Benny Begin, a member of Prime Minister Netanuyahu’s inner cabinet, recently dismissed the idea of the creation of a viable Palestinian state, claiming it would be an unbearable security threat to Israel.
He added that Netanuyahu’s 2009 Bar-Ilan speech, which seemingly endorsed the two-state goal, was aimed exclusively at foreign audiences but that Palestinian statehood “was not brought up for discussion in the government, nor will it be discussed.” “This is not the government’s position,” he stated bluntly. All the evidence suggests he’s correct.
The “threat” posed by a potential Palestinian state is the most common Israeli objection to a two-state solution. But the occupation itself is the main source of insecurity and lack of peace.
The mainstream Palestinian leadership in Ramallah has staked its future on a two-state agreement and an end to the occupation. Through the Arab Peace Initiative, the rest of the Arab world signaled unanimously that an Israeli-Palestinian final status agreement would also mean normalization between Israel and the Arab states. Plainly, most Palestinians, other Arabs and their governments would welcome an end to this destabilizing conflict.
It is frequently alleged that a core barrier to peace is the Palestinian refusal to recognize Israel. But the Palestine Liberation Organization—the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people—did, in fact, formally recognize Israel in 1993. Israel, in return, only recognized the PLO as the representative of the Palestinian people. Israel has never recognized a Palestinian state, or, in any formal manner, the Palestinian right to statehood.
Moreover, the Palestinian Authority has engaged in unprecedented security cooperation with occupation forces in recent years. Joint efforts to thwart attacks against Israelis, intelligence sharing and coordination in confronting militants have all persisted despite the breakdown of negotiations and at tremendous political cost to the PA.
Israeli security officials acknowledge that the Palestinian security cooperation and performance have been excellent. Attacks against Israelis in Palestinian-controlled areas in the West Bank have fallen to virtually zero.
But this security cooperation is frequently ignored and emphasis instead placed on the actions of militants in Gaza. The PA has not been able to contain the Gazan violence because Hamas runs Gaza. The PA lost control of Gaza for several reasons: its own miscalculations; Israel’s refusal to allow the PA to develop elite counterterrorism forces; and insufficient support from half-hearted patrons like the United States (Hamas’s patrons lavished enormous support on it). But most importantly, groups like Hamas need the absence of peace to thrive, even in Gaza.
The PA won’t be able to achieve complete security control—a key responsibility of a sovereign government—without possessing the rights and prerogatives of sovereignty. Israelis point to the Altalena incident in which the fledgling Israeli state confronted the extremist Irgun group, forcing it to disarm. This confrontation took place after Israeli independence, not before the establishment of the state, when there was ample cooperation between mainstream Jewish organizations and terrorist groups like Irgun.
In the event of real Palestinian independence, Palestinian public opinion, the Palestinian security forces, and Arab governments would not allow any campaign of violence against Israelis to undermine or threaten the new state. Palestinian militants justify violence as resistance to the occupation, and ending it would remove such rationalizations. Islamist groups, just like far right-wing Israeli political parties, would be disarmed and pursue their aims through peaceful and democratic means.
In the limited areas under its control in the West Bank and without real sovereign authority, the PA has already proven its ability to do what Israel did after independence: reign in militants and enforce the rule of a single, disciplined security force. In the event of independence, this could and would be replicated in Gaza.
It should be added that “security” arguments typically focus on the predictably negative consequences of unilateral actions, but clearly unilateralism is a recipe for disaster. Building Palestinian independence does not require immediate Israeli withdrawal, and any agreement with the PA would not be unilateral but mutual. The correct security analogy is not Lebanon or Gaza, but the peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, which have been maintained by all three countries. The Palestinian state would have an even greater incentive than the Egyptians and Jordanians to uphold such an agreement because not doing so would undermine or even threaten its own continued existence.
A mutual peace agreement will offset Israel’s need to live on the permanent knife-edge of potential war and uprising as well as in the morally, socially and culturally corrupting position of occupier. It will allow the Palestinians to live in freedom and dignity, and remove any excuse for others to claim to be confronting Israel on behalf of the Palestinian cause. Peace may be a gamble, but endless wars are a sure loser.