In light of developments over the last few years, there has been a growing realization in Israel that the chances of reaching a complete final status agreement with the Palestinians are presently extremely small. This is not just an ideological position coming out of certain quarters in Israel, but it is also the professional view of practitioners who have been involved in the political process itself.
Last June in an interview in Haaretz, Professor Itamar Rabinovich, Israel’s former ambassador to Washington and head negotiator with Syria, reached this very conclusion. He added, as part of his proof of this point, that “the bold proposals” by former prime ministers Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert were not even responded to by the Palestinians. Looking back on Olmert’s far-reaching proposals, Mahmoud Abbas himself told The Washington Post on May 29, 2009 that the gaps between the parties were just too wide.
There were other voices that reinforced this conclusion. At the end of 2009, Hussein Agha, who has advised Palestinian leaders over the last two decades, and Robert Malley, who was a member of President Clinton’s National Security Council also wrote in the New York Review of Books: “As currently defined and negotiated, a conflict-ending settlement is practically unachievable; even if signed it will not be implemented and even if implemented it will not be sustained.”
Events since that time have not made diplomatic movement any easier. What is called the “Arab Spring,” among other things led to the fall of President Mubarak, Abbas’ main regional source of support. Instead a Muslim Brotherhood regime came to power thereby and also strengthening Abbas’ Hamas rivals. Given the new regional realities that Israel was facing, even Rabinovich warned in Haaretz: “I would not advise entering into far-reaching territorial concessions in a situation of uncertainty.”
And yet there is new push underway to move forward with new negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians with the hope of concluding an agreement between them. Britain’s Foreign Secretary William Hague was just in Washington meeting with Secretary of State John Kerry where he called on the Obama administration “to inject the necessary momentum on this issue.” In December, he admitted in the House of Commons that he was consulting with the French and the Germans on how to put pressure on the U.S. to launch a new initiative. There was a diplomatic rumor in January that the Europeans wanted Kerry to put down on the table the parameters of a final settlement before Israel and the Palestinians, including a withdrawal to the 1967 lines.
Thus Israel finds itself in a paradoxical situation: just as international pressures are increasing for it to make new concessions in order to restart and advance the political process, there is a growing realization in Israel that the kind of final status agreement that the international community is hoping will be concluded is not about to happen. The Palestinian side knows this as well.
Moreover, there is a more fundamental question for Israel about how it should proceed in an era of total uncertainty about whether half the regimes that are currently in power in the Middle East will even be there in a few years. The Muslim Brotherhood, which even beyond Egypt is the main beneficiary of the Arab Spring, has been connected to plots against the governments of Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. Its revolutionary drive in the region is likely to gain new momentum should Islamist forces take control of Syria.
How exactly does the Arab Spring influence Israeli military-strategic considerations? Is Israeli caution warranted here as well? Some try to make the argument that the conventional military threat to Israel is undergoing a transformation allowing Israel to make the very sort of new concessions that the Europeans are demanding.
With neighboring armies, like that of Syria, involved in domestic upheavals, their conventional forces have been badly degraded. Would that mean that Israel can withdraw from territories that in the past were regarded as vital but whose importance may have changed? Historically, Israel based its security on a small standing army that had to neutralize the numerically superior standing forces of its Arab neighbors. To accomplish this goal, the IDF was structured around its reserve formations that would reach their full strength along Israel’s front lines after 48 hours of mobilization.
When Yigal Allon, Israel’s deputy prime minister and former commander of the Palmach, first presented his idea of defensible borders for Israel after the 1967 Six-Day War, it was partly based on the idea of providing Israel’s small standing army the topographical conditions it needed to withstand a surprise attack and fight against superior forces, until the reserve formations arrived. But if Israel no longer has to contend with this sort of threat, then could it pull out of the Jordan Valley, which previously every Israeli prime minister from Rabin to Sharon saw as Israel’s forward defense line?
This would be an irresponsible conclusion. First of all, the Arab states are likely to build up their conventional armies again in the future once their internal political situation becomes more stable; already Egypt has no problem seeking 200 additional Abrams tanks from the U.S., which will bolster the strength of its armored forces. Others will follow suit in the years ahead. After all, decisiveness in wars is still a function of the movement of ground armies, and their manoeuvring units, and not the employment of air power alone. America’s two wars against Iraq proved that point conclusively in 1991 and 2003.
