Conference: Israeli Sovereignty in Judea and Samaria

ribonut-yisrael-byosh

On Thursday, I attended a conference put on by the Women in Green in cooperation with Arutz 7Professors for a Strong Israel, and the Machpela Visitors’ Center in the Machpelah Visitors’ Center next to the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron. The conference was entitled “Regaining the Initiative: Applying Israeli Sovereignty Over Judea and Samaria” or in Hebrew: היוזמה בידינו: ריבונות ישראל ביהודה ושומרון, meaning “The Initiative is in our Hands: Israeli Sovereignty in Judea and Samaria.” 

The event was attended by hundreds of people from all around the country, largely of a religious demographic, to explore the idea of how and why formal Israeli sovereignty should be extended over the entire contested West Bank. Speakers included Ministers of Knesset Tsipi Hotovely (Likud) and Aryeh Eldad (Ichud Leumi), journalists Caroline Glick (Jerusalem Post) and Eran Bar-Tal (Makor Rishon), former diplomatic Consul to the United States Yoram Ettinger, and Professors Dr. Rafi Yisraeli, Dr. Yitzhak Klein, and Dr. Gabi Avital, and was moderated by Women In Green co-chairs Nadia Matar and Yehudit Katsover.

As the organizers asserted, “The purpose of the conference is to declare, again and again, that Eretz Israel is ours, and because it is ours, Israeli sovereignty is to be applied to it.” Although the underlying motivation for the extension of Israeli sovereignty among the speakers was certainly religious, cultural, and historical claims to the land, they focused on varying justifications beyond these including ensuring security for the state of Israel and preventing the rise of a “terrorist state”, improving the economic status of Jewish and Arab residents of the territories, clarifying and protecting the legal rights of residents, and preserving pioneering gains from settlement of the land.

It goes without saying that the vast majority of the participants and certainly the speakers were opposed to the idea of a Palestinian state if such a state were to be located in what was identified repeatedly as the biblical heartland and Jewish homeland. The most often articulated reason the speakers had for opposing such a state aside from such historical-cultural claims was the security threat it would pose to Israel. The most adamant of the speakers on this theme was Carolyn Glick who insisted that there existed only two options in the West Bank: the State of Israel or a State of Terror. Using the Israeli retreat from southern Lebanon and the disengagement from Gaza as examples, she argued that withdrawal is a statement of weakness which invites Arab violence.

This theme was reflected in the talk given by Professor Klein who shared recent public opinion data gathered by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs which shows that Israelis are increasingly reticent to withdraw from territories which are perceived to compromise Israeli security. Topping this list was the areas bordering the Ben Gurion Airport (90%) from which many fear terrorists would launch rocket attacks on airline traffic coming in and out of the country. This was followed by other strategic areas including areas bordering Route 443 (80%) and Ariel and western Samaria (78%) as well as Gush Etzion (75%), the Temple Mount excluding the Western Wall (75%), and even the conventionally suggested withdrawal from 95% of the West Bank (74%). This was followed by Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem (65%), the Jordan Rift Valley (65%), eastern Jerusalem excluding the Old City (65%), 50% of the West Bank (55%), and the Temple Mount under international control (44%).

Further on the question of security, the point was raised by Glick and MK Aryeh Eldad that if a “Tahir Square” occurs in Jordan, the current regime is likely to fall and in its place a predominantly Palestinian controlled government is likely to rise which may be home alternatively to a new failed terror state or a renew center of Palestinian nationalism and political power. With regard to the former point, it was suggested that such security instability of Israel’s eastern front simply negated the possibility of territorial withdraws in the near future. Likening it to the current situation in Gaza, speakers noted both the high potential for weapons smuggling into the West Bank and for the now largely-quiet territory becoming a base for rocket attacks and other terrorist attacks on the remainder of Israel.

To the latter point, several speakers suggested that this may actually help resolve the Palestinian dilemma in Israel’s favor. There is a popular trope among the Israeli right that “Jordan is Palestine” owing both to its majority Palestinian population (between 60-70%) and to the territory of Jordan comprising the eastern 77% of the originally designated British Mandate closed to Jewish settlement in 1922. Some on the Israeli far right would prefer to encourage Palestinian Arab emigration to Jordan (often termed “transfer”), a theme touched upon by both MK Eldad and Professor Avital Yisraeli as a means to ensure two-states for two-peoples without dividing the land currently controlled by Israel. Eldad in particular highlighted that should Palestinians achieve political power in Jordan, they may receive international diplomatic recognition there theoretically obviating the legitimacy of territorial sovereignty in the West Bank.

