On Wednesday, I had the fortune to speak with Jonathan Daniels, senior policy advisor to Danny Danon. Danon is a member of Knesset in the governing Likud party, the deputy speaker of the Knesset under Reuven Rivlin, chairman of the Committee for Immigration, Absorption, and Diaspora Affairs, and chairman of the World Likud organization.
Danon has been one of the most outspoken critics of Prime Minister Netanyahu from within the Likud party and was an ardent opponent of the past settlement freeze in the West Bank. He has been recently ranked by the Mattot Arim organization as the third most effective promoter of the “nationalist camp” agenda in the Knesset in 2010. He is also heading one of the recently approved Knesset committees investigating international funding of leftist NGOs in Israel and foreign financing of Arab land purchases.
At the beginning of our interview, I asked Jonathan Daniels what he believes is Danon’s policy with respect to a Palestinian state. His response was quite clear: that there is no quick fix to the Palestinian situation and neither a Palestinian state nor “peace” can be forced upon Israel from the outside. Although the popular approach might be to proclaim that peace with the Palestinians is within reach and that a final agreement is possible in the near future, Danon does not believe this to be the case. Peace requires that Israel have a viable partner, and this will not happen until there is “a complete change in the way that Palestinians educate their children.” When Palestinians are taught that Israel is a hated enemy from their youth, one cannot expect that they will be willing to make peace. As such, “there is no point” to pushing through a peace agreement which will be meaningful only on paper.
There is a recognition that the Palestinian issue is one which requires resolution. The status quo is something which cannot be maintained forever. At the moment, however, the status quo in which Israel is the one in charge and Israel maintains a military presence in “so-called Palestinian land” is necessary for Israel’s security. At the end of the day, most people are talking about a two state solution. There are even some voices in the Likud like Reuven Rivlin and Tsipi Hotovely who believe in a one-state solution. For Danon, the answer is a three state solution: Israel, Egypt, and Jordan. Jordan itself, Daniels maintains, is a Palestinian state and one might expect in the future that Arab majority cities like Nablus/Shechem would be administered by that state.
In the meantime, Palestinians themselves are not interested in coexistence with Israel or Israelis. He pointed here to a recent visit he took with Danon and a number of other Israelis to Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus/Shechem. This is a tomb of a key figure in Jewish history which has been destroyed, defaced, and violated by the local Palestinians time and again. “From our perspective, if that was a burial site for any other religion, and Israelis were doing it, there would be global outrage.” This, he asserted, is another clear sign that Israel has no one with whom to make peace.
One should not then believe, however, that hawkish Israelis are incapable of making territorial concessions to opponents. Menachem Begin was perhaps the most hawkish Israeli prime minister and he made the biggest land concession of all: the whole of the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt. Here the peace has held and continues to hold. The difference is that in Egypt, it was apparent that Israel had a viable and reliable partner.
This he contrasted sharply to the 2005 Gaza Disengagement which he characterized as “the worst possible idea, the worst planning by Israel in the history of the State of Israel.” It is obvious, he asserted, that the disengagement accomplished nothing other than forcing Jews out of their homes, bringing qassam rockets closer to Israeli population centers, and surrendering land to a party like Hamas that does not deserve it. With regard to Gaza today, the situation is far from stable and requires continued Israeli pressure.
This would not involve the return of Jewish settlement, something that neither Danon nor the Israeli government is considering. Rather, pressure should be maintained through preserving Gaza’s isolation such that even allowing an opening to trade is a bad idea. With Gilad Shalit still in captivity, “unbelievable pressure” should be brought to bear on every citizen of Gaza until he is returned. If there is immense pressure, Daniels believes, the people of Gaza will force their leadership to return the kidnapped soldier.
With regard to the West Bank, Daniels asserts that “Judea and Samaria are essential for Israel’s security and it would be a deathtrap for the State of Israel to giving away any of this land.” The Jewish settlers who live there, Danon’s office believes, are pioneers and the true Zionists of today who must be actively supported by the state morally, financially, and with regard to their security. Regarding the past settlement freeze, this was the “worst kind of idea,” one which made Jewish residents of the West Bank like second class citizens in Israel. Instead of limiting their abilities to build and thrive, the state should be encouraging them and giving them grants to live there.
But what of the demographic argument, that Israel’s control of the West Bank will only ensure a Palestinian demographic majority and threaten Israel’s character as a Jewish and democratic state? The demographic issue, he maintains, can be looked at from either direction. While there are reports that suggest Israel is threatened demographically, there are also reports which demonstrate the opposite. Danon’s primary concern, then, is not demography but security.
If Israel were to withdraw from these lands, it would put the entire state at risk. Only nine miles wide at its narrowest point, a hostile state could cut Israel in half. With control of the hilltops surrounding the Tel Aviv area, it would only take one crazed guy with a missile to take out a plane flying in or out of Ben Gurion Airport to shut down tourism and international travel. “More than anything else, Yehuda and Shomron are absolutely essential for Israel’s security.” By giving this up, it puts the state at a huge risk and danger.
