A Strategy for Israel in the Changed Middle East

, August 2, 2011

Vol. 11, No. 11     August 2, 2011

A Strategy for Israel in the Changed Middle East

  • The options for Israel and the Palestinians basically can be boiled down to these: a permanent agreement, an interim agreement, a de facto interim agreement, and a situation of no agreement. The best possible option – a permanent agreement – is not operable at this time and is the least probable.
  • Since the leaderships of Israel and the Palestinians are faced with the reality of a no-solution situation, one in which a permanent solution is not workable, both sides will have to do what people often do in life – they settle for less, settle for something which is less permanent, less perfect. There will have to be an interim solution.
  • In the year 2000 I paid a clandestine visit to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, to what is called Solomon’s Stables, where I saw beautiful, 2,000-year-old columns. They do not exist anymore because they were destroyed by the Muslims, believing that if they destroyed the remnants of the Temple area, they would destroy Jewish rights there.
  • There can only be an ultimate reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians if there is a mutual acceptance of rights. I believe we have a right to Jericho, and they believe they have a right to Jaffa. I would say that if they recognize my right, I will recognize their right, and now let’s see how we can live together.
  • It is a mistake on our part to cringe every time the Palestinians say they are going to do something unilaterally. The end of all this might be a de facto dual unilateral process. After the UN vote in September, the PA will say that Israel is now an army of occupation in a sovereign state. Let them go to the International Court of Justice and, in the meantime, Israel will not cooperate. Israel needs a bit of stamina, strong nerves, and not to take them all that seriously. We should exercise more self-respect.

Identity in the Middle East

Many of the borders in the Middle East are straight lines, the result of negotiations between the colonial powers after World War I. Even to this day, the problem of whether or not there is a border between Lebanon and Syria is an open question.

In addition to states, there are non-state actors that are becoming important in the region like Hamas, which controls an area and a population in the southwestern part of what was formerly Mandatory Palestine, and Hizbullah, which controls an area in southern Lebanon and is also part of the Lebanese government. There is also the Kurdish province in the north of Iraq, where the Kurds enjoy a large measure of independence.

There are also tribal presences in countries which are key players in the Middle East. In the Arabian Peninsula, if you ask someone where they are from, they will first answer with the name of their city, then their tribe, then their religious stream – Sunni or Shiite – and finally their nationality. Identity in the Middle East does not begin with nationality, and this has far-reaching consequences. For instance, whether or not Libya remains a unified state will be decided by the tribes. One of the problems in the fighting there is that it has evolved into a tribal conflict, and it is very difficult to assess the power or the capabilities of a tribe. That is why so many countries appear to be slow in their response because they are not sure and do not want to end up on the losing side.

What is most important is not ideology but capability. In intelligence we have to deal with intentions and capabilities. What is going to count in the end is our capability, the Palestinians’ capability, the limits of their capability, the limits of our capability, and the limits of international capabilities.

There Is No Solution to the Arab-Israeli Conflict that Can Be Implemented

There is a new initiative being launched by a group of eminent Israelis that offers a blueprint not only for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but for the entire Middle East. But it is a solution which cannot be implemented by all the parties, regardless of their wishes. In the Arab-Israeli conflict, both parties are constrained by their capabilities. The problem is not simply what Prime Minister Netanyahu or President Abbas want to do, but what they can do. I do not believe it is in the realm of capability of either the prime minister of Israel or the president of the Palestinian Authority to implement a permanent solution to the conflict.

The prime minister of Israel is on record as being supportive of a two-state solution with a whole list of arrangements. This would entail, first and foremost, a massive Israeli population movement. I do not believe that it is in the capability of Israel today to effect a massive population movement. It could be that there is a large majority in Israel and the Palestinian Authority which supports this solution, but the degree of mistrust that the population in Israel has toward the intentions of the other side, and the degree of mistrust that the other side has toward the intentions of the Israeli side, preclude the implementation of such a permanent solution. Secondly, opinion in Israel is divided and at the moment there is not the kind of consensus which is necessary to bring about such a solution.

