February 27, 2017 - Isaac Herzog’s peace plan

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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 Labor and Zionist Union leader Isaac “Bougie” Herzog's just published ten-point plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace, and its context; why this one is important; what Herzog’s proposal comprises; his view of the proposal’s relevance and validity; what we have learned from this drama, beginning with the abortive Aqaba summit and ending in Herzog’s proposal.

 

Q. Labor and Zionist Union leader Isaac “Bougie” Herzog just published a ten-point plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace. Yet there is no hint of a peace process on the horizon. So what is the context of this initiative?

A. The context is last week’s revelation in the daily Haaretz that a year ago an attempt was made at the highest regional and international level to launch a process in which Israel’s Arab state neighbors would actively participate. Prime Minister Netanyahu discussed the idea in February 2016 in a meeting in Aqaba, Jordan, with US Secretary of State Kerry, Jordan’s King Abdullah II and Egypt’s President Sisi. Netanyahu then opened negotiations with Herzog with an eye to broadening Netanyahu’s ruling coalition to ensure support for such a process, which obviously would have involved Israeli concessions that the right wing of the existing coalition would object to.

Herzog negotiated in earnest with Netanyahu. He agreed to assume the office of foreign minister with responsibility for the negotiations discussed in Aqaba. His prolonged talks with Netanyahu touched on issues such as a freeze on settlement construction outside the “blocs” which hug the 1967 green line boundary. Herzog also consulted with Kerry, Abdullah and Sisi to confirm their commitment to a regionally-based and internationally-supported process. Sisi even volunteered a rare public statement in Arabic encouraging a regional process.

Then, at a crucial stage, Netanyahu brought two of his most right-wing ministers into the talks. Pressured by them, he first backed down from his commitments to Herzog and then invited Avigdor Lieberman into the coalition instead of Herzog. Lieberman, yet another right-winger, assumed the post of defense minister. Netanyahu and Lieberman, leading Israel’s most hawkish coalition in history, proceeded to publicly declare their allegiance to a regional solution in what can only be called an exercise in total cynicism. The entire dynamic looked like a political exercise by Netanyahu designed to leverage regional and international support for peace in order to humiliate his political opposition and broaden his shaky right-wing coalition.

At the time, Herzog was widely ridiculed in his own party and on the political left in general for flirting with Netanyahu, discussing a role in the coalition and ending up with nothing to show. Only now, with the revelation about the February 2016 Aqaba summit, can Herzog explain quite convincingly that the opportunity for a regionally-backed peace process was so compelling that he felt duty bound to discuss it with Netanyahu and agree to bring Labor into the coalition.

The publication of Herzog’s ten-point plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace, also in Haaretz, appears to represent Herzog’s attempt to explain why he is the best candidate for peace, to justify his decision to try to work with Netanyahu a year ago, and to distinguish himself from Netanyahu and the political right-wing in the eyes of the public as well as his own Labor party. There, his weak image and low ratings in opinion polls have encouraged a number of his fellow Labor members of Knesset to seek to replace him at the helm.

 

Q. We get new peace proposals and semi-peace proposals all the time. Why is this one important?

A. Herzog leads the political opposition. Netanyahu is in trouble over crony capitalism allegations. If the government falls due to this issue, Herzog could play a key role in any attempt to avoid new elections by forming an alternative coalition. And in the event of new elections, Herzog can present himself as a more viable and experienced peace candidate. After all, he is treated in many quarters as a political lightweight. Here he is trying to establish his credentials as a serious peace advocate. So he is worth listening to.

 

Q. What does Herzog’s proposal comprise?

A. Herzog begins by citing three rock-solid premises: first, settlement spread in the West Bank will lead to Israel becoming a state with an Arab majority; second, extended rule over another people is undermining Israel’s moral and democratic standing; and third, it is time to recognize that permanent peace with the Palestinians cannot be reached by a single conference or process.