Secondly, in the immediate term, there is a new ground threat to Israel from terrorist organizations, many of which have many of the attributes of a fully equipped army. In May 2011, former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates noted that Hezbollah had more rockets and missiles than most states. The lethality of terrorist organizations has also dramatically increased with their acquisition of shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles, shore-to ship missiles, and advanced explosives that are far more potent than anything they used before.
The growing capabilities of the international terrorist organizations in the Middle East has reached such a scale that they have even become challenging for the region’s regular armies. In Sinai, the Egyptian army fought regularly with al-Qaida in the area of Jabal Hilal, where an Egyptian general was killed in one battle. The Syrian Army has been repeatedly defeated by an al-Qaida affiliate in Syria, known as Jabhat al-Nusra, which has been equipped through Syria’s porous borders. In short, the Arab Spring has led to a different but no less challenging security environment for Israel that will affect how we view the question of our future boundaries in the future.
Third, it would be a dangerous error to dismiss the possibility that terrorist organizations will attempt to acquire weapons of mass destruction and use them against their adversaries. Hezbollah is an extension of the Iranian security establishment. Should Tehran be permitted to cross the nuclear threshold, it would be a cardinal error to simply dismiss the possibility that Hezbollah would not eventually get to share in this technology. Hezbollah would not need ballistic missiles; it could put a nuclear device in the same sort of truck it used against the Marine Barracks in Beirut during 1983 or against Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia in 1996.
Al-Qaida in Iraq already planned a chemical weapons attack in Amman, Jordan in 2004 that was thwarted. Should Syria’s chemical arsenal fall into the hands of the jihadist groups currently fighting the Assad regime, then unfortunately, non-conventional terror attacks may become more common against those who leave themselves vulnerable. Foreign Secretary Hague, who just warned on Feb. 14, during a speech at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London, about a new jihadist threat to Europe coming out of Syria should be the first one who understands the new position Israel finds itself in.
In the past, Israel was able to secure its borders with deterrence against neighboring states that were considering taking offensive action against it. But deterrence does not apply to these terrorist organizations in the same way, especially those that glorify martyrdom as a religious duty. Israel needs to have a physical barrier against the new threat of terrorist organizations so that it can neutralize their efforts to smuggle advanced weaponry and infiltrate Israel’s population centers. The stakes for Israel in not taking into account the impact of the changing terrorist threat on its need to maintain defensible borders could be disastrous.
Israel learned the hard way the significance of its withdrawal from the Philadephi Route between the Gaza Strip and Sinai, which led to a qualitative leap in the weaponry that Hamas could smuggle and eventually deploy. Before its 2005 disengagement from the Gaza Strip the only rocket that Hamas fired was the short-range Qassam.
By 2006, Hamas was using longer-range Grad rockets from Iran against Ashkelon for the first time and enlarging the arc of Israeli cities it could target. In 2012, that arc extended even further once Hamas was equipped with Iranian Fajr rockets that it fired at Tel Aviv. Hamas in Gaza also acquired shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles from Iran and later from Libya’s arsenal, after the fall of Gadhafi. In Oct. 2012, Hamas fired its first SA-7 against an Israeli helicopter.
Israel has three choices given the diplomatic reality that it faces. It can just give up and make the concessions that the Europeans are demanding that the Obama administration impose, but that would put the Israeli population in a precarious position that no responsible government could agree to. It can say that given the uncertainty it faces, now is not the time for any diplomatic initiatives.
But it could also indicate that it is willing to explore new ideas with the Palestinians, as long as its vital security interests are not undercut, but are fully protected instead. Both sides should seek to reach agreements where possible, leaving harder issues for later. Europe could play a positive role if it encouraged the Palestinians to reach more limited arrangements with Israel instead of insisting on the kind of Israeli concessions for final status agreement that did not lead to a peace treaty before and are unlikely to produce a stable peace today.
The result of all this talk coming out of Europe about getting the U.S. to impose a solution will be completely self-defeating as it hardens the Palestinian readiness to come to the negotiating table — since Israel will be delivered on a silver platter anyway — and makes any real diplomatic progress more difficult than ever.