[Updated Sept. 2021] INTRODUCTION: This article is a currently updated assessment of possibilities for a resolution to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians taking into account broader Jewish-Arab conflicts. As relevant events occur, this article will be updated to account for them.
Dramatic regional political changes over the past decade have seemingly lessened or even removed pressure from Israel to pursue a “two-state” solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the near future. The economic and strategic agreements signed between Israel and the UAE as well as Bahrain and strong relations with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Nations, and an increasing number of other Arab and African nations, have all but eliminated any threat against Israel coming from the Sunni Arab world and instead actually have shifted pressure onto the Palestinians to accept significant compromise with Israel or at least not to jeopardize the strategic cooperation that currently exists, in order to solidify what is a necessary anti-Iran alliance and to promote both political stability and economic development in the Sunni Arab world. Israel is now a more functional ally for Arab states than the United States, which has a wildly swinging foreign policy tending toward isolationism, or Russia, which doesn’t have the interest or ability to significantly engage, would be in a regional conflict.
While it may be true that there is now less pressure on Israel to make concessions in regard to the conflict, the primary impetus for the entire process remains in place, a desire to maintain Israel as a state providing security for the Jewish people in a broader Jewish cultural environment, while allowing those Palestinian Arabs who live in areas that are in territories that were under the control of Jordan or Egypt after 1948, to have the opportunity to live in a state of some kind of their own.
I specifically do not cite a “two-state” solution at this point, because there is neither a reasonable argument made that Gaza will necessarily have the same government as the rest of the Palestinian people, nor is it certain, or even necessarily possible, for either entity to have what would be considered traditional sovereignty, including full border control. Furthermore, it is now additionally in question whether or not the Northern West Bank, aka Samaria, with its political center in Ramallah, and the Southern West Back, aka Judea, with its political center in Hebron, will both be able to be controlled by the Palestinian Authority. Recent disputes between political elements in Hebron and the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah bring even a unified government of the West Bank into question. Currently, four political entities actually exist: Israel, Gaza, the Northern West Bank, and the Southern West Bank. Arguments about a “two-state” solution are often full of assumptions that are not reasonable in 2021.
The recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel by the United States, expressly leaving Jerusalem’s exact boundaries as a part of negotiations, does not truly alter the situation at all, nor have any UN or UNSC resolutions affected the situation, though weakening overall support for anti-Israel resolutions in the UN General Assembly may increase pressure on the Palestinians to compromise going forward. There are limited possible paths to a resolution that provides security and prosperity for Israel as a whole with safe and secure access to major Jewish holy sites in Jerusalem specifically.
The recognition of the Golan as part of Israel by the United States is also unlikely to affect the broader situation. For security reasons alone, prior to the Syrian Civil War, it would have been very problematic to consider returning the Golan Heights to Syria. Following the Syrian Civil War and with the increased presence of Hezballah and Iranian forces in Syria and Iraq, there is no reasonable argument to be made that Israel could risk returning the Golan Heights to Syrian control under any circumstances in the foreseeable future. US recognition was essentially the recognition that the discussion of that had realistically ended.
By the early 1990s, most Israelis realized that some form of separation between the Israeli and Palestinian populations was essential for the future well-being of Israel. Furthermore, it was understood that the most reasonable way to accomplish that goal was to promote the creation of some sort of Palestinian state. This has not changed. A significant majority of Israelis continue to hold this general view, but some specifics have changed
Most Israelis now believe that more stringent security measures must be put in place today than would have been considered essential in the year 2000, 2007, or even 2010. Events in Gaza since the year 2000 and events in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Iran since 2009, along with changes in the way terrorism is conducted, have dramatically changed the security requirements that Israel will require on the Jordanian border and for ongoing security requirements within the West Bank.
Most people now believe that Gaza and the West Bank will likely remain separate political entities to a significant extent going forward. The leadership of Gaza, Hamas, has been in a heated military conflict with Egypt for over a decade that in recent months has lessened somewhat but remains tense. In recent times, there has been little response among Fatah supporters when Hamas or Islamic Jihad have engaged Israel in Gaza. There is no assumption that the two sides should be supportive of one another.
Meanwhile Hamas would have to be removed from power before Egypt’s anti-Muslim Brotherhood government substantially improves relations with Gaza. In the meantime, claims of authority over Gaza by the Palestinian Authority are not based in the PA’s ability to govern there, but instead out of the belief that the West Bank and Gaza are remnants of a larger entity, Palestine, that should remain connected.
