December 1, 2014 - The "peace plans" of Bennett and Lieberman; Egypt and the Arab Spring

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This week, Alpher discusses the "peace plans" for the Palestinian conflict of the right-wing stalwarts in Netanyahu's coalition, Bennett and Lieberman; where does this leave us in terms of Israeli politics and the peace process; the Egyptian President Sisi's peace plan; and what does the acquittal of deposed president Mubarak of all charges and Sisi's announcement that he will not pursue further prosecution say about the "Arab Spring" that began in 2011.

Q. As the Netanyahu government lurches from one internal crisis to another and new elections loom, two of the right-wing stalwarts in the coalition, Bennett and Lieberman, have presented their "peace plans" for the Palestinian conflict. Can you comment?

A. There is little new in these plans that we had not seen before. What is significant is the timing and the "wrapping". Clearly, Jewish Home leader and Economy Minister Naftali Bennett and Yisrael Beitenu leader and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman smell elections. Accordingly, they are upgrading and rereleasing their peace plans by way of polishing up their election platforms. And because Bennett and possibly Lieberman currently appear to be the only veteran politicians likely to register gains in new elections, it behooves us to take another look at the plans.

 

Q. Start with Bennett, who presented his plan in English in the New York Times a few weeks ago for the benefit of the international community.

A. Bennett advocates Israeli annexation of Area C of the West Bank, around 60 percent of that territory that contains all the settlements, with Israeli citizenship offered to its 70,000 or so Palestinian residents. The rest, areas A and B, which are already autonomous under the Oslo interim agreements, will be "upgraded" through economic investment and infrastructure improvement. These Palestinians "will have political independence. . . . and run their day-to-day lives" but this entity "will not control its own borders and will not be allowed to have a military."

What does Israel get from this arrangement? More territory, with a minimal number of additional Arab citizens. What do the Palestinians get? The promise of more economic investment and a freeze on their current non-viable territorial arrangement in the West Bank. This creates a Bantustan in all but name. Bennett, like a number of other supporters of the settlements who have high-tech backgrounds, believes that throwing money at the Palestinians while denying them land will buy peace and quiet. PM Netanyahu, who in 2009 ran on an "economic peace" platform, also once talked that way. The clincher to understanding Bennett's willful naivete comes when he calculates that, "we will reduce the scope of territory in dispute, making it easier to reach a long-term agreement in the future." The international community will eventually see the light and acquiesce. Amazing logic. Needless to say, Jerusalem is not mentioned.

 

Q. And Lieberman?

A. This is a more nuanced and intriguing plan, because Lieberman--himself a settler (Bennett is not)--claims to believe in a two-state solution. And as foreign minister, he claims to have met in recent years with many senior Arab leaders. Whereas Bennet argues that his plan is the best Israel can do in view of the violent neighborhood it lives in, Lieberman argues that it is precisely the extremism in the region that will drive the more moderate Arab states to welcome an Israeli "three dimensional" attempt to resolve the status of all Palestinian Arabs, including those who are Israeli citizens, within a broader regional peace framework. This will involve peace treaties between Israel and Arab states as well as "exchanges of territories and Israeli Arab population" between Israel and a Palestinian state.

Lieberman states pointedly in his Facebook presentation that "in the dispute over the totality [shlemut, also translatable as completeness] of the people as opposed to the totality of the land--the totality of the people prevails." He means the Israeli Jewish people, and West Bank land. In other words, Israel will have to relinquish West Bank territory to maintain a Jewish state. But not only West Bank territory. For in order to maintain Israeli Jewish "shlemut", Israel will move the green line westward in the Little Triangle and Wadi Ara regions so as to place several hundred thousand Arab citizens of Israel, with their land and homes, inside the new West Bank-based state of Palestine. This arrangement will also address the need for "land swaps" with the Palestinians to enable Israeli annexation of the settlement blocs.

Other Israeli Arabs who suffer from "split personality" between their Israeli and their Palestinian status but live in places like Jaffa and Acre far from the green line will be offered financial inducements to encourage them to move to the new Palestinian state. To ensure they address this option seriously, Lieberman reiterates his determination that "without loyalty there is no citizenship": once there is a Palestinian state, Israeli Arabs will have to decide which state they are loyal to, and, if they choose Israel, accept the same obligations of loyalty, army service, etc., that he expects from Israeli Jews--a sentiment often voiced, albeit without Lieberman's racist overtones, by HaTnua leader Tzipi Livni as well.

