The rocket that spelled the end of the two-state solution?

A single missile that landed near Tel Aviv last month led three-quarters of foreign airlines to briefly abandon Ben Gurion Airport. Does that mean Israel can never leave the West Bank?

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

An Israeli soldier looks at the damage to a house following a rocket attack from the Gaza Strip on the town of Yehud, near Ben Gurion Airport, on July 22, 2014. (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
An Israeli soldier looks at the damage to a house following a rocket attack from the Gaza Strip on the town of Yehud, near Ben Gurion Airport, on July 22, 2014. (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

On July 22, two weeks into Operation Protective Edge, a rocket fired from Gaza landed in the Tel Aviv suburb of Yehud, about one mile (1.6 kilometers) from Ben-Gurion Airport’s perimeter fence. The United States Federal Aviation Administration immediately issued a Notice to Airmen instructing them that “due to the potentially hazardous situation created by the armed conflict in Israel and Gaza,” all flight operations into and out of Ben Gurion were prohibited until further notice.

Major airlines across the world followed suit, and over the next 36 hours, until the FAA removed the order, some 60 flights in and out of Israel’s most important international gateway were canceled.

In addition to the economic and psychological damage that followed, which received relatively little attention during a chaotic month-long war that caused nearly 2,000 deaths, the abandonment also revived discussions about Israel’s security concerns in a future peace agreement with the Palestinians.

If a single rocket fired from Gaza could bring Israel’s international air traffic to near standstill, it was argued, how could Israel ever hand over control of the West Bank to the Palestinians? After all, it was reasoned, the future Palestine’s western border would be much closer to Ben Gurion than Gaza, and given the West Bank’s mountainous topography, it would be simple for terrorists to rain rocket fire on the airport. This argument was made mostly, but not only, by observers leaning to the right.

Senior members of the government are among those who endorse it, contending that Ben Gurion’s near-shutdown strengthens their concerns over Palestinian sovereignty in the West Bank. Other observers, including some with bona fide security credentials, argue that in today’s day and age, the only way to really ensure Israel’s safety is through diplomacy.

Ben Gurion International airport (photo credit: Yossi Zeliger/flash90 )
Ben Gurion International airport (photo credit: Yossi Zeliger/Flash90 )

“Hamas has delivered a powerful message to the world,” Dani Dayan, the chief foreign envoy of the settlers’ umbrella Yesha Council, said the day after the missile landed in Yehud. “With one rocket from Gaza they closed down our airport. With an independent state overlooking three quarters of Israel’s population, they could close down the entire country.” The incident had sealed the “fate of Palestinian statehood,” he declared joyfully.

Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, the head of the nationalist Jewish Home party, refused to comment on the issue this week, but he has warned in the past that a withdrawal from the West Bank would turn Ben Gurion Airport into a major target for rocket attacks from the east. The July 22 attack and the dozens of cancellations it prompted were a demonstration of this threat, a source close to Bennett said. “If this is what happens with one rocket from Gaza, we can imagine what would happen with terrorists on the mountains overlooking the airport.”

Alan Dershowitz, one of America’s most prominent pro-Israel advocates, also said he felt that Hamas’s firing at Ben Gurion Airport “may well have ended any real prospect of a two-state solution.”

In an article for the Gatestone Institute, a foreign policy think tank, Dershowitz surmised that Israel “will now be more reluctant than ever to give up military control over the West Bank, which is even closer to Ben Gurion Airport than is Gaza.”

If Israel were to withdraw its military from the West Bank it would risk a Hamas takeover similar to that which occurred in 2007 in Gaza, the retired Harvard law professor wrote. “Hamas took control, fired thousands of rockets at Israeli civilian targets and have now succeeded in stopping international air traffic into and out of Israel.”

Professor Alan Dershowitz participated in a panel discussion at the Institute for National Security Studies in Ramat Aviv on December 11, 2013. (Gideon Markowicz/Flash90)
Alan Dershowitz at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv on December 11, 2013. (Gideon Markowicz/Flash90)

“The new reality caused by Hamas’ shutting down of international air travel to and from Israel would plainly justify an Israeli demand that it maintain military control over the West Bank in any two-state deal,” Dershowitz added. Hamas actually wants to prevent a peace deal between the Palestinian Authority and Israel, he argued. “The Hamas Charter categorically rejects the two-state solution, as does the military wing of Hamas. In this tragic respect, Hamas has already succeeded. By aiming its rockets in the direction of Ben Gurion Airport, Hamas may well have scuttled any realistic prospects for a two-state solution.” He concluded. “It cannot be allowed to succeed.”