This narrative has necessitated solutions to the conflict for the Palestinians that do not prioritize the needs of the people of the West Bank as opposed to Gaza and at the same time result in harsh policies by the Palestinian Authority against the population of Gaza, such as shutting off their electricity, denying medical care, or cutting off funding generally. Realistically, we are now in a situation in which possibilities for improvement in Israeli relations with the Palestinians should be separated into two different sets of relations: Israel-Palestinian Authority and Israel-Gaza, with as noted above, the possibility that the Palestinian Authority itself will have to have separate relations with Gaza and with the Southern West Bank.
In regard to an achievable solution on the whole, however, what I originally proposed in 2014 largely remains what I would propose today. Some things that I suggested at that point in time might be necessary, now are unquestionably so.
A REASONABLE RESOLUTION:
The reality continues to be that what is possible for Israel to concede in regard to resolutions of the conflict is not enough for the Palestinian side to prioritize reaching an agreement over and above continuing to fight; and what is demanded by the Palestinian side is seen as more harmful by Israeli leaders than continuing to face violence and anti-Israel activism.
Israel’s improved relations with the Sunni Nationalist powers, especially after the Abrahamic Accords, and the BRIC nations, Brazil, Russia, India, and China (I left out South Africa on purpose), have resulted both in an improved likelihood in achieving a good solution for Israel and in a reduced need to try to do so.
This all said, the idea that there is an obvious solution to the conflict with generally agreed upon parameters that could be easily achieved misrepresents the reality. Here are five major issues:
- There is no solution that addresses the realities of Jerusalem that can please both sides and many possible solutions would result in nightmare scenarios for the future.
- While the “Right of Return” of Palestinian refugees to homes in Israel is almost certainly not a viable possibility, no alternative is likely to be politically, much less religiously, acceptable to Palestinians.
- There may have been discussions about “territorial swaps based on the 1967 lines,” but there are numerous problems that are obfuscated by that simple summation.
- Movement of people between Gaza and the West Bank may be necessary for Palestinian unity, but it is a security nightmare for both Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and more recently for Egypt and Jordan.
- Finally, Israeli control over the Jordanian border seems to be mandatory for the foreseeable future in order to meet the security concerns for Israel, Jordan, and a future Palestinian state in any form.
Let’s start by looking at the last of the five. International forces have all failed miserably to halt sectarian violence. Suggestions that any international force could step in and prevent Islamic militants from moving into the West Bank and causing problems for both the Palestinian Authority and Israel are laughable. International forces in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, the Sinai, Sudan and other places in the region have proven incompetent in maintaining security, preventing rearming of militant groups, or even in preventing major wars and genocides. This means that any agreement will necessarily have Israeli troops on the Jordanian border for a long time into the future and it will be unreasonable to set any final date by which that would be forced to end.
Movement between the northern and southern West Bank could be easily ensured, even if direct access between Jerusalem and the Dead Sea was maintained. However, with the level of militancy in Gaza at present, traffic between the two Palestinian territories will need to be closely monitored. There is no way that people could simply be allowed to travel through Israeli territory on their way to and from Gaza at this point. Remember that Egypt has regularly sealed off its own border with Gaza because of threats coming from Gaza and that Israel has fought multiple wars with militant groups based in Gaza. There are ways to substantially increase economic cooperation between the territories, but because of the weaponry available in Gaza, all shipments to Gaza and even from Gaza will need to be closely monitored for years going forward from a peace agreement. There are no easy resolutions to the situation in Gaza and many involve significant risk.
Because there are a significant number of Hamas supporters in the Southern West Bank, the Palestinians themselves have concerns about Hamas supporters living in the southern West Bank bringing their militancy to the north. There are also significant disputes among factions of Fatah. This is an internal Palestinian issue, but requires ongoing security support for the Palestinian Authority itself, so that it can maintain control in the West Bank, most of which comes from Israel’s security apparatus.
Regarding the Jordanian border, it is the case that Israeli control over the Jordanian border enables less stringent controls on the Israeli-West Bank border. Without Jordanian border control, more stringent security would need to be put in place on the internal border in light of terrorist threats. That in turn would severely harm economic interaction between the two nations and do grave harm to tourism within Palestinian areas, as it does now when border security is increased.
This certainly impacts the question of the nature of a “Palestinian State” that does not control its borders. Add to this that the Palestinian entity would also not control its water supply and would need to also be provided energy and you end up with a situation in which a Palestinian State would be dependent upon Israel for numerous essential things, from water and energy to business and tourism in addition to security.
It would reasonable to argue that the proper national status for such an entity is at best something similar to that of the Vatican in Italy. Interestingly, both the Vatican and the Palestinian Authority have Observer State status in the UN.
