On Passover, think about liberating the State of Israel

What if Israel were to simply stop playing along and act in its own interests?

April 13, 2017 21:20
Palestinian protest

Palestinian protest. (photo credit: REUTERS)

This Passover, let us reflect on the historic moment of opportunity that may at last be at hand for Israel: to liberate itself from the anguishing problem of the “Palestinian situation.” It doesn’t require a new reality, another decade or more – or even, for that matter, a reliable negotiating partner. What’s needed is a new state of mind, and a creative new approach. What if Israel were to simply stop playing along and act in its own interests?

Grant the Palestinians state recognition where they live right now. Forget trying to negotiate peace with their duplicitous and increasingly unstable leadership. Israel can independently resolve the Palestinian people’s ambiguous status, shore up its own security, and offer law-abiding Palestinians the chance of participating in Israel’s economic miracle – that is, if, and when, they earn it by behaving themselves.

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While Israel’s tactical position looks relatively good, in a region and world afflicted with Islamist terrorism, this doesn’t seem to be a high political priority right now in Israel. BUT time isn’t necessarily our friend. The “apartheid occupier” moniker is still widely and, thanks to social media, highly corrosively used as a pretext for antisemitism and Israel’s delegitimization. Separating and clarifying the “national” status of the Palestinians won’t end antisemitism, but might it not disarm at least this particular channel?

Israel’s Arab neighbors are fed up with the Palestinian leadership and issue. For the first time in history, their geostrategic interests are perfectly aligned with Israel’s. Their own sustainability and legitimacy demands that they redress the multi-headed Islamists of all stripes, both Shiite and Sunni. And they need to reform their own governance systems to offer their young people greater economic opportunity. They need the Startup Nation’s national security, healthcare, water and other technologies, and, whether they acknowledge it or not, they have plenty to learn from Israel’s democracy, messy as it may be. The neighbors are primed right now to support Israel on any real step forward with the Palestinians. If not for the love of Jews, the Arabs are at least pragmatically getting in line for their own benefit.

What might a new framework for Palestinian statehood look like? I engaged in a possibly relevant 3.5-hour private discussion with Abu Mazen (a leader clearly fading from the scene) in early January. He played the “good cop,” professing hope for a revitalized two-state negotiating framework. I was there to listen as an entirely independent Jewish-American citizen, outwardly for the love of Israel and free from diplomatic protocol to exchange views, but of course with no mandate or authority to negotiate anything on anyone’s behalf. For what it’s worth, Mr. Abbas didn’t seem to resist the suggestion that the original Oslo formulation (“67 borders and land swaps”) seems by now to be a historical artifact, bypassed by facts on the ground. Even to my skeptical ears, he seemed sincere in validating the importance of Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish nation.

So long as the Palestinians have their own state in the West Bank. In that case, I was told, there would be real flexibility on the “right of return” and “everything else would be on the table.” I speculated that Palestinian law might apply in the North- South corridor, where the Palestinian majority outside of Jordan lives. Israeli law and territory would incorporate the Jordan Valley (“security buffer”), and in the larger existing Jewish “communities” outside the Green Line, in the East and South of Jerusalem, and in the North. Abbas himself interrupted to specify that the Palestinian state would “of course be demilitarized” – even before I could finish the sentence to make the same stipulation.

Israel would assume overall responsibility for security at the northern, eastern and southern perimeters, continuing its present collaboration with the Palestinian security forces and Jordan. We also talked about Jerusalem, about a potential major Israeli and foreign private investment in Palestinian infrastructure and free movement (as presently proposed by certain coalition members), and equal rights under Palestinian laws and security assurances for Jewish communities that might choose to remain inside the Palestinian national boundaries, instead of relocating to the Jordan Valley or elsewhere in Israel.

As the PLO’s official photo shows, Abu Mazen was outwardly enthusiastic--until someone must have told him that he had opened himself to a framework that might conceivably be considered Israel. Fatah’s general secretary, Saeb Erekat, the longtime Palestinian negotiator, and evidently the rest of the PLO leadership, rejected the whole concept after a few days, as “less than” they had been offered in the past – as if that matters with the facts as they are years later. So much for the good cop…

Maybe elements of the jumpstart framework will be useful if negotiations do resume. Or maybe not. Maybe the idea of a negotiated solution is still around only because a generation of players has made a living blaming each other for failing to implement it.