Herzog then offers a ten-point plan for peace. I would summarize the points as follows. For an interim period of up to ten years, all territory west of the Jordan River (Israel, the West Bank and Gaza) will be designated an area devoid of all violence, with appropriate enforcement. During this period, Israel will proceed with a separation process that includes completion of the West Bank security fence, separation of Jerusalem from the villages surrounding it and transfer to the Palestinians of civil authority in parts of Area C (60 percent of the West Bank, currently under full Israeli occupation). Israel will freeze all settlement construction beyond the settlement blocs. The Palestinians will act to prevent terrorism and incitement.

In parallel, Palestinian economic development will be dramatically enhanced, including the building of a port in Gaza on condition that the Strip be completely demilitarized. Internal Palestinian agreement will be reached to reunite the West Bank and Gaza Strip, whereupon the Palestinians will declare an independent state within temporary borders. All the while, Israeli security forces will continue to operate throughout the West Bank, and Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation will be enhanced.

At the end of this long transition period, direct Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations will commence with the support of the neighboring states and the international community. Israel will initiate the creation of joint Middle East development and security institutions and will propose that their headquarters be in Jerusalem.

 

Q. What is your view of the proposal’s relevance and validity?

A. Bearing in mind that Netanyahu’s concept of a regional framework appears to be primarily a means of dwarfing and marginalizing the Palestinian issue while Israel slowly swallows up the West Bank, Herzog’s approach is refreshing. He is also fully justified under current regional and local circumstances in proposing a long interim period during which Palestinian political viability is enhanced. And a ten-year transition is easier to market to skeptical Israelis who see no current prospects for a peace process.

But the proposal also comprises at least three remnants of past peace concepts that have failed conspicuously. One is “economic peace”. Of course it is important to develop the West Bank and particularly the Gaza Strip. But there is absolutely no validity to the notion that appears to underpin Herzog’s approach, according to which once Palestinians are materially better off they will be more likely to compromise regarding the components of a two-state solution. As I have noted many times in these virtual pages, this is a political, ideological and increasingly religious conflict--not an economic conflict. Israeli leaders from Moshe Dayan in 1967 to Netanyahu in recent years have made this mistake; now Herzog.

Secondly, a ten-year cooling-off period before final status negotiations even begin is an eternity. And how long will those negotiations take beyond the ten-year hiatus? True, the surrounding Middle East is in turmoil and Gaza is under militant Islamist rule--two negative dynamics that will not resolve themselves quickly and that merit a cautious approach. But in the Middle East and particularly in the Israeli-Palestinian reality, to postpone two-state negotiations for ten years is the equivalent of postponing them forever. Better immediately to initiate some sort of low-level process to discuss interim issues, one that will gradually escalate into final-status talks--in less than ten years time.

Finally, the concept of a regional process and Jerusalem-based regional institutions is so ambitious as to recall the late Shimon Peres who in the heyday of the Oslo process proposed that Israel join the Arab League. True, the Egyptians, Jordanians and Saudis need Israel right now to oppose Iran and ISIS and this works to Israel’s advantage. But ultimately Israel’s Arab neighbors will insist that Israel and the Palestinians solve their conflict bilaterally. And I doubt very much they will agree to joint institutions operating overtly, whether based in Jerusalem or Riyadh.

In the end, Herzog does not tell us how the well-known final status issues of borders, settlements, Jerusalem, holy places and refugees will be resolved or by whom: ten years from now neither Netanyahu nor Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas is likely to be around. Nor does he explain why violence will cease and how the West Bank and Gaza Strip will reunite. And the regional approach is little more than a nice embellishment--a clever PR move.

 

Q. All in all, what have we learned from this drama, beginning with the abortive Aqaba summit and ending in Herzog’s proposal?

A. If Herzog’s plan somehow enhances his much-maligned political stature, more power to him. As for Netanyahu, the Aqaba summit and its aftermath seem to prove yet again that when it comes to the crunch he will always opt for his right-wing political comfort zone, even if we dare assume that in his heart-of-hearts he understands that he is leading Israel down a slippery slope to one-state disaster.

The only unanswered question is: when will the region’s and the world’s leaders finally conclude that there is simply no point in trying to entice Netanyahu into a two-state process?

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