On Sunday night, at a high-profile conference, Benjamin Netanyahu delivered what was essentially his “Bar-Ilan 3″ speech – a foreign policy address that outlined his government’s policy regarding the conflict with the Palestinians. But while other speakers at the conference put forth new ideas on how to break the impasse in the peace process, the prime minister, despite stating his commitment to a two-state solution, announced a set of policies that would make such a solution even harder to achieve.
The conference, held by the Institute for National Security Studies and titled “In the Absence of Progress toward a Final Status Agreement: Options for Israel,” was the ideal venue for Netanyahu to lay down a new vision for the future now that the US-brokered peace talks have collapsed and a Palestinian unity government has been established. He utilized it to announce the construction of a security fence on Israel’s border with Jordan, and to insist that the IDF must maintain overall security responsibility for the entire West Bank in the foreseeable future. Rather than explaining how he intends to implement his first Bar-Ilan speech of 2009, in which he envisaged the creation of a Palestinian state, he fueled the right wing’s hopes that there will never be a Palestinian state between the river and the sea.
Before Netanyahu took the podium at the prestigious think thank in Tel Aviv, its director, retired general Amos Yadlin, a former military intelligence chief, laid out his Plan B, to be implemented in the likely scenario that Israeli and Palestinian leaders fail to bridge their gaps and sign a peace agreement. He called for Israeli “redeployment” — in other words, a unilateral withdrawal from most of the West Bank that could facilitate, if not the end of the conflict, at least a two-state reality that would forestall the binational state scenario.
If Jerusalem finds that it has no Palestinian partner with which to sign an accord, “Israel will initiate a long-term program to independently draw Israel’s borders in coordination with its allies,” Yadlin suggested. “This program will signal the state’s willingness to relinquish sovereignty over 80 to 90 percent of the West Bank, a willingness that will be also be exercised on the ground.” Israel’s new borders would be based on the security fence in the West Bank, but the Jordan Valley and the entire city of Jerusalem should remain under Israeli sovereignty, Yadlin recommended.
“Israel needs to have an alternative plan, because we don’t want to remain with the status quo,” Yadlin continued. He didn’t fear the current state of affairs in Israel and the West Bank as much as others in the international community did, he clarified. But, he cautioned, “if managed unwisely,” the status quo will harm Israel in the long run, causing delegitimization, boycotts, economic woes and eventually a one-state solution that would spell the end to Israel’s Jewish and democratic character.
“As we’ve always done in the history of Zionism, we need to take the initiative, to move on to a proactive policy, to stop buying time and to start enacting a policy that will benefit us,” Yadlin said. An Israeli “redeployment” would be no gift to the Palestinians, the veteran military analyst asserted, but would ultimately serve Israel’s interest.
To be sure, the idea that Israelis need to take their destiny in their own hands and unilaterally withdraw from large parts of the West Bank has been gaining traction for months now. It has many supporters, including former close advisers to Netanyahu such as Yoaz Hendel and Michael Oren.
Yadlin himself has spoken about his Plan B several times in the past, yet never in quite so prominent a venue: a half-day conference keynoted by the prime minister. In between Yadlin’s presentation and Netanyahu’s speech, a panel comprising prominent Israeli lawmakers from various parties discussed a possible Israeli withdrawal, and alternatives to it, wondering whether the prime minister would pick up the gauntlet and offer something new on the future of Israeli-Palestinian relations.
But Yadlin and others who hoped that Netanyahu would agree that Israel needs to proactively shape its own borders were disappointed. The prime minister spoke for 25 minutes, and delivered headlines by calling for an independent Kurdistan, but there was nary a word about how Israel could draw closer to implementing the two-state solution he himself has in the past endorsed as a key policy point.
Declaring that “the forces of fanatical Islam” — in the form of Sunni ISIL militants in Iraq and Syria, as well as Iran — “are already knocking on our door,” the prime minister called for the construction of “a security fence on our eastern border, and to build it gradually all the way from Eilat to merge with the security fence that we’ve been building over the last two years in the Golan Heights.”
Such a plan implicitly suggests that the Jordan River would become Israel’s eastern border, and it leaves little room for an independent Palestine, a senior Israeli official acknowledged in a private conversation. Whether intended or not, erecting a border fence always signals a state’s intention to draw a final border, the official said. It certainly won’t bring Israel closer to a negotiated two-state solution, since the Palestinians have insisted that even if short-term security arrangements keep the Jordan Valley out of their hands for a limited time, they eventually expect to be granted control of the border with Jordan.
Another senior government official, however, rejected this assessment. “The political border between us and the Palestinians will be determined in the negotiating room. But what the prime minister made clear last night is that Israel’s will have a security presence on the Jordan River,” the official said. Jerusalem’s plans to construct the fence along Israel’s border with the Hashemite kingdom are nothing new and were discussed with the Americans during the recently halted peace talks, the official added.
During his speech Sunday, Netanyahu interpreted his seminal first Bar Ilan speech, in which he agreed, in principle, to a demilitarized Palestinian state that recognized Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people. (He gave a second Bar Ilan speech last October.)
‘Netanyahu does not believe in the creation of a Palestinian state under the current circumstances’
“What does ‘demilitarized’ mean?” he asked Sunday. Answering his own question, he said that “in light of what’s happening in our surroundings,” only Israel can be responsible for security in the entire West Bank, to make sure terrorism is intercepted at the Jordan River and not on the outskirts of Tel Aviv. “It must be clear that in every future agreement with the Palestinians, Israel will need to retain military control in the territory up to the Jordan River for a very long time.”
Israeli media didn’t pay much attention to that part of Netanyahu’s speech, as his statement on the Kurds appeared far more piquant. But Israeli right wingers who read between the lines found reason to rejoice over the prime minister’s words.
“Two of Netanyahu’s assertions yesterday, when combined, are very significant,” said Dani Dayan, the chief foreign envoy of the settler movement’s Yesha Council who has voiced support for the annexation of the West Bank. First, when speaking about the need for a fence, the prime minister referred to the Jordan River as Israel’s “eastern border.” Second, Dayan pointed out, Netanyahu claimed that only the Israeli army can provide security in the West Bank, and that only Israel’s presence there prevents the Palestinian Authority from collapsing.
“The two combined,” Dayan asserted, “show Netanyahu does not believe the creation of a Palestinian state is possible under the current circumstances, falling just a few steps short of retracting his Bar Ilan speech.”