Israel braces for a diplomatic squeeze

France prepares another push for an international peace conference and opposition leader Isaac Herzog comes up with a plan of his own.

By LESLIE SUSSER
February 27, 2016 19:11
Abbas

Israel is less than enamored with the initiative to convene an international conference on Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, promoted by former French foreign minister Laurent Fabius, seen here with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah last year.. (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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WITH THE Palestinian children’s intifada raging in the streets, Israeli and Palestinian leaders drifting further apart and neither side producing new diplomatic initiatives, time for the two-state solution seems to be running out.

The bleak outlook in early 2016 heightened international and domestic concerns.

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France, with wide European backing, worked feverishly on a last-ditch international and regional initiative. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon urged both sides to read the “writing on the wall” and avoid the drift to a one-state future of continued occupation, violence and terror, calamitous for all.

The US dispatched its UN ambassador Samantha Power to Israel and the Palestinian territories on a mission to stop the onestate slide. And, in Israel, the opposition Labor party called for unilateral moves to separate Israelis from Palestinians, in a bid to counteract terror and keep the two-state option open.

In late January, outgoing French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius announced that France was making another push to convene an international conference to kick-start Israeli- Palestinian peace talks. Participants would include all the relevant international and regional players, and there would be a “follow-up committee” made up of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, other European countries, the UN and moderate Arab states. The idea would be to provide a broad international umbrella that might succeed where lone American aegis had failed.

The Palestinians, who consistently complain of US bias toward Israel, welcomed the French proposal. Israel was less enthusiastic.

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The French hope to convince Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to come round and agree to attend a conference within the next few months.

But perhaps more significant than the conference proposal itself was the French warning that if their initiative fails – which is highly likely – they will recognize Palestinian statehood. Of the West European countries, only Sweden and Iceland have recognized Palestine so far. French recognition could have an immediate domino effect, further complicating Israel’s already precarious international situation.

The stage for West European recognition moves has already been set by a succession of parliamentary votes. The French National Assembly passed a resolution in December 2014, calling on the government to recognize Palestine as a way of achieving “a definitive resolution of the conflict.”

And similar resolutions have been passed by parliaments in the UK, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Belgium, Luxembourg, Greece and Ireland.

Pressure on Israel to end its occupation of Palestinian territory and allow for the emergence of a Palestinian state also came from UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

In a late January address to the UN Security Council, Ban blamed the continued occupation for the latest Palestinian uprising.

“As oppressed peoples have demonstrated throughout the ages, it is human nature to react to occupation, which often serves as a potent incubator of hate and extremism,” he declared.

Ban’s comments provoked an angry reaction from Netanyahu, who accused the secretary general of giving “a tailwind to terrorism.” Ban responded with an op-ed in The New York Times entitled, “Don’t Shoot the Messenger, Israel,” in which he argued that it was not “sustainable to lash out at every well-intentioned critic” and repeated his contention that the status quo is untenable. “Keeping another people under indefinite occupation undermines the security and the future of both Israelis and Palestinians,” he chided.

He also urged Israel to make moves to improve the quality of Palestinian life: on housing, water, energy, communications, agriculture and access to natural resources.

“Specifically, they should include immediate approval of master plans proposed by the Palestinian communities in the Israeli-controlled Area C of the West Bank, which will enable investment and development,” he maintained.

BAN’S COMMENTS and the French initiative both signaled a new level of success for the Palestinian effort to internationalize the conflict. The next step could be another application to the UN Security Council for recognition of Palestine as a full-fledged member state of the world body. The question then might be whether the US, after a spate of West European recognitions of Palestine, will exercise its veto in conditions of supreme isolation. Indeed, the Palestinian strategy is to get Europe to pry the US away from Israel, pressuring it to withdraw from the West Bank and enable the establishment of a Palestinian state without any of the conditions Israel would have demanded, and possibly achieved, through negotiation.

The Israeli government response has been to hit out at its international critics, arguing that their censure is unfair and their peace plans naïve. Some of the government moves, however, seemed self-contradictory.

For example, Netanyahu’s implicit rejection of the French initiative on the grounds that the threat to recognize Palestine if it failed gave the Palestinians an incentive to make it fail seemed certain to lead to the very result Israel wanted to avoid – failure of the initiative and French recognition of Palestine. (See “The endgame imperative” on page 9.) Moreover, in lieu of any clear diplomatic alternative of its own, all that seems to be left for the government is to fight for the narrative – that is, to win the blame game. The main tactic is to blame the latest violence solely on Palestinian incitement, suggesting that the problem lies with Palestinian ideology and conduct, not the occupation – as if these purported causes are mutually exclusive.

The government’s non-action in the diplomatic arena and its failure to present a plan to curb Palestinian terror created a huge policy vacuum which Zionist Union/Labor opposition leader Isaac Herzog tried to fill.