To date, there have been no rockets fired into Israel from the West Bank because Israel controls the borders — but if that were to change, Jerusalem could no longer guarantee the airport’s safety, said Dore Gold, the president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and a senior adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The Jordan Valley, at the West Bank’s eastern border, is Israel’s ultimate barrier to infiltration and the smuggling from abroad of anti-aircraft missiles that could be fired by operatives from various terrorist organizations, Gold said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (back to camera), visiting the Jordan Valley in 2011. (photo credit: Moshe Milner/GPO/Flash90)
PM Netanyahu (back to camera), visiting the Jordan Valley in 2011. (photo credit: Moshe Milner/GPO/Flash90)

“In the last number of years, Hamas has smuggled anti-aircraft missiles into the Gaza Strip, which Israel has always taken into account,” Gold told The Times of Israel. “But fortunately, none of these missiles came into the West Bank since Israel controlled the outer perimeter of the territory in the Jordan Valley. Israel had no such control in the outer perimeter of Gaza for many years in the Philadelphi Route [the narrow strip of land on the border of Gaza and Egypt], which explains the difference between the two situations.”

Last month’s temporary cessation of flights in and out of Ben Gurion “only reinforces the importance of making sure that anti-aircraft and other missiles do not get into the West Bank in the future,” Gold added. “What Israel has to do in future negotiations is clarify its security interests and firmly protect them in any negotiation.” The fact that one rocket largely paralyzed international air traffic for several days illustrates that the threat to the airport is “not theoretical,” he warned.

A departure flight board displays various canceled and delayed flights in Ben-Gurion International Airport on Wednesday, July 23, 2014.  (photo credit: AP/Dan Balilty)
A departure flight board displays various canceled and delayed flights in Ben-Gurion International Airport on Wednesday, July 23, 2014. (photo credit: AP/Dan Balilty)

A second senior Israeli official close to Netanyahu said last week that the missile threat to Ben Gurion “comes up in conversations” occasionally, but that the prime minister hasn’t yet made the connection between what happened in July and his argument that a future Palestinian state needs to be demilitarized. It could certainly give his reasoning “additional impetus,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

On July 11, Netanyahu warned that “there cannot be a situation, under any agreement, in which we relinquish security control of the territory west of the River Jordan” — a reference to the Jordan Valley and the West Bank. “Adjacent territory has huge importance,” he said, and could be used by terrorists to dig tunnels and to fire rockets. The closer terrorists can get to Israel’s borders, he said, the more rockets they fire — as proven by Operation Protective Edge. “At present we have a problem with the territory called Gaza,” the prime minister continued, noting that the West Bank is 20 times the size of Gaza. He is not prepared “to create another 20 Gazas” in the West Bank, he vowed.

‘All airlines would immediately halt their flights, isolating the country’

The threat from precision-guided weapons shot at Ben Gurion from Palestinian territory, which is situated topographically higher than the airport, has often been cited in discussions about Israel’s concerns in a future peace deal. “It should be expected that if Palestinian terrorists open fire toward Ben Gurion Airport, even once, all foreign airlines would immediately halt their flights, effectively isolating the country,” Brig.-Gen. (res.) Udi Dekel, a former head of research at the Israel Air Force intelligence, wrote in 2011.

‘Turning 2.7 million Palestinians into a permanent part of Israel is an even greater threat’

But some Israeli security experts say that the fear of rockets should not serve as a pretext for the refusal to agree to Palestinian statehood. Former deputy national security adviser Chuck Freilich, for instance, said that rejecting the creation of a Palestinian state based on the specter of rockets on Ben Gurion is a “fallacious argument.”

Israel obviously has serious and justified security concerns over a future Palestinian state in the West Bank, said Freilich. They’re further highlighted by what just happened in July, he told The Times of Israel in recent interview. “But the real question that people from the Yesha Council or anyone else should be asking themselves is: Do we really want to incorporate the Palestinian problem — the West Bank — into Israel? Do we want to ensure that that remains our problem forever? Or do we want to disengage from the Palestinians to ensure our future as a Jewish and democratic state, and at the same time find security arrangements that would provide for what will never be 100 percent security, but reasonable security?”

There is no such thing as 100 percent security, asserted Freilich, a former senior analyst at Israel’s Defense Ministry. Therefore, the government will have to insist on security guarantees and look for ways to protect Ben Gurion Airport from rockets, which he admits is a very serious threat. “But turning 2.7 million Palestinians into a permanent part of Israel is an even greater threat.”

Right-wingers who argue that the possibility of missile fire on Israel’s airport trumps the need to implement a two-state solution are merely “looking for every excuse to justify ongoing political control” over the West Bank, Freilich added. “But we have to separate between dealing with legitimate, totally understandable security concerns, and not being in control of 2.7 million people who don’t share our dream of a Jewish and democratic state.”

Other security experts deem the discussion about the threat of rockets entirely anachronistic. “Rockets can hit the airport from Gaza; they can hit us from the West Bank, from Jordan and also from Iraq — so what?” said Col. (Ret.) Shaul Arieli, a former commander of the Northern Brigade of the IDF’s Gaza division, who has since made a name for himself as a dovish expert on possible border demarcations between Israel and a future Palestinian state. “The West Bank’s proximity to the airport has absolutely no significance. We no longer live in the 1920s.”

Contradicting Netanyahu’s assertion about the importance of adjacent territory, Arieli argued that once a target such as the airport could be attacked theoretically from anywhere, the key to peace and security lies not in the demarcation of borders, but in diplomacy. “What you need is [diplomatic] relations and mutual deterrence between the countries. Israel needs to reach an agreement [with the Palestinians] and end this conflict.”

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