Tel Aviv — Ever since Yitzchak Rabin and Shimon Peres signed the Oslo Accords with the Palestinians back in 1993, Israel’s Labor Party has championed bilateral negotiations toward a two-state solution.
But in the last month, the party seemed to take a dramatic step away from that position: In January, Labor chairman, Isaac Herzog, declared that a negotiated settlement between Israel and the Palestinians is unrealistic and that Israel should instead take unilateral steps separate from the Palestinians by finishing work on the West Bank security fence. Then, last week, the Labor Party Congress voted to adopt a diplomatic plan based on Herzog’s declaration.
The move stirred up an outcry among Israeli peaceniks and the local media: Is the Israeli opposition leader abandoning the two-state solution and moving rightward to better compete with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu? And why is Labor embracing unilateral withdrawals even though the Israeli public considers the military’s 2005 Gaza withdrawal a mistake?
“In the current reality, the leaderships of Israel and the Palestinians aren’t capable of reaching any sort of agreement,” Herzog said in an interview with the Israeli news website Ynet this week.
“We can say all day two states, two states, and in practice, the situation is moving toward one state. And nothing is done about it. Netanyahu doesn’t want to separate from the Palestinians. I very much want to separate from the Palestinians.”
The suggestion that a two-state settlement is impossible in the near future lit a fuse under some leading Laborites in the Knesset. Former party Chairwoman Shelly Yachimovitch said Labor must present an alternative of “diplomatic rapprochement” and avoid indirect endorsement of claims by the Israeli right that Israel has no partner for a peace deal.
The move reflects an effort by the standard bearer of the Israeli left to come up with a new diplomatic paradigm as an alternative to the status quo conflict-management approach of Netanyahu and as an alternative to two decades of bilateral talks that failed to produce an end-of-conflict settlement with the Palestinians. It follows two consecutive election defeats in which the party was seen as having very little to offer the Israeli public in the way of a robust diplomatic alternative to Netanyahu and Likud to solve the impasse with the Palestinians.
“[Herzog] realizes that Netanyahu has no vision at the moment; that’s a weakness in the eyes of the Israeli people,” said Tal Schneider, an Israeli political analyst and blogger. “People stopped believing him about the two-state solution. [Labor] thinks there is a vacuum to step into. But to do that you can’t just repeat the same things about the two-state solution.”
Gilead Sher, a former peace negotiator at the Camp David talks, defended Herzog’s plan as giving Israel an option to start scaling back its military occupation of the West Bank even when negotiations are impossible. Sher said Labor’s new approach is based on a plan broached four years ago calling for “constructive unilateralism” promoted by the political nonprofit “Blue White Future,” which he co-chairs.
Despite political and media criticism that Labor is shifting away from its commitment to two states, Sher insists that the new plan actually seeks to preserve the potential for a Palestinian state. He said Israel should declare the security fence as a temporary border, reduce the number of settlers east of the fence (Herzog’s plan only calls for evacuation of illegal outposts, while Sher says that all settlements east of the fence should be unilaterally abandoned), and thin the presence of Israel’s military that will remain behind in the West Bank. Unlike the Gaza withdrawal, Israel would retain security control, and would “coordinate” the move with the Palestinian Authority. The alternative, Sher said, is continuing down the path that will lead to one binational state between Jordan and the Mediterranean.
“The two-state solution can be achieved in myriad ways,” he told The Jewish Week.
“I wouldn’t say this is the preferred way to get to the two-state reality, but this is the way forward if Israel wishes to achieve a two-state reality without being limited by all kinds of preconditions for successful negotiations.”
One of the potentially controversial parts of the plan involves the completion of the West Bank security barrier. After construction started in 2002, Israel completed only 62 percent of the designated route. Some 30 percent of the route hasn’t been started. That’s because the 30 percent lies in politically sensitive areas around Israel’s three main settlement blocs: Ariel and Kedumim, Ma’aleh Adumim, and Gush Etzion. Israel’s government never surrounded these areas with the fence because of opposition from the international community and by the settlers themselves that don’t want a physical barrier partitioning the Land of Israel. In Jerusalem, the plan calls for separating outlying Palestinian neighborhoods and handing over tens of thousands of Arab residents to the responsibility of the PA.
Dror Etkes, a veteran expert on settlement activity, said that completing the security barrier would make it even harder to create a contiguous Palestinian entity, and Israel will be hard-pressed to argue that it is trying to preserve a two-state solution.
“It’s a combination of ridiculous and tragic: this idea that we can seal Jerusalem and get rid of Jerusalem’s Palestinians,” he said. “We keep making the same mistakes of the last two decades, without acknowledging the sources of the problem: Israel can’t do whatever it wants without asking the Palestinians.”
Analysts say the idea of unilateral separation from the Palestinians is not new. A recent poll by Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies suggested that more Israelis support a one-sided move than a decade ago. At the same time, the Israeli public is skeptical that PA President Mahmoud Abbas will agree to a peace deal.
Jonathan Rynhold, a professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University, said the plan reflects Herzog’s position at the right of the Labor Party and the view of his choice for defense minister — former IDF intelligence chief Amos Yadlin — that Israel must resort to unilateral moves if negotiations are a dead end.
“Strategically, it’s a genuine position. It’s saying, ‘What can we do to ensure partition and the two-state solution in the long term.’ We keep waiting around and getting bogged down in a one-state reality,” Rynhold said. “It’s the opposite of giving up on the two-state solution. It’s taking concrete steps toward it.”
The political science professor said, however, that persuading the Israeli public to support unilateral withdrawals and settlement evacuations with no guarantee of a permanent settlement could be a hard sell.
As long as Labor and Herzog are in the opposition, analysts say, the plan is likely to remain just a proposal rather than a policy. But Ari Shavit, a journalist and essayist, argued in Haaretz that it could provide some ideological heft to Labor’s diplomatic agenda.
“For the first time in the current century, an incumbent Labor leader has broken away from the rhetoric of ‘peace around the corner’ and tomorrow Abbas, and the day-after-tomorrow hummus in Jenin,” he wrote. “Herzog is separating from the approach of all or nothing. He has stopped waiting for the Palestinian Godot and is offering Israel to redefine its border and take its fate into its own hands.”