As recently reported in these pages, the Israeli public seems to be losing patience with negotiations, believing they’ve ultimately weakened Israel. And, regardless of Abbas’s probably irrelevant charm offensive, the PLO’s rejectionist behavior continues: besides constantly preconditioning negotiations (on settlement freezes, “right of return,” “no US Embassy move to Jerusalem”), their leadership is, as-ever, inciting violence, glorifying jailed or “martyred” terrorist murders – and spending hundreds of millions of dollars a year in foreign “aid” money to support their families. Practically speaking, and despite insipid declarations to the contrary, this is sponsorship of terrorism.

But the risks to Israel of waiting for the Palestinians to come around are mounting. Present handwringing within the global Jewish community over settlement policy is untenable and distracting –an unwelcome and self-defeating source of insecurity and conflict within Israel and the Diaspora. For Israel’s own security and freedom from grassroots recrimination, it seems more imperative than ever that Israel proceed alone.

Israel might go a long way toward implementing something like the above “jumpstart” framework independently, by recognizing qualified Palestinian statehood in both Gaza and (demilitarized) part of the West Bank. The Palestinians could assume their own administrative and political autonomy as soon as they’re ready – with local elections and the application of Palestinian law in Palestinian communities. This international status would be similar to that of demilitarized Japan and Germany after the Second World War. Israel would continue to control security around the Palestinian perimeter and, in due course, support investment in Palestinian infrastructure, including logistical connections between Gaza, the West Bank and Jordan, and arrangements to help Palestinians integrate into the economic fabric of Israel.

Formal Palestinian statehood in Judea and Samaria might seem a hard sell to the coalition, but is the practical difference among various “autonomy” plans debated in Jerusalem, and full state recognition over the same territorial area, actually worth allowing the toxicity of the “apartheid occupier” moniker to continue being nourished by this issue? Is the passive drift without any plan worth leaving Israel’s Jewish character exposed to the inevitable eventual demands of the Palestinians for full participatory rights while they remain in Israel? Isn’t the danger in Israel’s slow drift that conditions on the ground may eventually reach a point where two separately coexisting states will no longer be practically feasible?

Nor would independent recognition by Israel be a “unilateral concession” of anything. Israel doesn’t need reciprocal recognition or anything else from the Palestinians, because it wouldn’t be negotiating at all. The point is that Israel would be taking this step independently for its own purposes and interests, not, as was the case with Ariel Sharon’s “unilateral” Gaza withdrawal, in the hope of extracting concessions toward some final negotiated outcome.

Israel alone would control the cards: If the Palestinian leadership appropriately embraces the economic and social benefits of engaging peaceably, and reverses the rejectionist narrative, it will be in Israel’s interest to start easing transit and supporting investments in the wellbeing of the Palestinian people. If the Palestinians choose otherwise, it will be their loss. The world will eventually see that choice as residing in the Palestinians’ own hands, while Israel retains the exclusive right to satisfy its own security imperatives. And if the Palestinian leadership and its friends continue to deny their people a better life for the futile goal of removing the Jewish superpower from the map, maybe they’ll prefer being governed by a federal authority from Jordan, or just keep looking at Israeli life across the security barrier until they wake up.

As former interior minister Gideon Sa’ar recently wrote in these pages, “One thing is clear: We must present an alternative to the current paradigm that is supposedly like no other.” My modest hope is simply to inspire creative new thinking among our people during this holiday of emancipation. We are all suffering the consequences of an untenable status quo. Israel was built and prospers on the courage and innovation of our people. Israel undoubtedly has the blessings, values, ingenuity and skill to liberate itself from the burden of this problem.

Next year, and every year, in Jerusalem.

Daniel J. Arbess is policy analyst and investor, CEO of Xerion Investments and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and co-founder of the US bipartisan political organization No Labels.

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