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Israel’s Options (or lack of thereof) in a Chaotic Middle East

By Yossi Klein Halevi


Faced with a new Palestinian uprising, Israelis have shelved the idea of a two-state solution—and have found surprising new allies in a disintegrating Middle East.

 

Israeli settlers recently protested outside their biblically-based settlement of Kiryat Arba in the southern Shomron (West Bank) after a Palestinian attacker stabbed a woman to death at her home in the Otniel settlement in January.

 

(The Shomron was an ancient city of biblical Palestine in the northern part of the present-day so called West Bank. It was founded in the ninth century BC as the capital of the northern kingdom of Israel, also known as Samaria.  The Northern 10 Tribes of Israel were conquered by Sargon II in 722 BC and the First Temple of Solomon  was destroyed.  In the second century BCE. the Second Temple was  rebuilt by Herod the Great and that too destroyed in the Roman Conquest.  The Jews were deliberately forced from their own  biblical land in a Diaspora from which, now over 2000 years later, they are still attempting to recover.) jsk

 

From: Review Section of the Wall Street Journal
Feb. 27-28,  2016

The almost daily attacks tend to blur together, though several have become emblematic—like the stabbing murder of a mother of six in her home while her teenage daughter ran to protect her siblings. Still, by Israeli standards, the violence so far has been manageable. Israelis recall that in the early 2000s, when suicide bombers were targeting buses and cafes, almost as many victims would die in a single attack as have been murdered in the current wave of terror.

Until the first intifada, Israelis had tended to regard control of the territories won by Israel in the 1967 Six Day War as benign, bringing prosperity to the occupied as well as to the occupiers. As the intifada took hold, Israeli anger turned not only against the Palestinians but against the ruling Likud. There were antigovernment riots, and Likud Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir was widely ridiculed for his passivity and lack of vision.

 

Today, too, there is widespread disaffection with a Likud government’s response to stabbings. Some 70% of Israelis say that the government has been ineffectual, and nearly as many say they feel personally unsafe. Yet, unlike 1992, there are no antigovernment demonstrations, and few calls for a resumption of the moribund peace process. Indeed, a private poll recently commissioned by one of the parties in the coalition government reveals that only 4% of Israelis consider the peace process their highest priority—the lowest percentage for any major issue.

 

Few Israelis believe that a Palestinian state would be a peaceful neighbor. In part that’s because the Palestinian national movement—in both its supposedly moderate nationalist wing and its radical Islamist branch—continues to deny the very legitimacy of Israel. The Palestinian media repeat an almost daily message: The Jews are not a real people, they have no roots in this land and their entire history is a lie, from biblical Israel to the Holocaust.

 

The current wave of stabbings has been lauded not only by the Islamist Hamas but by the Palestinian Authority. “We bless every drop of blood that has been spilled for Jerusalem,” said Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas in September. “Every martyr will reach paradise.”
The result is profound disillusionment with the peace process across the Israeli political spectrum.

Most Israelis still support, at least in principle, a two-state solution. Many understand that the creation of a Palestinian state is an existential necessity for Israel, extricating it from a growing pariah status in the world at large, from the wrenching moral dilemmas of occupying another people, from a demographic threat that endangers Israel as both a Jewish and a democratic state.

But a majority also regards a Palestinian state as an existential threat. They know that it would place Tel Aviv and Ben Gurion Airport, the country’s main link with the world, in easy range of rocket attacks. A Palestinian state also could result in a Hamas takeover of the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Israelis sense that they have exhausted their political options toward the Palestinians. In the 1970s and ’80s, there was widespread enthusiasm for the expansion of Israeli settlements in the territories. Sooner or later, many Israelis believed, the Palestinians and the Arab world would accept this “Greater Israel”—a Jewish state including the West Bank and Gaza. But that dream was shattered in the first intifada of the late 1980s.

The violence followed Israeli offers to withdraw from most of the territories and to uproot dozens of settlements. Almost overnight, a once-vigorous Israeli left, which had assured the public that Israeli acceptance of a two-state solution would be reciprocated by Palestinian moderation, all but collapsed.

Finally, Israel tried a desperate third approach: unilateral withdrawal, dismantling Israel’s settlements and army bases from Gaza in 2005. Many Israelis saw that move as a test case for a future unilateral withdrawal in the West Bank. Ehud Olmert was elected prime minister in 2006 on the promise that he would do precisely that if there was no credible Palestinian partner.

But in the years following the withdrawal from Gaza, Hamas, which seized power there in 2007, fired thousands of rockets at Israeli communities along the southern border, all but destroying normal life there. Israel has since fought two wars in Gaza, trying to stop those attacks. The turmoil—and the vehement criticism around the world of Israel’s military actions, which Israelis overwhelmingly saw as self-defense—has convinced many unilateralists that repeating the process in the West Bank is simply too risky.

Today, Israelis have essentially embraced the status quo as the least terrifying option. The problem with the status quo, however, is that it isn’t static. The current terror campaign has, for the first time, included relatively large numbers of Palestinians from East Jerusalem who, unlike Palestinians in the West Bank, are able to freely travel in Israel. And radicalization is spreading even among Israel’s Arab citizens, a handful of whom have participated in terror attacks.

At the same time, settlement-building in the West Bank continues—though at a slower pace than in the past, according to the Peace Now Settlement Watch, an anti-occupation NGO. This did not deter the European Union from its recent decision to make a distinction in labeling between products made in settlements and those made in what it considers Israel proper—a move endorsed by the Obama administration.

Israel finds itself in perhaps the most frightening time since the weeks before the Six-Day War, when Arab armies massed on its borders and Arab leaders threatened to destroy the Jewish state. Terror enclaves now exist on most of Israel’s borders—Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, Islamic State on the Golan Heights and in Sinai, Hamas in Gaza. Tens of thousands of missiles are aimed at Israeli cities and are capable of reaching any point in Israel. Iran is emerging as the region’s dominant power, even as it remains on the nuclear threshold. And a growing international movement to boycott the Jewish state has deepened Israelis’ sense of siege.

And yet—precisely because of the Iranian threat against the Sunni world and of regional instability generally—the Arab world is opening up to Israel in unprecedented ways. Even with the Palestinian issue festering, Saudi Arabia has all but acknowledged a security dialogue with Israel, and Israeli officials are now being interviewed in Saudi media, which not long ago referred to Israel as the “Zionist entity,” refusing even to name the Jewish state.

Beyond the Arab world, an increasingly embattled Turkey is negotiating a rapprochement with the Jewish state. Turkey’s rival, Greece, once among the most vociferous pro-Palestinian voices in the European Union, has become one of Israel’s leading European allies, deepening military and economic ties and opposing the EU’s decision to mark West Bank settlement products—and this under a left-wing government.

In this bewildering new world, Israelis sense not just unprecedented threats but also opportunity. Mr. Netanyahu has suggested the possibility of a regional agreement between Israel and Arab countries that would bypass a dysfunctional Palestinian leadership and create some form of Palestinian state, with security arrangements negotiated between Israel and Arab leaders. But that’s a scenario for an uncertain future at best.

Mr. Halevi, a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, is the author of “Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation.” He is writing a book about the future of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

 

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