However, excepting Eldad, none of the speakers were particularly enthusiastic about a “transfer” solution to the conflict. Many were however keen to address the question of what Israel should do if it were to formally politically both the territories and their Arab populations. Yoram Ettinger here addressed the popular fear that Israeli is under demographic threat from a growing Arab population and apparently relatively shrinking Jewish one. Drawing from both his  research on this question as well as new data gathered by the Institute for Zionist Strategy, the trends in his estimation are actually in reverse favoring a sustained Jewish majority complimented by a falling Arab birthrate particularly in the West Bank. I would certainly encourage those who are unfamiliar with this debate in Israeli politics to read my interviews with both Ettinger and Professor Sergio DellaPergola for contending perspectives on the demographic question.

Demography aside, Carolyn Glick argued that the challenge of absorbing 1.5 to 2 million Palestinians even with some form of citizenship pales in comparison to the threats posed by the formation of a Palestinian state. Also insisted Professor Yisraeli, there is nothing which would require that Palestinians accept Israeli citizenship. Indeed, they as well as Israel’s northern and southern Bedouin Arab populations should be open to choose either to take no citizenship or take Jordanian citizenship to be politically represented in a solidly Arab state. Eldad too suggested that Palestinians and Israeli Arabs might be able to take foreign citizenships such that they might secure political representation without threatening the Jewish character of the Israeli state.

Observers external to this side of the debate may be quick to note several problems with this approach. First and foremost, although Jordan may have a Palestinian majority, it hardly represents Palestinian interests at home or abroad. Lacking significant changes in Jordanian political institutions, awarding Jordanian citizenship to Palestinians living in the territories controlled by Israel would amount merely to transferring responsibility of this population to another state in which they would be effectively politically powerless. Secondly, even if Jordan were to even symbolically represent their interests, it would be unable to guarantee their political rights on foreign soil. For this to work, some kind of confederation would have to be created between Israel and Jordan.

Although creative solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are welcome given the current political impasse, such a move would require a Jordanian partner. At present, however, Jordan is adamantly opposed to any political resolution in which Amman would take responsibility for the Palestinian polity. With a restive Palestinian majority already challenging the legitimacy of the Hashemite political dynasty, the justification for their hands-off approach is obvious. The only speaker to explicitly recognize this reality was MK Tsipi Hotovely. One of the youngest MKs for the governing Likud party, Hotovely has been a strong proponent for the extension of Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank, a vocal supporter of national religious agendas, and one of the more thoughtful voices in Knesset with regard to a future for Palestinian Arabs in Israel.

Like the other speakers, she ultimately believes that the Arab population of Israel, non-citizen Palestinians included, have three realistic political options: live in the country in peace, fight the country in war, or leave the country to pursue their lives elsewhere. Unlike the other speakers, however, it seems that she has given serious thought to what Israeli citizenship for Palestinians might mean both in terms of implementation and in terms of the contours of Israeli domestic politics.

Beginning with Ettinger’s premise that there is no pressing demographic threat, Hotovely believes that Israel should begin with a formal annexation of Area C in the West Bank, the area which has remained under complete Israeli control following the Oslo Accords. Accordingly, those 100,000 or so Palestinians who live in this area would also be given Israeli citizenship. Such a relatively small number would not be an undue challenge for Israel to absorb and it would give Israel the opportunity to experiment with the further integration of Palestinian Arabs before attempting to address the entire population of the West Bank.

So too should Israeli Arabs be expected to engage in some form of national service as is required of all Jewish Israelis. This would address what many particularly on the right see as a disjunction between the rights demanded by Palestinians (citizens or otherwise) and their lack of responsibilities vis-à-vis the state compared the country’s Jewish citizens. Argued Eran Bar-Tal, an economic analyst for Makor Rishon, extending Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank would also have the beneficial impact of raising property values for both Jewish and Arab Israelis. It would also open up largely underutilized land for housing development in the center of the country, where it is needed most and provide for greater commerce between Jewish and Arab sectors of Israeli society.

