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Guy Ziv: Growing number of Israelis and Palestinians giving up on pursuing independent Palestinian state

To hundreds of former senior Israeli security officials, a two-state solution is vital, he says

Editor’s Note: Guy Ziv is an assistant professor of international relations at American University’s School of International Service. He is the author of “Why Hawks Become Doves: Shimon Peres and Foreign Policy Change in Israel.” You can follow him @ZivGuy. The views expressed are his own.

CNN —  

Last week, Israel’s opposition leader, Zionist Union Chair Isaac Herzog, caused a stir in his party by arguing that right now, a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was not realistic.

In echoing the sentiments of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – the man he seeks to replace – the center-left leader was adopting a more hawkish position at a time when an increasing number of Israelis and Palestinians are giving up altogether on the idea of pursuing an independent Palestinian state.

At least one notable group of Israelis, however, does not count itself among the naysayers: veterans of the Israeli security establishment. To hundreds of former senior Israeli security officials, a two-state solution is not just possible, it’s vital.

With tensions between Israelis and Palestinians at an all-time high, and a “knife intifada” underway, Israeli-Palestinian peace seems farther away today than at any time in the past decade. There is also a growing concern that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ Palestinian Authority is on the brink of collapse, an event that would likely plunge the West Bank into chaos.

Guy Ziv
Tony Awad
Guy Ziv

To the ex-generals, the unrest stems from the lack of a diplomatic horizon. As they see it, Palestinian despair serves as a breeding ground for radicalization. In contrast, the establishment of a Palestinian state would give Palestinians hope for a better future, marginalize the radicals, and preserve Israel as a Jewish state.

The veterans are particularly concerned about studies by Israeli demographers, statisticians, and geographers that show Israel as on the cusp of losing its Jewish majority if it continues to hold onto the West Bank and East Jerusalem. They fear that the day is fast approaching when Israel will be forced to choose between its Jewish identity and its democracy.

Israel’s growing international isolation, meanwhile, is an additional concern that that the Israeli security community sees as adding to the urgency of a two-state deal.

Many of these security figures are members of the decades-old Peace and Security Association or the around a year-old Commanders for Israel’s Security, both non-partisan organizations composed of veterans of the IDF, Mossad, Shin Bet and the Israeli Police who advocate a two-state solution as a vital Israeli interest. Both groups have taken Netanyahu to task for his status quo orientation and lack of initiative with respect to peace diplomacy with the Palestinians.

Critics of the two-state solution point to the sheer number of settlers in the West Bank as rendering an independent Palestinian state no longer viable. The veterans concur that time is running out for a two-state solution, but believe that it is not too late.

Retired Brig.-Gen. Shlomo Brom, a senior research associate at the Institute for National Security Studies, the prestigious Israeli think tank affiliated with Tel Aviv University, argues that the issue is not the number of settlers, but how they are dispersed in the West Bank.

Brom told me that the vast majority of settlers live in urban settlements close to the Green Line, the demarcation lines established in the aftermath of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, rather than deep in the heart of the West Bank. He also noted that the majority of settlers are not ideological, but “settlers of convenience” – ultra-Orthodox, Russian Jews, and other financially-strapped families for whom government subsidies led them to live in the West Bank but who would “gladly leave” if compensated.

The ex-generals and former intelligence chiefs believe that even the most intractable sticking points, such as the fate of Jerusalem, are resolvable. Indeed, a number of them, including Brom, have endorsed the Geneva Initiative, a blueprint for a permanent status agreement between Israel and a future Palestinian state that was negotiated by senior Israeli and Palestinian officials.

Where there is less consensus in the security community concerns the question of whether Abbas is an appropriate partner for peace. In the past 15 years, the notion that there is “no peace partner” in the Palestinian camp has become an axiom for many Israelis, who recall that during the 2000 Camp David Summit, then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak was rebuffed by Yasser Arafat, Abbas’ predecessor, following the most generous offer ever made by an Israeli leader up until that point. Today, Netanyahu and his ministers routinely accuse Abbas of inciting violence, conveying the message that there is nobody on the Palestinian side with whom Israel can negotiate a deal.

Yoram Cohen, the current Shin Bet chief, has publicly contradicted Netanyahu’s claims about Abbas, as has Israel’s current head of Military Intelligence, Maj. General Herzl Halevi, who has pointed to Palestinian frustration and despair, rather than incitement, as the reason for the current wave of terrorism.

Nevertheless, Abbas is widely perceived as weak and perhaps incapable of delivering a deal. Consequently, some supporters of a two-state solution advocate constructive unilateral moves that will create the conditions necessary for such a solution. For example, former Shin Bet chief Ami Ayalon and retired Col. Gilead Sher of Blue White Future, another non-partisan organization that promotes a two-state solution, propose a series of unilateral steps like halting construction east of the barrier and relocating settlers from isolated settlements.

Other veterans of the security establishment are wary of unilateralism given Israel’s problematic experience with unilateral withdrawals from Lebanon and Gaza. Brom, for example, proposes limited steps, such as the transfer of additional territory in the West Bank to the Palestinians from Area C, which comprises roughly 60% of the West Bank territory that Israel controls.

The idea underlying these competing plans is to keep the two-state solution alive.

Of course, since the Israeli political establishment has shown no discernible interest in altering the status quo, this debate is a largely theoretical one for now. Yet the wave of violence, which has shown no sign of abating, demonstrates the failure of Netanyahu’s strategy of “managing the conflict.”

With Israelis and Palestinians turning their backs on the two-state solution, Israel’s top warriors and spymasters are facing their greatest challenge to date in trying to rescue what they see as the key to their nation’s long-term security. They will almost certainly need the assistance of President Obama’s successor – whoever he or she will be – to bring the two sides back to the table, if that is even an option next year.

The clock is ticking.

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