Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu visits schoolchildren..
(photo credit: REUTERS)
At an August 20 press conference he held as Operation Protective Edge was nearing its end, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said that Israel needed to strive to “complete the mission – restoring quiet and security and, I would add in light of the changes in the region, achieving a new political horizon for the State of Israel.” At the same press conference Netanyahu said that there had been a “change in the regional alignment that might produce new possibilities, and I, as prime minister, am interested in exhausting that possibility.”
In the weeks that have elapsed since then, Netanyahu has not elaborated on the exact nature of this “new political horizon” he envisions, but a number of other players in the region have begun to put forward ideas and initiatives with a view to resolving the broader conflict.
Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas reportedly told Opposition chairman Isaac Herzog last Friday that he wanted to resume negotiations with Israel, in which the guiding principle would be to establish the borders of the future Palestinian state as the first order of business. “The time has arrived for Israel to define how it sees the borders of the Palestinian state,” Abbas said, according to Megafon News.
Historically, the Netanyahu government has been averse to presenting maps or delineating by other means its view on the future border. This stems on one level from the legitimate concern that the Palestinians will “pocket” any Israeli territorial concession, so to speak, leaving Israel without any leverage to obtain Palestinians concessions on the other outstanding issues, such as security arrangements, water and, of course, refugees. Naturally, Israel could propose a more maximalist opening position in the negotiations, allowing for that map to be refined and pared down to a more realistic final offer in exchange for precisely those same Palestinian concessions.
Another reason for the current government’s resistance to presenting any map – which could include in its preliminary and maximalist iteration a broad swath of the Jordan Valley, large settlement blocs and a security belt near the coastal plane becoming part of Israel – stems mainly from domestic political concerns. Namely, the fears harbored by many of the principal coalition partners of alienating the pro-settler lobby, which objects to any Israeli territorial concessions whatsoever.
Two developments in recent weeks, however, demonstrate how much Israel stands to gain by reaching even a limited agreement about borders.
The first was the EU demand in mid-August that Israel separate all dairy and poultry products manufactured beyond the Green Line from those produced inside Israel proper. Barring Israeli compliance – which ultimately was forthcoming – the EU informed Israel that it would ban all imports of those products from anywhere in Israel.
The second development was the global condemnation of the decision to declare some 940 acres of land in the Etzion Bloc state land. Michael Mann, an EU spokesman, issued a statement that the EU would “not recognize any changes to the pre-1967 borders, including with regard to Jerusalem, other than those agreed by the parties.” The latter part of that statement – “other than those agreed by the parties” – is crucial. The EU essentially indicated that it would accept the legitimacy of an Israeli civilian presence and activity in those areas beyond the Green Line that Israel and the Palestinians agree are to be part of Israel.
Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman’s protest that it was “clear” that the area in question was going to remain under Israeli sovereignty “in any agreement” was to no avail. In the absence of an agreement with the Palestinians on borders, the EU has made it clear that it is not going to accept any Israeli claim anywhere beyond the Green Line. The price for maintaining this status quo will be paid by Israel in its inability to build without opprobrium anywhere beyond the Green Line, including in Jerusalem, as well as in the cost of creating a compliance mechanism with EU guidelines so as to avoid a sweeping boycott of all Israeli goods.
A second new “political horizon” resulting from regional changes was reported by Army Radio on Sunday. According to that report, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi proposed turning over to Palestinian sovereignty 1,600 square kilometers of territory in the Sinai Peninsula abutting the Gaza Strip, which would be part of the future Palestinian state. This expanded and demilitarized Gaza Strip would become the Palestine in which Palestinian refugees could be resettled. Sisi’s plan, which has not been confirmed and which was reportedly rejected outright by Abbas, envisions creating Palestinian “autonomy” in the West Bank cities.
This initiative resonates with ideas that were put forward as early as 2006 by the then director of the National Security Council, Giora Eiland, who proposed a four-way land swap involving Israel, Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinians. Eiland presented this as an alternative to the internationally-endorsed two-state solution, which has remained deadlocked because “the maximum that the State of Israel can offer the Palestinians is far smaller than what the Palestinians will be prepared to accept,” as Eiland said in January 2010.
The advantages of the Egyptian proposal are clear, in that it would resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a whole, providing independence and sovereignty for the Palestinians, security for Israel and a resolution of the refugee problem in a way that would not adversely affect Israel and its nature as a Jewish and democratic state. This option should be vigorously pursued by the Israeli government.
But even if a comprehensive resolution of the conflict remains beyond reach at present, Israel has much to gain from the more limited horizon of reaching an agreement on where its border with the Palestinians will lie in the West Bank.
Ultimately, Israel has four options or, to borrow Netanyahu’s term, “political horizons.” The first is to preserve the current status quo, which has been the government’s default choice to date. While this might be the least politically dangerous course for Netanyahu to take in the short term, it is reasonable to expect this policy to continue to exact a mounting diplomatic and economic price from Israel, at the very least. The other three “horizons” are: a comprehensive peace agreement along the lines set out by the Egyptian initiative, a limited agreement on the route its future border with the West Bank and annexing the West Bank and creating either a non-democratic or non-Jewish State of Israel.
The latter, one-state solution, while supported by the extreme fringes of the Israeli Right and Left, is unacceptable to a majority of Israelis. Unfortunately for Netanyahu, his default option of preserving the status quo is leading Israel toward that same onestate horizon. The time has come for Netanyahu to assume the mantle of leadership and to clearly chart out towards which political horizon he wishes to lead Israel and the region.
The author is a veteran Israeli writer and translator.