The Palestinians need enough territory and the proper kind of territory to form a viable state. The realistic idea at hand in the negotiations is not that the Palestinians are entitled to all of what was Jordanian occupied territory 1948-1967. The latter concept is an impediment to negotiations, for among other reasons, because it violates the most basic concept of the negotiations, that Israel must have secure borders after a peace agreement. Without them, future violence is ensured and any agreement that the two sides reach will not be worth the paper on which it is written. The 1967 lines were far from secure.
The Separation Barrier, with some possible exceptions, runs along the path that provides the necessary security against terrorism that Israel requires. Thus it is the current route of the Separation Barrier, not the 1967 lines, that is the most viable basis for negotiations. There are opportunities for that path to be altered during negotiations and some Israeli settlements may end up on the Palestinian side following such negotiations.
It is certainly the case that new settlements and outposts constructed on the Palestinian side of the barrier create new impediments to making any solution work for the Israelis, because it increases the cost of what would have to be yielded in a final status agreement, but those in existing Israeli settlements that would reasonably remain part of Israel, do not.
It is, of course, somewhat debatable as to what settlements fall into this category. The primary assumption must be that the Security Barrier, not the 1948 Armistice Lines, provides the most likely determining factor and one that changes over time as Israel’s needs change. Territory-based political divisions among Palestinians will make the idea of a homogenous territory less of an issue in negotiations and further weaken the argument for increased Israeli territorial concessions. It won’t matter as much to Gaza or the the Southern West Bank, where the boundaries of the Northern West Bank exactly fall, nor to the North, where those of the other entities fall. When there was a more unified Palestinian side, the boundaries of the Northern West Bank in relation to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv were more central issues.
Additionally, the idea of “territorial swaps” itself is problematic because it specifically implies two falsehoods. First, it implies that the Palestinians have a right to negotiate from a position that they never held, namely authoritative control over the West Bank, and that their claim to that much land, much less all of that specific land, is superior to Israel’s claim to it. While there may be public sentiment to that effect across much of the world, it is a legal fiction. Control of the land is an obviously essential characteristic of any valid claim to it. Legal control passed from the Ottomans to the British to Jordan to Israel with each in turn applying its control over the laws and population of the territory, demonstrating control.
Moreover, the concept of “territorial swaps” would involve trading one piece of land for another. Would the Palestinians really consider land near Gaza or abutting the southern West Bank as equivalent to neighborhoods around Jerusalem or in the Galilee? Of course not. Add in the problem that I noted above that the political entity in the North wouldn’t want to add land to the political entity in Gaza or the political entity in the South and this doesn’t even work within the Palestinian political dynamic in 2021. The presentation of this concept as a simple basis for negotiations is then flawed.
The Right of Return would seem to be the easiest of the problems to overcome. There is no way that Israel can bring in hundreds of thousands, much less several million, Palestinians and maintain the character of Israel as a Jewish state. Neither can Israel bring in hundreds of thousands of people hostile to its existence and not face civil war and strife. Note, with the current political situation, it is unlikely that Palestinian political entities would want to bring in large numbers of Palestinian refugees either, likely only choosing to bring in those whose skills are valuable or who bring with them substantial funds.
Reasonable alternatives to the Right of Return include restitution, but any financial settlement for properties would likely be far less than actual value today and would certainly not be preferable in many cases to ownership of the land. By way of comparison, Holocaust survivors have received millions of dollars in restitution for losses which at the time of the restitution agreement were worth well into the tens, if not hundreds, of billions of dollars.
Those who see the conflict as an Arab-Jewish one, rather than an Israeli-Palestinian one, might well insist that restitution be paid by Arab nations to the Jews whose properties they seized. They argue that the net result would be that Arab nations would be required to pay out more in restitution to the Jews than the Jewish state would to the Arabs. There will likely be a financial development package included in any deal, but much of the funds will come from nations other than Israel.
Finally, there is no resolution to the situation of Jerusalem that will please both sides and there are few solutions that will maintain the security of the city, its economic and civic viability, and access to its archaeological and holy sites for people of all faiths. Jews will be able to securely access the Old City of Jerusalem with its holy sites only if they remain under Israeli sovereignty.
