The latest trend in the debate on Israeli-Palestinian peace is to trumpet the inevitability of a one-state solution. The recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel by the administration of US President Donald Trump has depressed many involved in the peace process.
Saeb Erekat, the main Palestinian negotiator, responded that it was time to “struggle for one state with equal rights for everyone living in historic Palestine, from the river to the sea.” Several veteran participants in the peace process agree that a one-state solution is increasingly likely.
This narrative ignores both what Israel wants and what it can do. Let’s start with what it wants.
State of affairs post-1967
Since occupying the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, Israel has wished to control strategic areas while incorporating a minimal number of Palestinians. As Levi Eshkol, who was prime minister at the time of the Six-Day War, explained, Israel had received “a nice dowry of territory, but along with a bride whom we don’t like.” What Eshkol, who died in office in 1969, meant by this was that control over the West Bank was necessary for Israeli security but swallowing the Palestinian population could undermine its existence.
To solve the problem, Israeli general Yigal Allon formulated the “Allon Plan” in 1967, which would see Israel annex lightly populated areas of strategic significance and return heavily populated areas to Jordan. Whatever their ideological proclivities, Israeli governments have since played variations on Allon’s theme.
The supposedly hardline Likud government of Menachem Begin (1977-83) supported autonomy in the Palestinian municipalities. Later, the purportedly dovish government of Yitzhak Rabin (1992-95) implemented a plan to establish an autonomous Palestinian Authority, while cementing Israeli control over strategic areas through settlement expansion. Every Israeli government, with no exceptions, has toyed with this logic.
Importance of the Jordan Valley
The Jordan Valley has consistently been at the center of this approach. Early on, Israel was concerned that the Iraqi military would use Jordan as a springboard for invasion. The Jordan Valley was intended for use as a natural “anti-tank ditch.”
Operation Desert Storm removed the conventional threat from the east. However, Israel became increasingly concerned about asymmetrical threats, fearing that withdrawal from the West Bank would put population centers within missile range. These security interests, along with constant settlement expansion, facilitated continued control of strategically important areas.
Israel still feels that remaining in the West Bank is an important security interest. The current government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fears that withdrawal would be followed by rocket fire into the greater Tel Aviv area and Ben Gurion Airport. Tunnels similar to those coming out of Gaza might also be built, threatening murderous infiltration.
However, the threat of a one-state solution is greater. It would likely lead to the end of the Jewish state and civil war. Israeli attempts to rule the Palestinians directly without granting citizenship would also lead to strategic disaster from the Israeli perspective. It would likely lead not only to a third Intifada but to an internal moral crisis coupled with international pressure. Israel remembers this unappetizing experience from the First Intifada (1987-93).
If forced to choose, Israel will prefer a third and less threatening option. It will unilaterally withdraw from remaining positions near Palestinian population centers, while annexing the settlements in the West Bank.
Naftali Bennett and his Jewish Home party ran on this platform successfully in the 2013 elections. The plan, given the Orwellian name “the tranquilizing plan,” is no extremist fantasy. The areas surrounding the settlements contain a mere fraction of the Palestinian population but most of the strategically valuable areas, including the Jordan Valley. Israel could theoretically ravish the coveted bride while paying a sensible dowry. The Palestinians would be left to form a rump state and be given the “freedom” to live in a truncated series of municipalities.
So much for what Israel wants. But what can Israel do?
Israel is not South Africa
The argument against this option is that Israel would be creating “Bantustans” along the lines of the artificial protectorates designed by apartheid South Africa in the 1970s to deny citizenship to its minorities. The strategy was a dismal failure, and the apartheid regime collapsed within two decades.
Morally this is a strong argument. The “tranquilizing plan” would indeed be an illegal assault on Palestinian self-determination. But strategically speaking, the argument is weak.
Israel is unlikely to pay the steep price Pretoria did. There are three practical reasons for this.
First, Palestinian society cannot engage seriously in civil or violent resistance as black South Africans did in Soweto or Sharpeville. Israel benefits from the geographical ease of using the Green Line in a manner that was impossible in spatially intermingled South Africa. It can simply hide behind the security wall.
Second, the South African economy was dependent on its black workforce and could not function separately from it. For its part, Israel has decreased its dependence on Palestinian workers by bringing in workers from elsewhere. It could easily replace the 120,000 workers who continue to cross the checkpoints, and most Israelis would be happy to see them go.
Finally, the international community never recognized the Bantustans as legitimate entities, but Palestinian independence is recognized almost universally. This takes a significant amount of responsibility off Israeli shoulders and has allowed it to withdraw from Gaza while suffering minimal culpability.
History is full of examples of powerful nations annexing territory and paying little for the privilege (China in Tibet and Russia in Crimea come to mind). South Africa paid for its weakness, not for its immorality.
Threats of sanctions and diplomatic isolation ring hollow. Despite decades of occupation, Israel now has better relations than ever with Russia, India, China, the US and many African states, flourishing trade with the European Union, and surprisingly close relations with several Arab states.
The international community has grudgingly accepted that Israel is likely to maintain the settlement blocs in a permanent agreement, and even the fait accompli in Jerusalem has garnered dividends.
States seldom do the moral thing, and Israel is an unlikely candidate to buck the trend. If forced to choose between a one-state solution and apartheid, Israel will choose neither, and pay a surprisingly reasonable price for doing so.