Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told a Japanese newspaper last week: “I don’t think the status quo is desirable, I don’t want it and I’m engaging in consultations with my own coalition partners and with others, to see if we have other alternatives … because I don’t want a binational state.”
This statement plays into a debate brewing in Israel, after the recent suspension of final status talks with the Palestinians fuelled doubts as to whether a negotiated two-state solution is really viable. The forebodings of the naysayers appear justified: the gaps are too big; the internal political challenges too great; the distrust too deep.
For those who believe a two-state solution is vital to Israel’s future, it would be easy to despair. There is a danger of a vacuum which could be filled by some bad ideas, including that “time has run out” for a two-state solution.
US and Israeli officials stress that it is too soon to declare the process over. But if it proves impossible to revive the talks, Israel will face two paths. One is to maintain, more or less, the status quo. Netanyahu’s door would remain open to Palestinians that recognise Israel, but otherwise, Israel would muddle on.
But bubbling up from Israeli thinktank seminars and commentator’s desks is an alternative. This approach has various versions, but they are increasingly collected under a single label: “Plan B”.
Plan B advocates say there is no status quo. Growth in outlying settlements works against the goal of a separation into two states, while the on-going occupation erodes Israel’s international position. Their proposal is to secure Israel’s future as a legitimate democratic state with a clear Jewish majority by unilat-erally drawing a border in the West Bank, and gradually withdrawing from the more isolated settlements in areas Israel cannot expect to keep under a two-state deal.
The idea that Israel would give up territory without a conflict-ending agreement may seem far-fetched. But it is just nine years since the implementation of Ariel Sharon’s plan unilaterally to evacuate all Gaza settlements and four from the northern West Bank.
This was a transformational and largely unexpected event in Israel, made possible by the realisation of more pragmatic elements of the Likud that their two ideological pillars – commitment to maintaining all Eretz Yisrael, and commitment to a liberal, democratic, Jewish state – were no longer compatible. With the combined Arab population in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip approaching parity with the Jewish population it was clear Israel could have the greater land of Israel, or a Jewish majority, but not both.
But three events in 2006 struck hammer blows to Israeli unilateralism. First came the election of Hamas, allowing for its eventual takeover in Gaza. Next, a surge in rockets from Hamas and other Iranian-backed groups in Gaza. Then came the second Lebanon war against Iranian-backed Hizbollah, which had entrenched itself in south Lebanon following Israel’s withdrawal in 2000. The warning of the opponents of disengagement, not least Benjamin Netanyahu, seemed justified: when Israel just gets out, Iran just gets in. Or as David Makovsky put it: “If you didn’t like the book in Gaza, why would you see the movie in the West Bank?” Since 2006, Israeli unilateralism has been a policy gathering dust in a corner, too toxic for politicians to touch.
But things are changing. The logic that drove disengagement has not gone away. Israel’s Jewish and democratic future depends on partition, but an agreement with the Palestinians looks unobtainable.
What’s more, the Palestinians seem to have a set of attractive alternatives to negotiations — their own Plan B — to internationalise the conflict by gaining state membership of international institutions without having to compromise with Israel, and using those institutions to isolate Israel.
Some on the Israeli left claim that Plan B is premature. They argue, along with Palestinian negotiators, that Israel has not seriously tried Plan A and given negotiations a real chance. The continued Israeli settlement development that has been so disruptive to negotiations has certainly fuelled this claim. Meanwhile some on the Israeli right propose other options, suggesting either “stay as we are”, annexing all the settlements, or even the whole West Bank.
Plan B advocates draw different conclusions. They believe Israel needs an internationally acceptable two- state solution, but that there is currently no deal Israel can offer that the Palestinians will accept. According to the director of the Institute for National Security Studies, Amos Yadlin: “The Palestinians have to agree that the conflict has ended, without further claims, that the right of return will only be to their state and that Israel’s security needs in the West Bank will be met. Abu Mazen has rejected these three demands.”
Plan B supporters expect the PA will continue to say “no” because their own Plan B is much more appealing than compromising on these core issues. In the short run it may be international isolation of Israel and diplomatic recognition for Palestine. But in the long run the Palestinians threaten to seek a single state with an Arab majority, with an internationally-backed campaign like that which overwhelmed apartheid South Africa. With such a promising array of alternatives to a negotiated agreement, it is hard to imagine the Palestinians making painful compromises.
For Plan B advocates, unilateral withdrawal is Israel’s strategic answer: reversing the trend on the ground which is making separation into two states harder, and stopping the diplomatic rot by gaining international support for an Israeli move.
The list of supporters is growing. The unilateralist flame had been kept alive by the Reut Institute, led by former Israeli negotiator Gidi Grinstein. Ami Ayalon, a former head of Israel’s Shin Bet internal security agency, picked up the baton and established “Blue White Future” in 2012. Then in late 2012 Ehud Barak told the Israel Hayom newspaper: “It would be best to reach an agreement with the Palestinians, but barring that, practical steps must be taken to begin the separation.”
Next, and perhaps most significantly, in 2013 the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) threw its weight firmly behind Plan B. They stressed that Israel should make a generous offer to the Palestinians, but that without a deal it should act “in co-ordination with the international community to shape the borders of the country.” Their hope, in part, is that Israel’s Plan B would crowd out the Palestinian Plan B in the international arena, and force the Palestinians back to negotiations.
INSS is the biggest fish in the small pond of Israeli strategic thinktanks. Staffed by senior ex-generals and diplomats it has been described as the Israeli House of Lords. In the public debate, Israeli unilateralism is back.
Nonetheless, it is a very long way from the coffee-stained desk of the wonks and ex-officials to the hard varnished oak of the cabinet table. Netanyahu was a leading opponent of the Gaza disengagement. But something is changing with Netanyahu also. When explaining his agenda for the peace talks last July he identified two goals: “Preventing the creation of a bi-national state … that would endanger the future of the Jewish state and preventing the establishment of an additional Iranian-sponsored terrorist state on Israel’s borders, which would endanger us no less.”
Only in the last 18 months has Netanyahu referred to the bi-national state as a threat to Israel on a par with Iranian-backed terror. The idea that separating from the Palestinians is an Israeli imperative is the logical starting point for Plan B, if an agreement proves impossible.
According to US envoy Martin Indyk, Netanyahu’s pursuit of a two-state deal was not idle talk. In intensive talks with the US: “He moved. He showed flexibility. We had him, I think, by the end of that process, in the zone of a possible agreement.”
Sharon’s disengagement plan ultimately broke the Likud. Reviving unilateralism today would require no less. The public too, would take convincing. Any politician willing to grasp the nettle will have to make the case that the internal turmoil and security risks inherent in giving up territory without an agreement, are justified by a more abstract promise; securing Israel’s long-term legitimacy as a Jewish and democratic state.