Furthermore, there is no way to maintain security in the area of the holy basin specifically, the area centered on the Temple Mount, unless Israel controls the entire basin from the top of the hill of the Mount of Olives to the west. Neither is it possible for Silwan, to the south of the Temple Mount, to be under Palestinian control for the same reason. I would argue that the entirety of City-of-David-connected Silwan should be a nationally controlled archaeological park and a major tourist site, instead of being, as it is now, a privately enterprise, owned by the City of David Foundation, which has admittedly done a reasonable job overseeing one of the best tourist sites in Israel. The area between the northern access to the Temple mount and Hebrew University on Mount Scopus also must realistically remain under Israeli sovereignty or Hebrew University will be cut off from the rest of Jerusalem.
One could argue, and many do, that the neighborhood of Isawiya, northeast of Mount Scopus, could be put under Palestinian sovereignty along with areas to the southeast of Silwan such as Abu Dis. The area known as E1, between the large Jerusalem suburb of Malei Adumim and Mount Scopus, also abuts Abu Dis and is an obvious connector between the southern and the northern West Bank.
E1 is an area that would make sense to be included in the territory of each side, but to place it on either side of a barrier would create a major problem. If it is on the Palestinian side, Malei Adumim becomes an island, surrounded by Palestinian territory. No Israeli government could allow this. If E1 remains Israeli, someone traveling from Bethlehem to Ramallah through Abu Dis and Anata would have to travel at least ten additional miles to do so, going around Malei Adumim unless a road were constructed that allowed for travelers to cross from south to north through E1. Such a road or tunnel would become essential in such a scenario. Note that if the Northern and Southern West Bank become separate political entities, this separation will be less problematic, something that might impact developments in the years to come. Meanwhile, northern Jerusalem’s near suburbs like Ramat Shlomo are certain to remain on the Israeli side in any reasonable peace agreement.
What is holding up the possibility of any agreement in the near future is not willingness on the part of Israel to make concessions, but a willingness on the part of the Palestinian side to admit the reality of what I discussed above and to accept what are substantial compromises even from what was on the table in 2000. Right now, there is little expectation among the relevant actors, Israel, the Palestinian leadership, the Sunni Arab states, Europe, or the United States that anything can be done in the near future to advance a peace process, similar to 2000. In order to advance a peace process, America and European nations, as well as Arab nations, need to help the Palestinian side reach an understanding of a reasonable resolution that is viable under current circumstances. Things like recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital are actually steps in this direction.
Admittedly, once the Palestinians are in a position to agree to the necessary compromises, the make-up of the Israeli governing coalition will become more important in moving forward. With a final status agreement possible, the Israeli left would be much more willing to make necessary concessions to work with the Center Right of the political spectrum in order to help it become a reality and the Israeli electorate could well shift support to parties who would more strongly pursue an agreement.
We are now realistically looking at an undefined multi-state solution with Israel and Gaza as completely separate political entities and the West Bank as a semi-separate entity, possibly two semi-separate entitites, within the security control of Israel. I believe that it is time to think outside of the box and that those who continue to insist on full independence and full border control for the Palestinians in the West Bank are actually putting off the prospects of peace in the near future.
For the most part, Israel has already accepted a significant majority of what it can and must concede for peace, the remainder being largely centered on territorial concessions and access to Israel from the Palestinian political entities. The question at hand is really, “Will the Palestinian side choose to accept what is reasonably possible for Israel to offer at the negotiating table if it is offered?” The answer to that depends on which is more painful, accepting a peace they don’t like or continuing to fight a battle that cannot be won and at the cost of suffering and death in every generation and a future Palestinian state whose possible territory reduces with the advancing years under Israeli sovereignty. The idea that it is Israel instead which must concede would require a vast change in political, economic, and regional strategic circumstances that is extremely unlikely to take place and which itself would likely be due to circumstances that produced even more harm to the Palestinian side, such as a massive regional war in which Israel largely lost. Nations with influence, such as the United States, Russia, China, India, or European countries are not going to be willing to advance the Palestinian cause at the cost of weakening, much less destroying, their relations with Israel as a military and technological power.
At this point, efforts to improve the economic prospects of Palestinians in both areas, to increase the amount of territory under Palestinian Authority control in the West Bank, and to promote economic and strategic interaction and diplomatic normalization between Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and Arab nations are the most likely efforts to bear fruit, while benefiting all involved and are primary considerations of the Gulf nations involved in the Abrahamic Accords.
The reasons to go this route are manifold. Long term peace requires long term coexistence and cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank. Establishing that effectively going forward is vital to developing an environment conducive to negotiating the political aspects necessary to resolve the conflict. A number of additional issues affect possibilities for Gaza, many of which are not related to issues under Israel’s control, but to promote any sort of lasting peace there almost certainly requires that a well-established and stable peace between Israel and Palestinians in the West Bank precede it.