On January 19, at the annual Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) conference, the leader of Israel’s opposition and head of the Zionist Union party, Isaac Herzog, unveiled an alternative approach to the issue of Israel’s nearly 49-year old occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. It has some points that clearly distinguish his policy from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s. But it is short on detail, and includes some ideas that could make the situation even worse.
Upon examination, Herzog’s plan seems likely to garner support among the centrist, center-left and even parts of the center-right Israeli voter base. Given recent polls which show the Yesh Atid party garnering as many seats as Herzog’s Zionist Union and reflect more public confidence in Yair Lapid, the head of Yesh Atid, as a potential Prime Minister than Herzog, this plan must be read, at least in part, as an attempt to bolster Herzog’s position as opposition leader.
The main points of Herzog’s plan, as reported in the Israeli media, are these:
- While there is no current possibility for a two-state solution, Israel will not annul the possibility either diplomatically or geographically for the future
- Hamas will face “harsh” measures for any attacks from Gaza, including targeting their leaders, and eliminating their ability to communicate over television and internet.
- Israel will complete the security barrier around the major settlement blocs. “We will be here and you, Palestinians, will be there,” Herzog said. “Live your lives, improve your economy, create employment. The blocs under Israeli sovereignty will be part of the permanent solution. They will serve as recipients of settlers from outside the major blocs.”
- The barrier through Jerusalem will cut off Palestinian villages from the city. The Defense Ministry would be charged with granting permits to Palestinians who wish to enter the city to work.
- Palestinians would have full civil authority, but not security authority in the West Bank. This would, presumably, remove the regime of building permits in many Palestinian areas, but the Israeli military will remain present throughout the entire West Bank.
- Finally, Israel would help convene a regional security conference with “moderate” Arab states (like Saudi Arabia and Egypt, for example) to deal with ISIL and other regional security issues, presumably including Iran.
Politically, this is a shrewd plan for Herzog. The “us here, them there” idea harkens back to Yitzhak Rabin, who used that as a campaign slogan in 1992. More recently, former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert proposed a similar unilateral separation in the West Bank. This part of Herzog’s plan will probably be seen as a familiar, moderate and practical solution by many in Israel who don’t consider themselves part of the far right.
One major concern in Herzog’s proposal is the fact that he would complete the separation barrier in a manner which would cut most Palestinians off from Jerusalem. He makes no mention of the holy sites, but it seems safe to assume that his plan would provide Muslim and Christian Palestinians access to the sites in some manner. Still, with a barrier cutting Jerusalem off from nearby Palestinian towns, it will inevitably be even more difficult to gain that access, and in every other way, most Palestinians would be cut off from the city they envision as the future capital of their state. Herzog does not explain how he expects such an act to lead to greater quiet and security for Israeli Jews, but no matter—such an outcome is not conceivable given the rage that will ensue if Jerusalem is inaccessible to Palestinians.
Herzog’s plan has the benefit of removing the outlying settlements, which will not only eliminate some of the most radical settlements, it will remove many of them from close proximity to Palestinians, whom they often terrorize. Without any details, we cannot be certain, but it is possible that the removal of outlying settlements could lead to much greater freedom of movement for Palestinians. This is especially so if Herzog is serious when he urged, in his INSS speech, that Palestinians build their economy and communities.
But absorbing those settlers into the large settlement blocs will cause a significant spike in construction in those blocs. As I have detailed elsewhere, the blocs are already threatening the viability and contiguity of any potential Palestinian state, and this idea will make matters much worse.
While it is certainly true that most Israelis already see the large blocs (as well as the settlements in East Jerusalem) as part of Israel, the rest of the world, including the United States, as a matter of policy, does not, although it is seen as likely that the blocs will be annexed to Israel in a future agreement. Herzog’s plan would reinforce this fact on the ground, and would make it much harder for Palestinians to get the sort of negotiated land swap they would need to agree to the annexation. This is a running theme in Herzog’s proposal: Palestinian concerns are often glossed over and Palestinian input is not only invisible, it is seen as undesirable.
Recent Israeli history shows that unilateral actions like this do not bring peace, but instead entrench the conflict even more deeply. The lesson of Gaza is not, as many say, that Israel cannot withdraw from territory lest it face increased terrorism. Rather, it is that when Israel undermines moderate Palestinians with unilateral moves, it creates a power vacuum that is filled by more militant factions.
By simply taking the land it wants, Israel would undermine the basis for negotiating over borders between it and a Palestinian state. By cutting off Jerusalem, it would undermine the basis for negotiations for the city that both Israelis and Palestinians see as their capital. Herzog is proposing a change to the framework of any possible negotiations, and if the international community lets this happen, the notion of outside moderation of talks is lost. In fact, it would leave the Palestinians to choose between the meek acquiescence to Israeli diktats or the path of violence. Even an increasingly developed Palestinian economy, if that should also result from this plan, would not be enough to alter that equation.
Herzog’s idea that under such circumstances a regional security conference that includes Israel could possibly be convened only reflects how out of touch he is with political realities in the Middle East. In fact, this plan would make it impossible for any Arab state to upgrade its relations with Israel. And his approach to Gaza sounds more like bluster than a strategy, and certainly does nothing to address the miserable conditions Israel’s blockade of the Strip has created, conditions that much of Israel’s defense establishment has repeatedly urged be improved.
This plan has some points that might be worked with, but it is not, on balance, sound policy. It has little chance of achieving the quiet Herzog envisions; on the contrary, it is likely to further enflame the conflict.
Herzog’s plan, while preferable to Netanyahu’s status quo and certainly to the vision of those even farther to the right, falls well short of a structure that gives either Israel or the international community a framework to move toward an end to Israel’s occupation. Indeed, it seems more tailored for domestic political gains than for actually resolving the vexing problems Israel faces. That might help him push back against Lapid and Netanyahu, but the price would be further complicating diplomacy and the situation on the ground. That price is too high.