On Monday, Israel’s leading think tank officially joined the chorus of those who are urging separation from the Palestinians as the only way to maintain Israel as Jewish, democratic and secure. The Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), led by former IDF intelligence chief Amos Yadlin, released a 121 page report warning of the dangers of Israel becoming a binational state and urging independent measures in the West Bank to improve conditions for Palestinians immediately and preserve the two-state option down the road. The proposal formally brings INSS in line with other military and security experts, most notably the 285 retired generals who comprise Commanders for Israel’s Security (CIS) and called for similar but more wide-ranging steps in 2016. It demonstrates that there is a hardening consensus about what Israel should be doing to safeguard its interests and what those interests actually are. The tragedy in this is that as more people are joining this consensus, the political messages emanating from the top in both Israel and the U.S. are pointing in entirely different directions.
As Yadlin pointed out in his public comments when presenting the report, Israelis are overwhelmingly in favor of separating from the Palestinians. It is not hard to discern why; they fundamentally understand that doing so is necessary to preserve Zionism as a democratic movement that upholds Jewish sovereignty in a Jewish homeland. This is an issue that unites people across the spectrum from left of center to right of center, and goes beyond more loaded terms such as peace process or two-state solution. Israelis are not quite sure what the final arrangement should look like, but they know that it should involve Israelis in one place and Palestinians in another, each free to run their own affairs independent of the other. The basic contours of this were laid out by CIS, and it is unsurprising that INSS experts landed on the same formula of continuing to build in the settlement blocs while freezing building beyond it, improving the Palestinian economy and freedom of movement in most of the West Bank, and not allowing a lack of negotiations to hamstring Israel’s ability to do anything.
INSS should be commended for standing up for Zionism not only as a specific political vision but also as an activist movement that does not allow others to hold Israel’s future hostage. Getting more prominent voices on board with this vision, including former IDF chiefs of staff Moshe Ya’alon, Gabi Ashkenazi, and Benny Gantz, will also serve to inoculate against attempts to falsely characterize what this vision and program entail. For instance, Jonathan Tobin incorrectly alleged last week that CIS generals calling for similar moves want to “withdraw from the West Bank as soon as possible, and view the Palestinians’ refusal to seriously negotiate or to accept past offers of statehood as irrelevant.” This despite the fact that the CIS and INSS plans do not call for the withdrawal of one soldier, the removal of one settler, or the dismantling of one brick from a settlement, and that both purposely advocate the measures they do precisely because they view negotiations with the Palestinians at the moment as a fruitless exercise. The more that prominent Israeli voices urge independent steps to preserve a two-state option, the less that single state proponents and annexationists will be able to engage in demagoguery and outright falsehoods.
While a consensus may be solidifying among Israelis, the problem is that two influential actors have still not bought into this vision, and are making Israel’s dilemma worse. On one side is President Trump, who insists on forcing the two sides together artificially in pursuit of “the ultimate deal,” regardless of the ramifications. On the other side is Prime Minister Netanyahu, whose actions in the West Bank indicate that he does not accept that preserving the two-state option should be of paramount concern. While neither Trump nor Netanyahu generally shows a proclivity for deferring to outside experts, in this case their contrary instincts are leading to disaster despite the warning signs that are flashing all over the place.
Trump’s desire to restart negotiations may lead to short and medium term problems – failed rounds of negotiations inevitably erode the trust between the two parties even further and lead to hardened and more extreme positions on both sides – but there is only so much damage that a policy of trying to restart negotiations can do. Netanyahu’s resistance to taking steps toward separation from the Palestinians and preserving a viable two-state option, however, falls into a completely different category. It is in Netanyahu’s power to doom the two-state option and permanently sandbag a separation agenda, and while he has so far prevented this from happening by shelving any annexation bills that have come before the Knesset, nobody should count on this continuing indefinitely. But even if Netanyahu is willing to stand with his finger in the dike, his refusal to acknowledge that Israeli foreign and security policy experts are correct in their diagnosis of what must be done now to effect an eventual separation will cause damage. The rhetoric on the right in Israel surrounding this issue already has a populist tinge, centering on a refrain that the same experts that created a mess in Gaza now want to replicate that mess in the West Bank. Never mind the fact that nobody is calling for a unilateral West Bank withdrawal; much as populism in the U.S. is often focused on the messengers rather than the message, the fact that Netanyahu is willing to ride a populist wave on this issue as expert opinion across the political spectrum is moving elsewhere is a recipe for cementing opposition to separation going forward.
The reason that INSS, CIS, and other people and institutions who best understand Israel’s security situation advocate similar paths to avoid the morass ahead is because it is a cautious policy that minimizes risks and learns from previous mistakes. Were the Israeli government to get on board as well, there would be an opportunity to set Israel on a more sustainable course that will require less drastic measures in the future.