With the dramatic election behind us, the all-consuming coalition talks and the current escalation of violence in the West Bank, a government headed by Benjamin Netanyahu will promise to breathe new life into a commonly used concept in the political discourse concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Prominent among them is ‘shrinking the conflict,’ or in the case of the Netanyahu approach “shrinking through economic peace.”
While there are various iterations of shrinking the conflict, the one common denominator is that the desired outcome of this concept means shrinking the disputed area of the conflict between the sides. Not only will Netanyahu’s approach not shrink the disputed area, but it will ultimately serve to expand it.
Firstly, it must be asked, when exactly did the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians become about economic welfare? The conflict is over land and the right to establish a state on it.
It portrays multidimensional aspects resting on territorial-national aspirations that are accompanied by religion. One can see this in similar national conflicts, in Cyprus, Kosovo, Bosnia and even faraway Kashmir. They all have certain similarities to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
In all of them, a territorial dimension is evident: the Turkish occupation of Northern Cyprus, the territorial aspect of the multinational conflicts in Bosnia, the Serbian perception of Kosovo as part of their historical homeland, and the Indian occupation of parts of Kashmir. They are conflicts between national movements in which usually one side does not accept the very legitimacy of the other.
All these conflicts relate to contrasting narratives, historical memories and claims of sovereignty; they imply occupation, settlements, resistance, terrorism, reprisals and guerrilla warfare. They are not religious conflicts per se, but every one of them has a deep religious dimension, linked to holy sites and religious memories which usually make pragmatic compromises even more difficult.
Netanyahu’s economic measures
Netanyahu’s “shrinking through economic peace” includes no commitment to what made the concept successful in the past and ultimately ignores the causes mentioned above. It simply means the continuation of increasing the number of work permits from the Gaza Strip, granting Palestinians from the West Bank permission to look for work in Israel and increasing the fishing zone off the shores of Gaza.
In the short term, they will indeed contribute to the necessary welfare of tens of thousands of Palestinians, but such a method ultimately has no connection to shrinking the conflict, which over time aims for a final status agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.
In the long term, the consequences will be even graver. Such economic measures will deepen the implementation of the policy that began in the days of defense minister Moshe Dayan, whereby the Palestinians sustain their economy by means of Israel – they work in Israel, receive some of their medical services in Israel, buy their electricity in Israel, collect the indirect taxes, and so on.
THIS POLICY was further solidified in Oslo’s Paris Protocol, which makes the Palestinian tax, customs, import, and export systems entirely reliant on Israel. This only preserves Palestinian dependence on Israel and prevents the development of the institutions needed for the proposed Palestinian state-to-be.
If one were to implement plans to successfully shrink the conflict in the true sense of the word accompanied by economic measures then it should include revising the Paris Protocol not cementing its principles further in place.
Shrinking the conflict is a territorial issue and aiming for it in that capacity is the rationale that guided all of Israel’s substantial agreements until now. The gradual stages of the peace process with Egypt and the evacuation of Sinai are examples of this in practice.
It began with the separation of forces agreement (1974), then the interim agreement (1975), followed by the framework agreement (1978), then the permanent status agreement (1979) and finally the withdrawal from Sinai (1982) – if shrinking the conflict is the chosen path this method must stand at the base of the correct rationale and implementation of the “conflict shrinkage” thesis.
The Oslo Accords
The Oslo Accords were also constructed in this way. In the first stage, there was an interim agreement whereby Israel would transfer all the occupied territories to the control of the PA, except issues that would later be discussed in negotiations for a permanent settlement: Jerusalem, military sites and the settlements, and at the second stage a permanent status agreement.
The transfer of Areas A and B of the West Bank to Palestinian control shrank the conflict because today, Israel is (usually) not present in those areas and it does not directly administer the lives of the Palestinians in them.
The disengagement plan from Gaza was implemented similarly. Israel does control the boundaries of the Gaza Strip, as does Egypt on the other border, but it does not administer daily life there, and it conducts the war against Hamas and Islamic Jihad in conventional military ways and not as an occupying police force.
Despite the general feeling that the Gaza disengagement was an absolute nightmare, many overlook the fact that in the five years prior to the disengagement (2000-2005) Israel incurred 147 fatalities, whereas since 2005 to this day – a total of 17 years – there have been 122 fatalities resulting from escalation connected to the Gaza Strip, essentially saving hundreds of lives.
The Arab side also took measures to shrink the conflict, for example, the revocation by King Hussein in 1988 of the annexation of the West Bank to Jordan, which paved the way for the peace agreement between Israel and Jordan in 1994. In this framework, Israel also returned the territories to Jordan of which it had taken control in the Arava.
Another example is the recognition of the PLO in UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338 in 1993 and its official reciprocal recognition of Israel which shrank the official disputed area from the entirety of Mandatory Palestine to the permanent status agreement, which would include negotiations only for the West Bank territories that were occupied in 1967.
IF ONE were to adopt the shrink-the-conflict method today, in the true and correct sense of the concept, it is necessary to hand over sections of Area C to the PA, as Netanyahu himself proclaimed in the framework of the phases in 1998 (as part of the Wye River Memorandum) and proposed doing it again in 2014, according to the American envoy at the time, Martin Indyk.
This logic was also at the base of the master plan for Ariel Sharon’s disengagement and Ehud Olmert’s realignment in the West Bank – which proposed transferring chunks of Area C and evacuating isolated ideological settlements on the mountain ridge to give the Palestinians territorial contiguity in Areas A and B, thereby enabling the implementation of development plans in various areas and the capacity for governability.
As it plays out in practice all, the Netanyahu approach means is that he will once again be caught in the crosshairs between his far-Right allies and their demand to advance sovereignty over the West Bank, and the state’s desire to expand regional peace and integration, which was based on Netanyahu’s own commitment in the Abraham Accords to refrain from those exact territorial measures.
Netanyahu, will most likely as in the past prefer regional integration over territorial maximalism, but behind the scenes, Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir will strengthen and accelerate moves that contradict the very thesis of “shrinking the conflict.”
These moves, which will happen day by day, will include the expansion of the settlements, further ignoring the construction of illegal outposts, granting more permits for Jewish farms in the territories, and paving a system of fast roads to the isolated ideological settlements – all these measures were already accepted as part of Ben-Gvir’s coalition demands. A consequence of this will include turning a blind eye to increasing settler violence on Palestinians and IDF soldiers.
The use of “shrinking the conflict through economic peace” is nothing if not a smokescreen. In practice and over time it helps realize the goal of the extremist right.
It amounts to a thorn in the side of Israel’s unprecedented regional interests and it conceals the continuation of what Ben-Gvir and Smotrich hope will become Israel’s reality – one state under Jewish control – but make no mistake, this state will most certainly be a one-non-egalitarian state that will simply serve to change the name from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the Jewish-Arab civil war.
It will carry deep consequences that ultimately affect not only Palestinians but the vital interests of Israel, its regional allies, Israelis and by extension the Jewish people, as well.
The writer is a political researcher at The Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance, based in Tel Aviv. He is the editor of We Should All Be Zionists by Dr. Einat Wilf.