On the Palestinian side, not only is there no consensus, but there is no control of all the segments of Palestinian society or territory. Even if Mahmoud Abbas were to sign a peace agreement, his capability to implement it in Gaza would be questionable, to say the least.

Moreover, the time from the moment an agreement is signed until the final act of implementation will probably have to stretch over five or ten years. Assuming that there is a capability and a will on both sides to do this, nobody can guarantee that Mr. Netanyahu will be prime minister, and nobody can guarantee who will be the leader of Palestine. Israel has already had one such experience when it signed the Oslo Agreements, which were scheduled to take place over a span of five years. Over those five years, on the Palestinian side there was continuity. In Israel in that period of time there were three prime ministers, and normally leaders do not like to implement agreements reached by their predecessors.

Possible Options for the Future

We have ended a two-year effort in trying to map out what we call the future borders between Israel and the Palestinian Authority: principles, scenarios, and recommendations. The options for Israel and the Palestinians basically can be boiled down to these: a permanent agreement, an interim agreement, a de facto interim agreement, and a situation of no agreement. I think the best possible option – a permanent agreement – is not operable at this time and is the least probable. At the other end of the spectrum, the possibility that there will be no agreement is not desirable because it risks a situation unfolding in which the parties lose control of the scene.

Even during the Second Intifada, both sides maintained some control over the situation, although there were exceptions on both sides. I was head of the Mossad when the Second Intifada broke out in 2000. I did not believe then and I do not believe now that it was preplanned by Arafat. I think Arafat planned a series of reactions after the failure of the Camp David talks, but he did not believe that this would spin out of his control, which is what happened.

Israel overcame the main aspects of the intifada at crucial points. It essentially broke the back of the Palestinian resistance in the West Bank in Operation Defensive Shield in 2002. In addition, the defense establishment in Israel reached a conclusion that, for operational reasons which Prime Minister Sharon originally did not accept, it was not possible to maintain the necessary level of security in Israel without creating the security fence.

At the same time, there was a growing realization in the Palestinian Authority that there had to be a change, and they adopted a new constitution that created the post of prime minister in addition to that of president. Then Sharon decided on the unilateral disengagement from Gaza while Israel, by and large, maintained control in the West Bank.

If by the end of this year there is no tangible movement, based on some kind of understanding between Israel and the Palestinians, I believe that the Palestinian Authority may not survive if the statehood it promised does not materialize. There is the possibility that Israel will have to move in and take over control again, which is the least desirable of the options.

It is my view that in a situation in which the leaderships of Israel and the Palestinians are faced with the reality that we might be on the verge of a no-solution situation, and one in which a permanent solution is not workable, both sides will have to do what people often do in life – they settle for less, settle for something which is less permanent, less perfect. There will have to be an interim solution in places – like a state with interim borders. This is not something which is desirable, and it is a solution which the Palestinians are now rejecting, but they may have to face the situation ultimately and choose between no solution and second best.

The Advantages of Settling for Less

An interim solution is easier for each side to implement in part because each side can tell its constituency that it is not final. The Palestinians can say this is a step towards the ultimate. Israel can say that it is reversible, even if it is not entirely reversible. It is one step in the direction of maintaining the quality of the Jewish democratic system of government which we wish to maintain, in which the Jews are the majority of this country. This country was created ultimately to be the epitome and the expression of the Jewish People and Jewish nationalism, although we have an Arab minority which should have full rights. We did not fight the War of Independence in order to create a multinational state.

Jerusalem

Some of the more painful problems will be left for the future, including Jerusalem. I do not believe that it is possible to solve the problem of Jerusalem in a manner which either side can swallow. Israelis cannot and should not swallow the division of Jerusalem. But there are elements the Palestinians cannot swallow, such as our status and presence in some of the eastern parts of Jerusalem and our historic claim to a status on the Temple Mount. Even Prime Minister Ehud Barak would not give up Israeli claims to the Temple Mount. Everybody is talking about the Western Wall, but if we have rights to the Wall, a wall is part of a building, so we have a right to the building of which the Wall was a part.

