and pour money into the West Bank. Just don’t delude yourself that SWIFT banking will buy peace.

 

Q. Did the Paris Conference indeed save the two-state solution?

A. The 70 countries’ senior representatives who met in Paris certainly registered their anguish over the direction Israel and Palestine are moving. They “officially restated their commitment” to the two-state solution. They called on the parties to “refrain from unilateral steps that prejudge the outcome” and to “reverse the current negative trends”. But that’s all: no outline of final status, no mention of its contents such as borders, no threats or boycotts.

Obviously, such a large and diverse convocation cannot really generate peace momentum, especially when the entire French peace project suspiciously reflects the political difficulties of its convener, President Hollande, and the desire of moderate French politicians to head off the ongoing rise of anti-Islam right-wing politicians in France. Hollande opened one of the sessions by declaring that “The two-state solution . . . appears threatened. It is physically threatened on the ground by the acceleration of settlements, it is politically threatened by the progressive weakening of the peace camp, it is morally threatened by the distrust that has accumulated. . . and . . . been exploited by extremists.” All true, and eloquently stated. Yet neither Hollande nor outgoing Secretary of State Kerry (see the Q & A of two weeks ago)--nor, for that matter, the much practiced Ross--has given any indication of having analyzed and understood what they got wrong over the past 23 years.

(Note that British PM Teresa May immediately acted to prevent European Union foreign ministers from unanimously adopting the relatively meek Paris statement. Recall that she took her distance earlier from UNSCR 2334 regarding the settlements. In both cases, Britain had first voted for these measures. I can only conclude that May, while paying lip-service to world opinion,  is seeking urgently to position the UK close to the assumed policies of future President Trump, whose agreement to a trans-Atlantic free trade agreement she needs as Britain leaves the EU. We may be confronting the advent of a hawkish US-UK bloc on issues like the settlements and a two-state solution.)

 

Q. Finally, the “Commanders”, some 250 retired generals and heads of Israel’s security community, published a provocative ad in the Israeli press and on billboards. It states, in Arabic, “We’ll soon be the majority” and sends the public to a recorded message. Any hope here?

A. In the past, the “Commanders” have called for logical interim security steps like dismantling outlying settlements. The current provocative ad is an attempt to jolt the public into understanding, as the Commanders’ phone message states, that 2.5 million West Bank Palestinians will not disappear. “They want to be the majority--and we want to annex them? If we don’t part company with the Palestinians, Israel will be less Jewish and less secure.”

There are two problems with this campaign. First, sadly, despite their accumulated security experience and wisdom, former generals and Mossad and Shin Bet heads no longer enjoy any special prestige or credibility in the eyes of Israel’s cynical public. Unfortunately, these retired security professionals themselves appear not to understand this.

Second, in some ways they are preaching to the converted. A significant majority of Israelis does not want to annex the West Bank, and supports a Jewish and democratic future. The public does not need the generals to tell it this. But this same public is frightened of Arab chaos, bruised from the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, disappointed with the peace camp’s repeated failures under past prime ministers, brainwashed by messianic hyper-nationalist politicians, and unimpressed by Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas. This public needs new leadership. Thus far the Commanders are not providing it.

 

Q. Granted that little of this overly concerns PM Netanyahu, who eagerly awaits a friendly Trump administration. But how do you address the current corruption investigation against him? Could this be the end of his leadership tenure? And if so, what could this mean for the Palestinian issue?

A. Until the last few days, I tended to accept the spirit if not the letter of Netanyahu’s dismissal of corruption allegations and investigations against him: “there will be nothing, because there is nothing”. Claims regarding misappropriation by the PM’s residence of bottle deposit money and misuse of state-owned furniture, or Sarah Netanyahu’s abusive behavior toward the hired help, could be dismissed by the prime minister as “nothing” because neither the public nor the attorney general could be bothered to pursue these accusations to the extent of endangering Netanyahu’s tenure.

But now we are confronted with hard evidence of what appear to be serious offenses. First, multi-millionaires with vested interests in Israeli media testifying to showering the Netanyahus with hundreds of thousands of shekels worth of luxury goods, then apparently benefiting from the prime minister’s decisions in his role as communications minister. And second, a media tycoon recorded plotting with Netanyahu to tilt his paper’s coverage to favor the prime minister in return for measures that benefit the paper’s financial situation.

This sounds like real bribery. There is a serious likelihood that charges will be proffered. It will not be easy for Netanyahu and his lawyers to dismiss them. By the by, he might be forced to resign or to suspend himself. Or he might preempt and resign voluntarily, promising to clear his name and come back. If anything like this happens--and it is still a big “if”--the first issue before the public and the politicians will be a choice among three options: a new prime minister and the same coalition; a new coalition; or new elections. All this could be happening in the early days of the totally unpredictable Trump administration.

Movement on the Palestinian issue is the last thing anyone will be thinking of for the six months or so that it will take until the smoke clears.

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