Labor leader Buji Herzog did something unusual this week for a man who leads Israel’s traditionally largest party on the left. He got the party of Yitzhak Rabin and Oslo, of Ehud Barak and Camp David, to temporarily throw in the towel on the peace process and negotiations, and to embrace unilateral separation from the Palestinians instead. Herzog’s plan calls for Israel to freeze all building outside the settlement blocs, retain the blocs, and complete the security fence in order to establish a provisional border; convert parts of Area C to Area B, thereby transferring administrative control to the Palestinian Authority; and separating Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem from the Jerusalem municipality. The plan is predicated on the principle that a two-state vision is currently impossible to implement under the framework of permanent status negotiations, and that the only path forward is to preserve the two-state vision while doing everything possible to separate from the Palestinians until the environment is more conducive to negotiations. As someone who wrote with Jordan Hirsch in Foreign Affairs in August 2014 that Israel should unilaterally pull out of the West Bank and kill the peace process in order to save the two-state solution, Herzog’s general approach here is one that I favor.
But the plan has many vocal critics who raise valid concerns. Within Labor itself, former Labor leader Shelley Yachimovich has come out against it and is likely to use opposition to the plan as a springboard to challenge Herzog for the party leadership. While Yachimovich is motivated as much by politics as anything else, other critics on the left have pointed to specific aspects of the plan that they contend will cut off Palestinians from the Old City of Jerusalem, or make it harder for the Palestinians to get the land swaps they want in return for Israel annexing the blocs, or doom the two-state solution by abandoning it and empowering the current government. What much of this boils down to is opposition to Herzog’s attempts at triangulation; ditching the formula of permanent status negotiations, which is the only way of arriving at a fair and equitable solution for all sides, in favor of a stopgap strategy that will make some things better and other things worse but certainly prioritize Israel’s interests at the Palestinians’ expense.
These arguments carry a lot of weight. Any temporary measure that ends up making the situation in Jerusalem worse or turns into a permanent land grab is ultimately not sustainable. Nevertheless, I think Herzog’s measure can theoretically be a good initial step if it is done right. In order to do it right, it will also have to incorporate three Ds – define, develop, and defend. Without these, its critics are correct that it will only establish facts on the ground without moving the two sides closer to a sustainable and permanent solution.
Any plan that effectively prioritizes the settlement blocs while freezing settlement activity outside of them can only work if the blocs are defined. Everyone throws the term “blocs” around as if they constitute an agreed-upon area, but it means different things to different people. The blocs that Israel will keep in any permanent status negotiation need to be identified definitively; for instance, including the Etzion bloc as part of Israel is an easy one, but Ariel juts much farther out into the West Bank, so does a settlement freeze outside the blocs include or exclude Ariel? Furthermore, once it is settled just which blocs we are talking about, the precise borders of each bloc need to be delineated so that they don’t keep on expanding and swallow up more of the land that will go to an eventual Palestinian state. Without defining the blocs, calling for a settlement freeze outside of them is an empty gesture.
Separating from the Palestinians without a plan to develop the West Bank is another necessary condition for the success of a unilateral strategy. Herzog hints at this through his recommendation to enlarge Area B at the expense of Area C, but it can’t simply be foisting more responsibility on the Palestinian Authority and then dusting off your hands. It must also include exponential expansion of the building permits granted to Palestinians in Area C – of which only one was granted in all of 2014 – while eliminating the absurd amounts of red tape that cause goods for Palestinian towns to languish in Israeli ports (such as pipes for the new reservoir that is supposed to supply Bethlehem with water). Without building up the West Bank economy and actually giving it a chance to flourish, separation will do nothing but create a boiling cauldron on the Palestinian side of the fence.
Finally and most crucially, for any unilateral separation to eventually result in a genuine two-state outcome, defense of Israel and security issues must be addressed. The reason that Bibi Netanyahu wins election after election is because, irrespective of anything else that goes on, he has his pulse on Israelis’ psyches and the genuine fear that has dominated Israeli life since the Second Intifada. Israelis are not willing to play games with security, and no Israeli government will ever be party to the creation of a Palestinian state unless and until Israelis feel assured that the West Bank will not present a permanent security threat. This means that if unilateral separation is supposed to move Israel toward two states while waiting for a more opportune moment to resume negotiations – and I don’t doubt that this is Herzog’s wish and intention – then there must be continued coordination with the PA security forces, a robust plan for how to secure the Jordan Valley, and a mechanism for correcting the currently wholly inadequate Palestinian police coverage in Areas A and B. Defending Israelis’ daily security and providing them with a sense of calm in the aftermath of any unilateral separation is the only way to build enough trust in laying the groundwork on the Israeli side for a negotiated solution in the future.
When thinking about two states, a common mistake is to conflate the peace process with the two-state solution. Tom Friedman committed this cardinal error just yesterday, writing that because the peace process is dead, the two-state solution dies with it. They aren’t the same thing. The peace process is the perfect ideal, while the two-state solution is a good result. Any viable plan has to take the politics of the moment into account, and the politics of the moment clearly dictate that pushing negotiations on two unwilling parties is an unmitigated disaster. One can take the Netanyahu approach, which is to sit on one’s hands and do nothing, or one can try to advance an alternative that is highly suboptimal but that beats the status quo. I would rather see the latter option be tried rather than continuing to sacrifice the good on the altar of the perfect.