In the year 2000 I paid a clandestine visit to the Temple Mount, to what is called Solomon’s Stables, where I saw beautiful, 2,000-year-old columns. They do not exist anymore because they were destroyed by the Muslims, believing that if they destroyed the remnants of the Temple area, they would destroy Jewish rights there. There can only be an ultimate reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians if there is a mutual acceptance of rights. I believe we have a right to Jericho, and they believe they have a right to Jaffa. I would say that if they recognize my right, I will recognize their right, and now let’s see how we can live together. There cannot be reconciliation if we must recognize their rights and they do not have to recognize our rights. Since this is not in the cards at the moment, I believe the only way forward is not to reach for the ultimate.

Delegitimization?

I do not think that Israel has a real problem of delegitimization and I believe that the legitimacy of Israel is not in question. I believe it is a mistake on the part of Israel to adopt the narrative of our enemies and to fight the war on their terms. If they question our legitimacy, I do not want to respond to their claim at all because Israel is legitimate from the day it became an independent state in 1948. It is legitimate because it was created as a result of a resolution of the UN General Assembly on November 29, 1947, and because Israel was accepted as the 59th member of the United Nations. Now there are almost 200 members and the majority of the states were accepted after Israel was accepted. There is today a vast majority of the states of the world that maintain relations with Israel.

I see no merit in appealing every day to Mr. Abbas to come to Jerusalem to talk to us. The first man who got up and said that Israel had committed genocide in Operation Cast Lead in Gaza was Mahmoud Abbas. The people who initiated the Goldstone Commission were the Palestinian Authority, not Hamas. In the morning they accused Israel of genocide and in the evening the PA called up and asked us to do something real to hurt Hamas.

The Upcoming UN Vote and Israeli Self-Respect

I think it is a mistake on our part to cringe every time the Palestinians say they are going to do something unilaterally. It could well be that the interim solution will be the result of two unilateral acts.

The end of all this might be a de facto dual unilateral process in which both sides will not end up on the 1967 borders. After the UN vote in September, the PA will say that Israel is now an army of occupation in a sovereign state. Let them go to the International Court of Justice and, in the meantime, Israel will not cooperate. They will wither in the sun. We need a bit of stamina, strong nerves, and not to take them all that seriously. We should exercise more self-respect.

Regarding the new Palestinian maneuver, Israel should say that this is a process which we believe is illegitimate and we will not be a party to it. Tell the UN that they can vote for it. We simply will not respond to it. We are very glad that the Palestinians after more than 60 years have decided to implement the UN resolution of 1947. As far as the borders are concerned, we go by UN Security Council Resolution 242. I cannot see American or UN troops moving into the West Bank to push Israel out of five or ten kilometers. 

Overcoming Iran

The ultimate way in which we can overcome Iran is not only by military means, but also by creating a viable network of states and actors in the region who will see the Iranians as a threat to them. Even if the Egyptian prime minister says that Egypt wants to repair its relations with Iran, Ahmadinijad is not going to be a very welcome figure in Cairo because the Shiite message is not one which the Sunni majority of Egyptians are going to like. It is not in the nature of things.

The U.S.: Still the Leader of the Free World

The United States is still the leader of the free world, a world which is perhaps a little less free than it was and the United States a little bit less of a leader, but nevertheless, we in the free world ultimately benefit from the fact that there is such a power in the world. We have a stake in the success of the United States and its policies.

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Efraim Halevy is currently Head of the Shasha Center for Strategic Studies at the Hebrew University. He served as National Security Advisor and Head of the National Security Council (2002-2003), Head of the Mossad – The Israel Secret Intelligence Service (1998-2002), and Israel Ambassador to the European Union (1996-1998). This Jerusalem Issue Brief is based on his presentation at the Institute for Contemporary Affairs of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs on April 7, 2011.

Efraim Halevy

Efraim Halevy is an Israeli intelligence expert. He was the ninth director of Mossad and the 4th head of the Israeli National Security Council.