Fifty-five years after the 1967 war, the status of the West Bank (aka Judea and Samaria) and of its Palestinian Arabs residents remains unclear, temporary and officially disputed.
Because the war’s outcome was unexpected, Israel’s government at the time did not have a ready framework for the future. In the best of Jewish traditions, ministers and pundits spent weeks, months and then years debating the issues, waiting in vain for the Palestinians to respond substantively.
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In this vacuum, some Israeli groups created facts on the ground that evolved into settlements and cities on ancient Jewish biblical sites, while the army established positions that, in some instances, became towns. The result was chaotic, with no strategic or political coherence. Unlike almost every other country, Israel does not have clear borders and operates two parallel legal systems – one for pre-1967 Israel, and another for the residents of the post-’67 territory.
Another unplanned result is the gradual morphing of the land from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River into a single political entity, in which the Palestinian and Jewish populations of approximately the same size are locked into waves of terrorism and response.
For the Palestinians, the 55-year status quo keeps alive the illusion of moving the clock back to 1947, abetted by massive international support for a unique and mythical “refugee” status. The image of a single state in which half or more of the population is Palestinian, and where Jews (Zionists) eventually disappear like the Crusaders, is far more appealing than a “two-state solution,” which would acknowledge the legitimacy of Jewish sovereignty, regardless of borders.
While many Israelis have become accustomed to the stalemate, for outsiders – including many Jews – Israel is presented by the NGO industry in cartoon-like portraits of colonial settlers, apartheidists and serial killers of journalists, accompanied by the slogans and myths of international law. When Al Jazeera reporter Shireen Abu Akleh was killed in Jenin, Israel was automatically accused of “cold-blooded murder,” ignoring the absence of evidence. In part, this demonization reflects hostility to Jewish empowerment – in other words, antisemitism – regardless of borders, and reinforced by NGO propaganda campaigns. The post-1967 images, however inaccurate and unfair, make this easier.
In parallel, after more than five decades, tens of thousands of families living outside the 1949 “Green Line” face outbreaks of chaos and uncertainty. Disputes over land ownership lead to years of legal proceedings and unpredictable court decisions. This absurd situation is unimaginable for people living a few kilometers away, on the other side, in “sovereign” Israel.
None of these observations are new – indeed, they should be obvious. Not obvious at all is what can be done in 2022 to replace the status quo with a better and realistic framework, if one can be found. The search for alternatives that avoid the drift and end the chaos is critical for the future of Israel and Zionism.
The goal here is not to propose another imaginary peace plan – there are plenty of these gathering dust on physical and virtual diplomatic and academic shelves. Rather, my objective is to contribute to a renewed Israeli debate on options and alternatives to the status quo, based on where we are now, in June 2022. The hope is that through a substantive discussion anchored in political realism, Israel can move beyond the trap of continuing chaos leading to a single non-Zionist state.
Diplomatic Dead Ends: 1967-2022
Before considering alternatives, a brief summary of previous efforts is worthwhile, at least to avoid some of the illusions and mistakes.
Immediately after the 1967 war, euphoric Israelis, who feared the worst just a few days before, were suddenly able to enter Jerusalem’s Old City and visit the ancient biblical sites that had been previously closed to Jews. A return to the narrow armistice lines (drawn in green on maps) that had prevailed since 1949 was, and remains, unthinkable.
Unlike Egypt and Syria, there was no international border in the West Bank to serve as a basis for negotiation – Jordan’s Arab Legion had occupied this territory for almost 20 years, including eastern Jerusalem, and allowed fedayeen to launch murderous raids into Israel. Going back to the previous situation was a non-starter – the question was, and remains, what should replace it?
In addition to holding Jerusalem, officials agreed that the Jordan River would remain as Israel’s eastern border, with a buffer and access zone in the Jordan Valley. But from here, the views diverged. Foreign Minister Yigal Allon presented a plan in which small areas such as Gush Etzion (from which Jews were expelled in 1948) would be incorporated. But most of the West Bank would revert to Jordan, noting that: “From a demographic standpoint, a Jewish majority will be kept/maintained, which would allow Israel to exist as a democratic Jewish state, based on the principles of the Zionist vision.”
In contrast, minister-without-portfolio Menachem Begin adamantly rejected foreign sovereignty over any parts of the Land of Israel, including Judea and Samaria – the biblical terms that were also used during the British Mandate. However, while agreeing with Allon on demography and Zionism, he rejected annexation, even as prime minister a decade later. Begin’s alternative was autonomy for the “Arab population in the Land of Israel,” including control of education, finances, services and other sectors – everything except security and foreign policy.
Neither Allon’s nor Begin’s proposals went beyond the debating stage, primarily because the Palestinians were only interested in turning the clock back to 1947 – in other words, the elimination of Israel. Nothing caused them to abandon the “all-or-nothing” approach and consider pragmatic compromise, such as a “two-state solution” or a federation with Jordan.
IN THE POLICY vacuum, the Israeli presence in these areas gradually and chaotically increased. Periodically, another attempt at change would start – for example, in 1987, then-foreign minister Shimon Peres negotiated secretly with Jordan’s King Hussein in London – but this was another dead end.
The Oslo Accords, signed in 1993 and accompanied by a White House extravaganza, marked the most sustained effort, including the creation of the Palestinian Authority, which governs more than 90% of the Palestinian population. To Israelis, Oslo was presented as embodying the “land for peace” formula, leading to a permanent status agreement and presumably two states within five years. The term “end of conflict” was used frequently, and the demographic threat to Zionism seemed to be averted.