In a major programmatic address at the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies in mid-January, Herzog made two cardinal assumptions: That a two-state solution is impossible for now because of the respective weaknesses of Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, “two leaders paralyzed by fear,” puppets in the hands of the extremists on both sides; and that Israel is already in the throes of a third intifada, which could get much worse. “If we continue to deny the truth it could become an intifada that’s crueler than its predecessors, an intifada in the spirit of ISIS. But here people are still dreaming,” he declared.

The opposition leader’s plan, therefore, is to take immediate steps that would both reduce violence and create a reality that keeps the two-state model alive. The aim, he says, would be to separate from as many Palestinians as possible, as quickly as possible.

“Only by preventing the two peoples from interacting, at least for a while, will you be able to preserve the two-state solution,” he insists.

The plan, which Herzog has presented to world leaders, including French President François Hollande in Paris, in late January and US Secretary of State John Kerry in Rome, in early February, entails: · Two major security moves: Building a wall to separate 28 Arab villages around Jerusalem from the capital to make it difficult for would-be terrorists to enter the city and completing construction of the West Bank separation fence initiated by Ariel Sharon and still wide open in the Gush Etzion and Hebron areas.

Herzog insists that these would be security measures only. But completing the barriers would help create a two-state reality on the ground, signal Israel’s seriousness about a two-state solution and encourage the Palestinians to negotiate better borders. The hope is also that once the two-state vision is genuinely on the table, Palestinian violence will subside.

· Confidence-building measures: Freezing building in settlements on the Palestinian side of the separation barrier. Affected settlers would be able to move into the large settlement blocs, where building would be allowed.

Palestinians would have total freedom in civil, but not military matters. They would be able to build new cities and expand existing ones and to develop agriculture, industry and employment. Palestinian civilian control would be extended to parts of Area C, currently under Israeli civilian control.

· Security exclusively in Israel’s hands: The IDF would continue to control the entire West Bank to prevent terror and to be deployed along the Jordan River to the east.

“After a few years, if things are quiet, we can discuss what’s next,” Herzog says.

· A regional security conference: The opposition leader calls for the convening of a regional security conference with the participation of all the moderate Sunni states from North Africa to the Persian Gulf and Israel, with the ambitious aim of building a united security front against ISIS and Iran. He argues that the confluence of interests between Israel and the moderate Sunni states creates a unique historic opportunity for military, intelligence and overall strategic cooperation.

This could lead to a new Middle Eastern configuration and a new regional balance which, says Herzog, could be of great significance for global stability. He insists that none of this will be even remotely possible unless Israel presents a credible two-state vision.

And, he says, separation from the Palestinians now is therefore an “integral part” of this wider regional vision.

HERZOG’S PLAN led to severe infighting in Labor, where former party leader and current leadership rival Shelly Yacimovich accused him of abandoning the two-state solution in a misguided attempt to appeal to the right. He had to explain that, on the contrary, the two-state vision remained the party’s goal, only it was not achievable at present, and that steps needed to be taken to counteract Palestinian violence before it could again be placed squarely on the national agenda. In early February, by an overwhelming majority, the party adopted the leader’s plan.

It is clear that besides the substance, the plan is designed to catch voters’ attention, including those on the center right. The message is that, unlike Netanyahu, Herzog has a long-term regional vision, including an Israeli-Palestinian accommodation, and can be trusted not to give away the store to achieve it.

To remain within the center-right consensus, elements that could have given the plan more gravitas are lacking. For example, there is no call for an amendment to the Basic Law: Jerusalem, the Capital of Israel, to formally exclude the 28 Palestinian villages from greater Jerusalem and Israel proper; there is also no specific commitment to accept the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative as the basis for negotiations on the envisaged grand regional coalition.

The separation plan, Israelis here and Palestinians there, also says nothing about the estimated 115,000 Palestinians who cross into Israel or the Jewish settlement areas in the West Bank (30,000 illegally) to work on a daily basis or the 30,000 additional work permits the army is proposing as a means of cooling the violence. Questioned on this, Herzog says these arrangements would remain in force, with the security establishment vetting work applications and issuing work permits.

Basically the opposition leader has put a toe into the waters of unilateral disengagement from the Palestinians, “taking our fate into our own hands,” and not being held hostage by Palestinian rejectionism whether from the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah or Hamas in Gaza. The question is how far he would go down this road, were the Zionist Union to come to power.

More importantly, what impact, if any, will Herzog’s high-profile move have on the Netanyahu government caught in a vise of international and domestic pressure to move on the Palestinian track before the two-state window closes irreversibly with horrendous consequences for the Zionist project? It would seem not very much.

Indeed, rather than the separation message, Netanyahu is highlighting Herzog’s assessment that the two-state solution is not possible for now. In a mid- February Knesset debate on the two-state model, the prime minister teased Herzog for taking so long to wake up to reality.

Netanyahu, it seems, will continue to sit tight, fending off pressure to move down the two-state route and avoiding grand regional plans, content to fence Israel off from what he calls “the predatory beasts” that surround it.

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