Unlike Bennett's scheme, Lieberman's is not apartheid: presumably the Palestinian state that evolves will have full sovereign rights. But it apparently won't have Jerusalem, which isn't mentioned in this plan, although Lieberman has in the past alluded to the possibility of turning outlying Arab neighborhoods of the city over to a Palestinian state.

On the other hand, the new Palestinian state that Lieberman envisions will be forced to accept land and a Palestinian population that are currently Israeli and that the PLO leadership insists it will not accept, precisely because it wants a Palestinian Arab presence to remain inside Israel. Indeed, the Israel High Court would almost certainly rule that Israeli (Arab) citizens cannot be stripped en masse of their citizenship. The days when, following world wars, borders could be moved arbitrarily and citizenship changes forced on the populace in Alsace or the Swiss-Italian-Austrian Alps are long gone; more enlightened standards of human and national rights prevail today.

 

Q. So where does this leave us in terms of Israeli politics and the peace process?

A. As matters stand, Bennett and Lieberman could be even more central to coalition-forming after new elections than they are today. Undoubtedly, Lieberman's plan is the less doctrinaire and the more creative and Lieberman himself has in recent years displayed an interesting degree of political flexibility. But as they stand, neither plan could conceivably be acceptable to the Palestinians or the international community.

Neither Bennett nor Lieberman appears to be a candidate for a peaceful solution to the Palestinian issue.

 

Q. Egyptian President Sisi has also just unveiled a peace plan. . .

A. Not a peace plan, but rather an interim measure: deploying Egyptian troops in the West Bank and Gaza Strip as a temporary step until a two-state solution is found. If nothing else, this proposal appears to reflect the growing self-confidence of the regime in Cairo as it seeks to achieve a degree of pan-Arab reach and presence commensurate with Egypt's regional status in decades past.

In fact, the Sisi proposal is fraught with dilemmas.

Israel would probably have no problem with Egyptian forces in the Gaza Strip. After all, Egypt occupied the Strip between 1948 and 1967 and more than one Israeli prime minister, including Menachem Begin, has offered to return it to Cairo. In view of Sisi's strong anti-Islamist orientation, he would undoubtedly deal more severely with Hamas than Israel does.

But Egyptian forces in the West Bank? This smells of regional hegemony and could present considerable problems not only for Israel and the PLO but for neighboring Jordan--a far more logical candidate to help out with West Bank security in view of Jordan's presence there until 1967 and its military's competence. Insofar as a two-state solution is not currently on the regional political horizon, an Egyptian troop presence in the West Bank could easily become semi-permanent, hence problematic for the region. Even Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, who welcomes Egyptian security assistance, should be aware of this.

Then there's the question of Egypt's military skills as a peacekeeper. Currently, the Egyptian armed forces seem incapable of restoring order even in Sinai, which is sovereign Egyptian territory.

But Egyptian forces in Gaza? If Sisi is prepared to leave the West Bank out of his proposal, there may be something here to talk about.

 

Q. While we're on the subject of Egypt, deposed president Mubarak was just acquitted of all charges and Sisi has announced he will not pursue further prosecution. What does this say about the "Arab Spring" that began in 2011?

A. In some ways, Mubarak's acquittal may be understood as ending the Arab Spring or at least bringing it full circle. Mubarak is free and the protagonists of the Egyptian revolutions of recent years--secular democrats and the Muslim Brotherhood--are in jail. A growing number of Mubarak's circle of senior officials is returning to the Egyptian political scene. The regime apparently wants the Egyptian public to believe that neither Mubarak nor anyone else (like the army, where Sisi was in 2011-13) is responsible for killing all those demonstrators in Cairo's Tahrir Square. Barring more revolutions in Egypt--still a possibility, in view of the fragility of the political situation there and the degree of resentment against the Sisi regime exhibited by around half the population--the Egyptian Arab Spring is over.

Elsewhere, revolution and unrest still rage: in Yemen, Libya, Syria and, most recently, in Iraq. In none of these countries is the outcome predictable. Only Tunisia, where it all began with the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi in December 2010, appears to have achieved a democratic solution. And even there, many of the principal players on the political scene today are former stalwarts of the autocratic Ben Ali regime whose overthrow was the first achievement of the Arab Spring.

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