But what of the possibility that Israeli Arabs, even if not the majority, might organize politically to democratically challenge the Jewish character of the state? Here, Hotovely noted that Arab citizenship in Israel might be of a different character than the citizenship enjoyed by Jewish Israelis. Perhaps Arabs could be given broad communal autonomy or some form of local control which would give a measure of independent political authority aside from sway over the state. Such proposals have resonance with those of former Israeli Prime Ministers Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir who proposed that Palestinians be given political autonomy short of statehood obviating the need to divide a seemingly undividable land.

As a matter of academic curiousity, conferences such as these are certainly interesting, but what bearing if any do they have on mainstream Israeli politics? For those who demonize the State of Israel as a land-hungry colonial-imperial power (and there are no shortage of these people) the narratives explored above only confirm their estimation of the character of Israeli politics and society. However, for those who are familiar with Israeli political discourse, they will note that the two-state solution has, at least since the Oslo Accords, become deeply engrained in the mainstream as the only plausible solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. At the very least, the “2-for-2” solution remains the most strongly preferred outcome to the conflict although strong uncertainty pervades recent polls.

Drawing from my previous post, those who strongly reject territorial withdrawal from the West Bank under any circumstance represent just 21.9% of the Jewish population. While this is hardly an insignificant sliver, it does leave nearly 80% who are, to varying degrees, open (or at least not strongly opposed) to the possibility of some form of territorial withdrawal, particularly if Israel were to retain control over the major settlement blocs and the Palestinian Authority were to recognize Israel as the “State of the Jewish People.” Seen through this lens, it would seem that the voices explored here are a marginal minority in Israeli politics, largely represented by the small opposition party Ichud Leumi with 4 seats and the perhaps more moderate Habayit Hayehudi with 3 seats in government as well as a small “Land of Israel” faction in the governing Likud party.

To this there are at least two critical responses. The first and most obvious is that if one is to dismiss these voices, one too must dismiss those of the opposite extreme: Israelis eager to withdraw from the West Bank with little or no reservations or conditions. Among the Jewish sector, this group comprises no more than 10% of the population; less than half of that represented by the “hardline” position against withdrawal. If one is generous regarding Knesset representation, this perspective is represented by the socialist Hadash party with 4 seats, the liberal Meretz with 3, and tiny contingents from the Labour and Kadima parties. Although it is clear that these voices do not represent the Israeli mainstream, they are more often than not accepted, at least internationally, as legitimate and invaluable to understanding the contours of Israeli society. If those who endorse a full withdrawal without preconditions are worthy of serious consideration, than so too are those who oppose withdrawal under any condition.

The second and perhaps more relevant point is the one made by many of the speakers at the conference: the two-state solution was not always considered the political consensus solution and there is not reason it must remain so. In a time when Israeli uncertainty about its future relationship with the Palestinian Authority and the international community at large is greater than any time in the past three decades, the political environment may be ripe for a paradigm shift. This is not to say that formal annexation is likely to soon become the new political consensus. However, in the face of political deadlock and diplomatic unilateralism by the PA, annexation may be the only proactive alternative to acquiescence to the immediate rise of a Palestinian state.

If not recognition or annexation, the option remaining seems to be what Efraim Inbar has termed “muddling through”, preserving a shaky and increasingly unsustainable status quo. Unfortunately for all parties involved, the “status quo” has been anything but with Israel becomingly increasingly diplomatically isolated and the PA increasingly unilateral translating into a complete negotiation deadlock despite the expressed desire of both sides to return to the negotiating table. Radicals from all sectors of Israeli and Palestinian society have also been emboldened by the lack of diplomatic progress and are seeking to impose facts on the ground which contribute to rather than avoid conflict intractability.

Just as the PA establishment has grown increasingly impatient and threatened a unilateral declaration of independence or alternatively to dissolve the PA altogether should its bid fail, the Israeli mainstream may too begin fracturing along the lines of recognition or annexation. The Israeli left is preparing their contingency plans for the “day after” with their push for recognition of the unilateral Palestinian bid. This conference clearly represents a comparable push by the Israeli right to sway public opinion in their favor. Given a complete lack of enthusiasm by most Israelis for the establishment of a Palestinian state absent negotiations and lacking other credible options, some limited version of annexation may become increasingly palatable to a frustrated Israeli public. In preparing for such a possibility, serious analysts must take note of these voices.

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