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July 1, 2020 4:18 am

Israelis Must Make Decisions for Israel

avatar by Mitchell Bard


Houses are seen in the Israeli settlement of Itamar, near Nablus, in the West Bank, June 15, 2020. Photo: Reuters / Ronen Zvulun.

As the Israeli government nears a decision on whether to apply sovereignty over parts of the West Bank, some American Jews, pundits, politicians, and Middle East experts are saying that doing so will harm Israel’s interests. Many apparently believe that Israelis are unable to comprehend the consequences, but they do.

The concerns include:

  • Provoking a Palestinian uprising.
  • Damaging relations with Jordan and Egypt.
  • Jeopardizing the normalization of relations with the Gulf Arab states.
  • Aggravating relations with the European Union and facing sanctions.
  • Attracting condemnation from the United Nations.
  • Exacerbating tensions between Israeli and American Jews.
  • Giving ammunition to demonizers of Israel and supporters of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement.
  • Strengthening critics and angering friends within the Democratic Party.
  • Gaining recognition from Trump that might be reversed by a President Biden.

All of these are legitimate worries for Israel’s leaders. In the past, it was primarily Arabists in the US government who took the position that Israelis must be saved from themselves. Now some of Israel’s closest friends, including Democratic allies in Congress and their nominee for president, are speaking out against Israel taking unilateral action. The Trump administration, meanwhile, says that any Israeli action must be consistent with its peace proposal. Many Jews who traditionally defer to the Israeli government on matters of war and peace have joined the critics. And it is not just far-left Jews who are speaking out; moderate and even some conservative Jews have joined the chorus.

Meanwhile, none of the critics know yet what the government is going to do.

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Inaccurately referred to as annexation — a nation cannot annex land over which it already has sovereign claims — the government has not decided where it will apply Israeli sovereignty. One option is the Jordan Valley, which Israelis believe must be held for security reasons. A second is to choose some or all the “consensus” settlements, Jewish communities that even the Palestinians acknowledge will never be dismantled. A third option is to apply sovereignty to all the settlements, as provided in the Trump peace plan, and eliminate the possibility of any future withdrawal. A fourth option is some combination, most likely the Jordan Valley and the consensus settlements. A fifth is to put off action on the areas Israel expects to eventually annex and apply sovereignty to the rest of the settlements.

Israel has resisted annexing the territories because of the demographic dilemma of remaining a Jewish state and a democracy if it incorporates nearly three million Palestinians. The Trump plan solves the problem by allowing Israel to maximize its territory and minimize the number of Palestinians — approximately 100,000 — who Defense Minister Benny Gantz said will be granted “equal rights.” The rest of the Palestinians would live under Palestinian sovereignty in 70% of the West Bank.

Israelis have not lost their desire for peace, but they saw that after withdrawing from the Gaza Strip in 2005 the “land for peace” myth blew up with the first of the thousands of rockets fired from Gaza into Israel. Israelis are not prepared to make additional territorial concessions without ironclad guarantees a Palestinian state will not become a “Hamastan.”

In the recent election, roughly 80% of Israelis voted for parties that are believed to support the application of sovereignty. A May poll by the Israel Democracy Institute found that 58% agreed the move could lead to a third Intifada; nevertheless, 50% of the public supports applying Israeli sovereignty over parts of the West Bank, 25% support such a move with the US administration’s support, and an additional 25% would support it even without American backing. Just 31% of Israelis oppose extending sovereignty.

Israeli officials recognize that, given Trump’s support, this may be a once in a lifetime opportunity to strengthen their hold over territories they legitimately claim as their own. The biggest complaint from US critics is that doing so will threaten a two-state solution.

Two-state advocates envision Israel withdrawing from more than 90% of the West Bank and evacuating most settlements. Today, more than 460,000 Jews live in 131 communities in the West Bank. Nearly 30% live outside the “consensus” blocs, which means Israel would be expected to dismantle 93 settlements and evacuate roughly 140,000 people. This is not going to happen even if the Palestinians convinced Israelis they are willing to live in peace beside a Jewish state. The best, and perhaps only, chance for Palestinian statehood is for them to accept the Trump plan, which would give them a state in 70% of the West Bank without requiring Israel to remove a single Israeli citizen.

What do critics think will happen if Israel decides not to act?

When the Palestinians rejected Menachem Begin’s 1979 autonomy proposal fewer than 10,000 Jews lived in the West Bank. Instead of stopping the growth of settlements and starting down the road to statehood, the Palestinians chose the path of violence.

By the time the Oslo agreement was signed in 1993, the settler population had grown to 130,000. Instead of fulfilling their commitments, the Palestinians again resorted to violence and killed the peace process.

In 2000, Prime Minister Ehud Barak proposed dismantling most settlements, withdrawing from 97% of the West Bank, and establishing a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital. By this time, the settler population was 200,000. Arafat rejected the offer. In 2008, Mahmoud Abbas spurned a similar deal offered by Ehud Olmert, leaving 270,000 Jews in the West Bank.

Do the Palestinians or their supporters believe the possibility of a two-state solution will improve if the Palestinians hold out?

Israel’s leaders will make a decision that is in Israel’s best interest regardless of what Americans think, because they have learned over the years that no concessions they make to the Palestinians will be applauded or bring peace. And Israel is ultimately alone in defending itself.

Mitchell Bard is a foreign policy analyst and authority on US-Israel relations who has written and edited 22 books.

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