Speaking at a national security conference in Tel Aviv last month, Israeli opposition leader Isaac Herzog announced a new plan to “separate” from the Palestinians. Declaring a two-state solution unachievable in the foreseeable future, Herzog said that Israel should take a set of unilateral steps in the occupied West Bank and Jerusalem while still keeping the two-state option open for the future. Those steps include limiting settlement growth to the so-called “blocs,” expanding areas of Palestinian Authority political and economic control (while still retaining full Israeli security control), completing the security fence, and separating some Palestinian neighborhoods from Jerusalem.
In an analysis (which I encourage you to read) of Herzog’s plan as outlined in the speech, my colleague Mitchell Plitnick observed that it “seems more tailored for domestic political gains than for actually resolving the vexing problems Israel faces.” Mitchell concluded that while Herzog’s plan “has some points that might be worked with, 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 announcement caught a lot of people by surprise, including members of his own party. Hilik Bar, the Labor Party’s secretary general and head of the Knesset’s Two-State Caucus, was overheard slamming Herzog’s shift as a lame political maneuver. “If he [Herzog] is going to be a pathetic copy of [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu, the people will run from him,” Bar said.
Nevertheless, days later Herzog successfully managed to get Labor to endorse the plan, including Bar, who assented out of a stated interest in party unity. Shelly Yachimovich, Herzog’s predecessor and main rival for Labor leadership, pointedly refused to speak at the Labor gathering, and has stated her opposition to the plan. Yariv Oppenheimer, the head of Peace Now, also criticized the plan. “If we want mandates, we need to differentiate ourselves from the Likud,” he said. “Whoever copies Netanyahu will be irrelevant.”
My friend Michael Koplow, policy director of Israel Policy Forum, wrote of the plan that, while it has flaws, it’s better than nothing. “One can take the Netanyahu approach, which is to sit on one’s hands and do nothing, or one can try to advance an alternative that is highly suboptimal but that beats the status quo,” Koplow wrote. “I would rather see the latter option be tried rather than continuing to sacrifice the good on the altar of the perfect.”
I’m a big admirer of Michael’s work, but I think there are some problems with this. It’s really not the case that Netanyahu is “sitting on his hands and doing nothing.” As multiple U.S. administration officials have warned over the past few months, Netanyahu’s government has been doing a lot of things to shape the environment in the West Bank – none of them good. The occupation’s system of radical inequality has become even more entrenched, settlements continue to grow at a rapid clip, Palestinian lands continue to be expropriated and homes demolished, and the Palestinian Authority continues to be politically undermined and weakened to a point just short of collapse. This isn’t the absence of a plan from Netanyahu. This is the plan.
Koplow wrote that “Herzog’s measure can theoretically be a good initial step if it is done right,” and identifies a set of questions need to be answered: How are the settlement blocs defined? What steps will be taken to facilitate Palestinian economic growth? What exactly will this separation of Palestinian neighborhoods from Jerusalem look like? These are, of course, hugely important questions. Each of them is potentially politically explosive, for both Israelis and Palestinians. The fact that Herzog does not even address them affirms Plitnick’s (and Bar’s) argument that this is simply a political maneuver and not a serious policy alternative.
The problem is that even political maneuvers have consequences. The effect here is to remove any political pressure on Netanyahu by essentially affirming his diagnosis of the situation (and unfortunately adopting his racist language, which is particularly disappointing from a self-identified progressive like Herzog), and to reward the settlement movement for decades of law breaking, and incentivize even more, by legitimizing the blocs. Meanwhile, the plan offers nothing to arrest the decline of the Palestinian Authority and enable the Palestinian economic growth that is absolutely necessary for the security of both sides.
A number of left-leaning Israeli analysts have strongly criticized the plan. “Even politically, its unilateralism makes no sense,” wrote journalist Noam Sheizaf in +972 Magazine. ”All the difficult steps Israel refuses to take in negotiations — in order to build trust or as a temporary solution (such as a settlement construction freeze) — it is now supposed to implement without receiving anything in exchange, without anyone taking responsibility on the other side. In short: it’s unclear what Labor’s plan is supposed to achieve, since it is neither meant to be a permanent solution nor a temporary one. So why bother?”
“It is impossible to separate from the Palestinians without a Palestinian state. There cannot be a vacuum,” wrote Mikhael Manekin, executive director of the Israeli think tank Molad. “Either we (Israel) are the sovereign or the Palestinians are. If there is no Palestinian state, we will be forced to continue to dominate the territory (the airspace, imports, exports, currency, and other matters). In other words, we separate from the Palestinians, but we still keep our military reservists in the Territories.”
“The most problematic point in Herzog’s document,” Manekin concluded, “is that his worldview is identical to Netanyahu’s — ‘We will forever live by the sword.’ All we can do is buy time between one boxing round and another. It will never be possible to live a normal life in Israel. And the best we can aspire to is a better fence.”
Herzog’s plan is an alternative to Netanyahu’s only in the sense that smoking one pack of cigarettes a day is an alternative to smoking two. Sure, one is better than two, but you probably shouldn’t expect your doctor to congratulate you. Herzog’s plan, at least as currently outlined, leads us to the same place that Netanyahu’s does: Palestinians confined to what are essentially Bantustans, with nothing on the horizon to address the hopelessness that many, including Israeli security chiefs, have identified as a key driver of violence. It’s hard to imagine that this is a recipe for more security and stability rather than less.
Matthew Duss is the president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace. Previously, he was a policy analyst at the Center for American Progress, where his work focused on the Middle East and U.S. national security, and director of the Center’s Middle East Progress program.