Of course, there is also the matter of “biblical rights,” that this land has been the Jewish people’s for thousands of years. Juxtaposed to Palestinian claims which reach back “70 or 80 years, this is a huge difference.” If this is true for the West Bank, it is even more true for Jerusalem. The city’s division is something which “should not even be brought up as a question.” No prime minister, Daniels insists, has even the right to discuss Jerusalem and no one in Israel has the right to give up any part of the city. “It is the heart of the Jewish people and what we were dream of for 2000 years in exile. Jerusalem is ours and must remain the absolute united capital of the Jewish people.”
But does Danon differentiate between different segments of the city: the west versus the east, the historical neighborhoods versus the new ones? Jerusalem, Daniels argues, is all these parts under debate. “It is Har Habayit and it is Sheikh Jarrah; it is east and it is west.” If any kind of peace deal was made which would divide the city, he believes the country would fall into civil unrest. The only good thing about the expulsion from Gush Katif was what is demonstrated about the land for peace argument. “When we give land, we get the opposite, we get rockets inside of Israel.” This is even more true with regard to Jerusalem and its division “would not be accepted by anybody.”
With regard to the Golan Heights, this is also our homeland and it is also about security. “Again, we are talking about giving away the Golan for peace, and it comes down to the same issues.” Withdrawal from the Golan is simply something not worth discussing now because there is absolutely no viable partner; it would just mean that next time there is an attack from the north, it would hit more cities in central Israel. Although the argument has been made that control of land is hardly useful in an era where enemy rocket attacks can strike almost anywhere in Israel, this is an argument which Daniels believes is used by the Left “to give away land for no particular reason.” Iron Dome technology might be useful to protect Israel against such attacks, but Israelis “should not be living in constant fear of such attacks” in the first place. His conclusion is that the whole notion of land for peace is flawed and changing borders should not be discussed.
Given the friction between Danon’s positions on a Palestinian state and territorial concessions and those publically advanced by the Prime Minister, I asked Daniels if he felt that Danon’s positions were in conflict with or in line with those of the Likud party. He responded that “Danny is by far one of the only members of Likud today who stands true to Likud’s roots and who stands with the beliefs of the party’s actual membership.” The issues Danon is pushing at the moment: investigation of NGOs receiving foreign funds, opposing a construction freeze on Jewish communities in the West Bank, and standing strong on security issues are all positions which resonate with Likud voters and leadership. Although there is certainly friction between Danon and Bibi, their relationship is underscored by a much more positive rapport that is rarely reported in the media as it is “less interesting.”
At the end of the day, Daniels insists that what one needs to remember is that Israelis have to do what is best for the State of Israel. Israel cannot be pushed into submission by anyone, enemy or ally. The whole issue of Judea and Samaria, Jerusalem, and the Golan is one of Israel’s security. To give away this land would put tens of thousands of Israeli lives at risk. Danon’s responsibility is first and foremost to Israelis and the Jewish people. While the United States is entitled as a close partner and ally to apply pressure here and there, Israel must ultimately do what is best for it and not America.
Ultimately, Daniels believes that the current American administration does not have a clue about how politics really operate in the Middle East. When Barack Obama argued that Israel should not be building in Gilo, a southern neighborhood of Jerusalem, an area which “is not really contested,” it was clear that he did not understand the conflict. Netanyahu has buckled to American pressure to some extent, however, one can look to Menachem Begin who faced down Jimmy Carter to understand that the Israeli leadership must be able to stand up for what is right. While the American leadership may challenge Israel, the American people support it.
As a quick summary and reflection on these points, I was struck by the extent to which security arguments permeated and dominated my discussion with Daniels. So emphatic were his security arguments that, with the exception of Jerusalem, all other common issues of demography, democracy, and even historical rights fell to the wayside. If his remarks are an indication of the current Likud approach, then, it would demonstrate that they are focused on the message that peace, however much desired, is simply impossible under current conditions. As such, territorial compromise as demanded by the international community would not meaningfully contribute to this effort.
Daniels acknowledges that this approach is not a long term solution, but it is supported by an argument of strategic stability. When opponents are unable to offer credible commitments to peace, contra Egypt in the late 1970s and early 1980s, concessions do not contribute to lessening uncertainty. Although other developments may continue apace such as Palestinian demographic growth or efforts by the PA to garner greater international sympathy and recognition, preserving the political and military status quo may stymie other developments on the ground, namely Iranian support for terrorism, freedom of movement and action for such groups, and Palestinian state institution building outside of those coordinated with Israel. While Israel may not win any international popularity contests through such measures, the logic goes that, at the very least, Israel can increase predictability of conditions on the ground.