Israel’s ongoing occupation of the West Bank is wrong and leads to regional instability and dehumanization of Palestinians, a top American government official said Tuesday in Tel Aviv, hinting that the current Israeli government is not committed to peace.
In an unusually harsh major foreign policy address, Philip Gordon, a special assistant to US President Barack Obama and the White House coordinator for the Middle East, appealed to Israeli and Palestinian leaders to make the compromises needed to reach a permanent peace agreement. Jerusalem “should not take for granted the opportunity to negotiate” such a treaty with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who has proven to be a reliable partner, Gordon said.
“Israel confronts an undeniable reality: It cannot maintain military control of another people indefinitely. Doing so is not only wrong but a recipe for resentment and recurring instability,” Gordon said. “It will embolden extremists on both sides, tear at Israel’s democratic fabric and feed mutual dehumanization.”
Delivering the keynote address at the Haaretz newspaper’s Israel Conference on Peace, Gordon reiterated Obama’s position that a final-status agreement should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed land swaps.
The administration is aware that Israel is facing threats on several fronts and Obama remains committed to Israel’s security, he said, speaking on the day that Israel launched Operation Protective Edge to counter rocket fire from the Hamas-run Gaza Strip. Indeed, mere hours before Gordon addressed the conference, hundreds of participants were forced to quickly evacuate the event hall and enter a safe room after an alert signaled a missile approaching Tel Aviv. After about 10 minutes, participants returned to the hall and the conference resumed.
“The United States will always have Israel’s back. That’s why we fight for it every day at the United Nations,” Gordon said. But as Israel’s greatest friend and strongest defender, Washington should be allowed to ask some fundamental questions, he added.
Specifically, Gordon went on: “How will Israel remain democratic and Jewish if it attempts to govern the millions of Palestinian Arabs who live in the West Bank? How will it have peace if it’s unwilling to delineate a border, end the occupation and allow for Palestinian sovereignty, security and dignity? How will we prevent other states from supporting Palestinian efforts in international bodies, if Israel is not seen as committed to peace?”
The administration was disappointed that the last round of US-brokered peace negotiations failed and that currently “we find ourselves in an uneasy pause,” Gordon said. “At the same time we have no interest in a blame game. The unfortunate reality is that neither side prepared their publics or proved ready to make the difficult decisions required for an agreement. And trust has been eroded on both sides. Until it is restored, neither side will likely be ready to takes risk for peace, even if they live with the dire consequences that resolve from its absence.”
The “past few weeks” show that the inability to resolve the Israeli-Palestinians conflict “inevitable means more tension, more resentment, more injustice, more insecurity, more tragedy and more grief,” he said. “And the sight of grieving families, Israeli and Palestinian alike, reminds us that the cost of this conflict remains unbearably high.”
In his 25-minute speech – which marked the first time a senior White House official had directly addressed the Israeli people since Obama’s March 2013 speech in Jerusalem — Gordon rejected any alternatives to the two-state solution. He called on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to resume peace talks with the PA, suggesting that Abbas is the best Palestinian leader Jerusalem could hope for. “Israel should not take for granted the opportunity to negotiate such a peace with Abbas, who has shown time and again that he’s committed to non-violence and co-existence and cooperation with Israel.”
At one point in his speech, Gordon appeared to directly contradict an assessment Netanyahu made last week regarding Israel’s security needs vis-à-vis its eastern border.
Referring to deliberations retired US General John Allen held with IDF officers regarding ways to secure Israel’s border with Jordan, Gordon said that Allen’s plans include “a full range of contingencies, including rising threats that we see around the Middle East.” Allen was likely referring to the territorial gains made in recent weeks by the radical terror group Islamic State (formerly known as ISIL or ISIS).
“The approaches that are being discussed would create one of the most secure borders in the world along both sides of the Jordan River,” Gordon said. “By developing a layered defense that includes significantly strengthening the fences on both sides of the border, ensuring the right level of boots on the ground, deploying state of the art technology, the comprehensive program of rigorous testing, we can make the border safe against any type of conventional or unconventional threat – from individual terrorists or a conventional armored forces.”
On June 29, Netanyahu declared that one of Israel’s central security challenges was to “stabilize the area west of the Jordan River security line.” In this part of the West Bank, the prime minister said, “no force can guarantee Israel’s security other than the IDF and our security services… Who knows what the future holds? The ISIS wave could very quickly be directed against Jordan,” he said at a conference in Tel Aviv.
Israel would thus have to maintain long-term security control of the territory along the Jordan River in any future accord with the Palestinians, the prime minister said. “The evacuation of Israel’s forces would most likely lead to the collapse the PA and the rise of radical Islamic forces, just as it did in Gaza. It would also severely endanger the State of Israel.”
In his speech at the David Intercontinental Hotel in Tel Aviv, Gordon also referred to the hail of rockets that rained down on Israel throughout the day from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. “The US strongly condemns these attacks. No country should have to live under the constant threat of indiscriminate violence against innocent civilians,” said Gordon, whose administration was heavily criticized by the Israeli government for quickly agreeing to work with the new Hamas-backed Palestinian unity government when it was established last month.
The administration supported Israel’s right to defend itself against these attacks, he added. “At the same time, we appreciate Prime Minister Netanyahu’s calls for acting responsibly and we in turn call on all sides to do all they can to restore calm and to protect civilians.”