But to Palestinians, PLO leader Yasser Arafat marketed Oslo as a short-term tactical measure, to be renounced once the benefits had been realized. The massive UNRWA “refugee” support system remained intact, and the incitement and terrorist attacks continued and even increased in the form of mass terror directed, or at least approved of, by Arafat. Israelis recognized that on the other side, nothing had changed. And Israel’s improved relations with the so-called “international community” evaporated quickly when the IDF moved to counter Arafat’s war.
The next effort to end the stalemate took place in 2005, when prime minister Ariel Sharon unilaterally “disengaged” from Gaza and from two small civilian locations (“settlements”) in Samaria. Two years later, the Hamas terrorist organization took control of Gaza, followed by the acquisition of thousands of rockets and missiles, and the construction of massive terror tunnels. Sharon became incapacitated in 2006, Israel failed to destroy the nascent Hamas war machine and discussion of further unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank came to a halt, particularly with the election of Benjamin Netanyahu in 2009.
But Netanyahu also understood the difficulties inherent in an infinite stalemate, leading him to support the initiative for unilateral annexation (“extension of sovereignty”). Details were not revealed and no official maps were made public, but the discourse focused on incorporating the major settlements and the strategic areas of Area C (including the Jordan Valley). However, the effort became mired in Israeli electoral politics as well as strong international opposition, and in 2020, it was officially halted in the context of the Abraham Accords.
As this brief history demonstrates, after 55 years, the temporary status quo, with all of its weaknesses, continues. At the same time, the default option of a single political entity between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River, with roughly equal populations and the implications for Zionism, also remains – and as noted, is the Palestinian’s favorite. These problems will not disappear, and as Israelis, we have the obligation of continuing to look for better options.
A Strategy of Political Realism
With this dismal history, it is not surprising that many Israelis have given up. The long drift and its implications are not included in the election platforms of any of the main parties, and that is precisely the problem. It plays into those who are not exactly supporters of Zionism and see the evolution of a one-state framework as the best path to their objectives.
To move forward by learning from the failures, a new strategy is long overdue, anchored in political realism and concrete Israeli interests, as distinct from hope, faith or ideology. Realism requires the careful analysis of the relative potential costs and benefits of different options, including continuing the status quo, based on security (military capabilities, defensible borders); Zionism and demography (a viable Jewish majority); and the perception of Israel from the outside (public diplomacy and image).
On this basis, and unlike Oslo and the other experiments, I suggest starting from the end point – Israel’s urgent need to determine our borders. Once we examine, debate and then decide on the areas we need to hold and where Israel’s and Zionism’s interests are best served by exiting, the paths necessary to reach this outcome can be considered.
Beyond maintaining the integrity of Jerusalem, particularly the Old City and its sacred sites, the core pragmatic requirement is to maximize security and minimize control over and responsibility for the Palestinian population. In Israel today, about 80% identify as Jewish as compared to 20% Arabs. Among the world’s other nation-states based on a dominant ethnic, religious or linguistic group (as distinct from inherently multi-cultural countries), a minority of 20% is already considered quite high, particularly when that minority has recidivist claims. Borders that would reduce the Jewish majority to 60%, for example, would add significant strains to the Zionist Jewish Hebrew-speaking core.
In examining other basic elements, there is already wide agreement on the need for full control of the strategic Jordan Valley and the main access corridors to defend it. Similarly, the settlement blocs adjacent to the pre-1967 Green Line and within the separation barrier are readily incorporated into Israel, without including a large Palestinian population. There are also a few exceptions – sizable settlements located in non-contiguous areas, such as Ariel and Beit El. But with populations of 20,000 and 7,000, respectively, abandoning them is politically unrealistic.
THE REMAINING issues concern the future of Area C – which, under the Oslo accords, remains, at least in theory, under full Israeli control. Extending from Jerusalem east to the Jordan River, and north along the Jordan Valley, this land is important strategically, and has a small Palestinian population.
However, in the absence of a coherent policy, the Palestinians and their European support team are busy creating their own settlements – precisely in order to disrupt Israeli requirements. The Palestinian “villages” that have been created in key locations like Khan al-Ahmar and Masafer Yatta, including fictitious backstories to persuade outsiders of their authenticity, are attempts to foreclose the option of retaining this territory. The more time that passes before deciding which parts of Area C should become part of Israel, the more difficult this process will become.
The final dimension concerns perceptions. For some Israelis and Diaspora Jews, the most painful aspect of the post-1967 status quo is the image of the Jewish state as an occupier, portrayed as brutally denying the Palestinians their own state. This is the basis for campus Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions resolutions and other denunciations of Zionism.
The question is whether demonization would decrease significantly if the status quo was replaced with declared borders, particularly if these were recognized by the United States and at least some European countries. Would the Jews who have become hostile to and alienated from Israel because of the 55-year “occupation” move to a more positive relationship with Israel?
On these questions, the evidence is unclear. The image of Palestinian weakness and victimization, in contrast to Israeli power, will not change regardless of any moves in the West Bank, and Israel will still be blamed. However, there is reason to expect that among those not committed to the Palestinian cause and anti-Zionism, the demarcation of borders would reduce the hostility. Nevertheless, based on a realistic assessment, the potential change in perceptions of Israel based on the setting of clear borders and an end to the temporary post-1967 “occupation” should not be considered a deciding factor.
In summary, while the results are far from certain – and changing the status quo after 55 years will be difficult to accomplish, particularly in the face of intense ideological opposition – the greater danger to Israel and Zionism comes from continued drift and chaos. The longer we allow the illusion of temporary arrangements to fester, the more difficult it will be to deal with the results. ■
The writer is emeritus professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University and president of NGO Monitor. His latest book, Menachem Begin and the Israel-Egypt Peace Process: Between Ideology and Political Realism, was published by Indiana University Press.