Israel’s dilemma regarding the Palestinian Arabs

TWO ISRAELIS look over a portion of the West Bank. (photo credit: REUTERS)
TWO ISRAELIS look over a portion of the West Bank.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
On occasion, policy-makers in the realm of national-security face dilemmas that have no satisfactory answers. One such dilemma is faced by Israel with regard to its conflict with the Palestinian Arabs.
Contrary to what is widely-believed, certainly as far as Israel is concerned, a solution of the conflict does not lend itself to a mathematical-like formula entailing an Israeli acceptance of the Palestinian demand for statehood in exchange for a Palestinian acceptance of Israeli security needs.
Israel needs to delineate a future vision in which its citizens live not only in peace, but, first and foremost, in safety. Thus, on the one hand, Israel should seek to live within defensible borders, not only secure borders, and on the other hand, Israel must continue to be a Jewish state, with a vibrant parliamentary system in which all of its citizens, including its non-Jewish minority, enjoy equal legal and political rights.
This ought to lead Israel’s decision-makers to strive for a continued control of all the area of the West Bank (Judea and Samaria), which is strategically vital for the defense of its main cities and towns. The widely-used term “secure borders” is too vague a notion to be accepted by Israel. “Defensible borders” is more appropriate. The first refers to the outcome, while the latter to the means to reach that outcome. Israel would have “secure” borders if these were deemed to be “defensible.” Yet, a full Israeli control of the West Bank could lead to either a bi-national state, thus ending the Zionist dream of a Jewish state in the ancient Land of Israel, or a state having two distinct entities within it: one in which the population enjoys full legal and political rights and the other that does not, leading to the end of Israel’s parliamentary democracy. Neither option would be acceptable.
However, history has shown that an attempt to accept the notion of territorial compromise, entailing the establishment of a Palestinian state next to Israel has, so far, foundered. According to the Israeli perspective, the Palestinian Arab leadership has forfeited more than one opportunity to advance towards independence, at least since 2000.
Even if one assumes that an agreement leading to the end of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank might be possible, a scenario which looks quite unlikely at present, that would still leave the Gaza Strip under the control of Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Thus, any accord with the PA would be final only insofar as the West Bank is concerned. It would leave open the future of the Gaza Strip and, indeed, the whole settlement – as Hamas and PIJ could still attempt to derail it.
Moreover, any withdrawal of Israeli security forces from the West Bank might lead to the takeover of the area by Hamas, as happened in Gaza following Israel’s unilateral withdrawal in 2005, and its transformation into a basis for attacks on Israeli civilians. With the West Bank being strategically more important than the Gaza Strip, the risk entailed in such a scenario would lead to Israeli counter-measures and to the destabilization of the peace agreement.
US President Donald Trump’s peace plan ostensibly meets a significant extent of Israel’s security needs, but fails to meet the national aspirations of the Palestinian Arabs, as currently espoused, and runs the risk, should it be implemented, of leading to a security and demographic nightmare as Israeli civilian centers are not clearly divided from the Palestinian Arab ones.
In the light of the unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005, which led to years of constant attacks on Israeli civilian centers, the option of a unilateral withdrawal from any part of the West Bank  would be totally unacceptable. Any vacuum left by Israel would not be filled by the PA, but by the Hamas, as happened in the Gaza Strip, or, in the best of cases, by an intermittent armed conflict between the two.
Thus, if an agreement leading to the final settlement of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Arabs is either a distant prospect, or a scenario entailing unacceptable security risks for Israel, and if a unilateral withdrawal is too dangerous an option for Israel to pursue, what is left for Israeli decision-makers to do?
How could Israel enhance its security without an agreement? How could Israel strive for an agreement without affecting its security? How could Israel continue to define its future as a Jewish state while remaining a parliamentary democracy, without putting in danger its citizens? How could Israel delineate “defensible borders” while affording the prospect of peace, however distant, the opportunity to materialize?
The dilemma remains.

The writer is a lecturer at the School of Political Science, Government and International Affairs at Tel Aviv University. He holds a doctorate in modern history from Oxford University and a master’s degree in international relations from Cambridge University.