Is Netanyahu "Sharonizing"?
Is Netanyahu "Sharonizing"?

The Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), a leading Israeli think tank, recently hosted its annual conference. This year, the conference’s main agenda was to promote the idea of unilateral disengagement from Judea and Samaria. INSS’s suggestions were summarized in a paper authored by Gilead Sher and his team: “The Palestinian Issue: Toward a Reality of Two States.”

Unilateralism is not the authors’ favorite option: such a strategy, they claim, should only be implemented if and when the Palestinian Authority rejects another Israeli peace offer –an offer that should be based on Olmert’s proposal to Mahmud Abbas in 2008.

None of the new government’s coalition partners are ready to endorse the Olmert proposal. Even Tzipi Livni (a minority partner in the current government) criticized Olmert’s proposal while she was serving as his Foreign Minister, because she disagreed with Olmert on the refugee issue. Yair Lapid has said that Olmert went too far with his proposal to Abbas.

For Likud, Israel Beyteinu and the Jewish Home, the Olmert proposal is a non-starter. So expecting the newly elected Israeli government to resubmit the Olmert proposal to Abbas is not only unrealistic but also strange: why should the government implement a policy for which it was not elected and which was rejected at the polls?

For the record, the Olmert proposal consisted of an Israeli withdrawal from 94% of Judea and Samaria (with minor land swaps); of a safe passage route from Hevron to the Gaza Strip; of the forced evacuation of tens of thousands of Israelis (including from Hevron, Ofra, and Beit-El); of the transfer of sovereignty over Jerusalem’s “holy basin” (including the Temple Mount and the Western Wall) from Israel to an international custodial regime composed of the United States, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinian State; and of the acceptation by Israel of the return of 5,000 Palestinian refugees to Israel proper, with financial compensation for the rest.

But suppose, for the sake of the argument, that Olmert was Prime Minister again and that his coalition was backing him on the 2008 proposal. Would Abbas, this time, accept it?

One theory (promoted among others by Israeli journalist Raviv Drucker) claims that Abbas rejected Olmert’s 2008 proposal because Olmert was already a lame duck at the time. This theory flies in the face of historical evidence. Condoleezza Rice writes in her memoirs No Higher Honor that Olmert submitted his proposal in May 2008, and that Abbas told her that he couldn’t tell four million refugees that only five thousand would return home.

In May 2008, Olmert was no lame duck: only on 30 July 2008 did he announce that he would not run for his party’s leadership. Abbas mentioned to Rice the so-called “right of return,” not Olmert’s legal troubles, to justify his rejection of the proposal.

Al-Jazeera’s “Palestine Papers” revealed that in September 2008, the Palestinian leadership decided not to react officially to the Olmert proposal so as not to be blamed for its failure. No mention was made of Olmert being a lame duck.

Did Abbas just stay mum about Olmert’s proposal or did he reject it? Abbas himself answered this question in his interview with Jackson Diehl in The Washington Post on 29 May 2009. Abbas said in the interview that he turned down Olmert’s proposal. Not because Olmert was a lame duck, but because, in Abbas’ own words, “the gaps were wide” between what Olmert offered and what Abbas was willing to accept.

Then there is another theory according to which it is Tzipi Livni who told Abbas not to pocket Olmert’s offer because the latter was a lame duck. But Abbas himself says that this is not the case. In an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat on 22 December 2009, Abbas said the following about the Livni theory: “This did not happen. No intervention by Tzipi Livni took place.”

So the lame duck theory doesn’t wash. Abbas rejected the Olmert proposal because of the “right of return.”

Therefore, Gilad Sher and his acolytes have good reasons to assume that Abbas “might” reject the Olmert proposal again in the theoretical and unlikely scenario of a historical replay. This is why, according to the INSS paper, Israel should act unilaterally.

Aware of the disastrous security consequences of the 2005 unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, INSS does not suggest a military withdrawal from Judea and Samaria but only a civil one. In other words, most Israelis living beyond the 1949 armistice line would be deported, but the IDF would retain its presence beyond that line.

According to INSS, such a move will achieve two goals: a. it will preserve Israel’s Jewish majority; b. it will improve Israel’s international image and standing.

Let’s start with the second goal. As a result of the 2005 unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, Israel was compelled to go to war in December 2008 to stop the shelling of its citizens. Images of that war were a PR disaster –a disaster that was dwarfed by the even greater disaster, the ensuing Goldstone Report. The military naval blockade of Gaza (itself an inevitable consequence of the 2005 withdrawal) caused an international outcry that led to the Marmara incident –another PR waterloo.

So Israel’s international image and standing worsened as a result of the 2005 “disengagement” simply because blockades and bombardments (the side effect of retreating when you live in the Middle East) are more ruinous to your image than military occupation. Those side effects might be averted by the continuous military presence advocated by INSS in Judea and Samaria. But then the Palestinians and the world will still accuse Israel of maintaining its “occupation.”

So what’s the point? Indeed, Israel is still accused of occupying Gaza even though it withdrew its army from there (the military naval blockade is enough for ill-wishers to accuse Israel of being an occupier).

The first rationale of INSS’s proposed disengagement is that, without it, Israel will turn into a bi-national state. But, as I have explained in a previous article, this is a bogus claim.

Since 2005, Gaza is out of the demographic equation. Without Gaza, there is a two-third Jewish majority between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. The demographic trends of the last decade (declining Arab birthrates, increasing Jewish birthrates, Jewish immigration, Arab emigration) suggest that this Jewish majority is stable if not growing.

Whether or not Israel can afford to increase its Arab minority from 20% to 30% is admittedly a question that deserves to be asked and debated, but the “bi-national threat” is a sham. Indeed, the Sunday Times Middle East correspondent Uzi Mahnaimi recently declared in an interview with Makor Rishon (3 May 2013) that Israel would retain a stable 70% Jewish majority were it to annex Judea and Samaria.

So the INSS proposal defies logics. And yet, implementing it seems to be what Benjamin Netanyahu is up to. While meeting recently with the Foreign Ministry’s staff, Netanyahu said that his commitment to the establishment of a Palestinian state stems from his fear of Israel turning into a “bi-national” country.

Earlier this week, Netanyahu imposed a construction freeze in Judea and Samaria.

But, mostly, Netanyahu has been talking openly about the virtues of referenda, and he is actively working on neutralizing his own Likud party (by taking control of the party’s central committee via a proposed merger with Israel Beyteinu, and by replacing primary elections with a top-down appointment system).

Netanyahu knows that an agreement with the PA is out of reach (especially since Sallam Fayad’s resignation). He has been infected by the “bi-national” syndrome. He is freezing settlements. And he is trying to neutralize his Likud party.

As Bibi likes to say, if it looks like a duck and if it walks like a duck, it’s a duck.

It looks and walks like the 2003 Sharon scenario all over again: I am just connecting the dots.