Oslo out, Autonomy in

bogy02_waSince Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon’s last visit to Washington, tension between Israel and the White House has only increased. The State Department and the White House refused to have anything to do with Yaalon, who once accused Secretary of State John Kerry of having a “messianic fervor,” and he was left talking shop with his US counterpart, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel. For the others, he has become a persona non grata. This boycott of the Israeli defense minister caught most of the headlines, but the important interview Yaalon gave to the Washington Post, appearing on the paper’s website on October 24, was mostly ignored. This interview reveals that the Israeli government has buried Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s commitment to the two-state idea.

In the interview, Yaalon was explicitly asked if he believed in the two-state solution. His reply was military in its brevity: “You can call it the new Palestinian empire. We don’t want to govern them, but it is not going to be a regular state for many reasons.” When the interviewer asked what he meant by a Palestinian empire, Yaalon replied: “Autonomy. It is going to be demilitarized.” There are two reasons for this, according to Yaalon. Firstly, any territory vacated by Israel will be taken over by Hamas. Secondly, Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) is no partner for peace because he refuses to recognize the Jewish character of the State of Israel. Thus Yaalon takes us back 30 years to when Israel, under Menachem Begin’s leadership, held negotiations with Anwar Sadat’s Egypt over the establishment of Palestinian autonomy – without Palestinian participation.

Netanyahu’s vision

In his recent Knesset speech, Netanyahu substantiated Yaalon’s words. It turns out he is not in despair at all about the political dead-end; on the contrary, he is grasping the changes in the Arab world hungrily, and is greatly encouraged by the new regime in Egypt, which resembles Sadat’s regime: “Because there is hope, change is taking place, slowly but clearly, important change in the central states of the Arab world, who see eye to eye with Israel on many of the challenges we face. They understand that the greatest dangers for them and for us come from radical Islam. Together with them, we will continue to explore possibilities for advancing regional solutions, which can help solve our conflict with the Palestinians. It has always been said that an arrangement with the Palestinians would improve our relations with the Arab world, and there is something in that. But there is also another truth – an arrangement with the Arab world can help us settle our relations with the Palestinians. A regional settlement would benefit everyone.”

According to Netanyahu’s understanding of reality following the Arab Spring, Israel has enemies in common with Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan: the Muslim Brotherhood and Iran. The Brotherhood is the main enemy of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, while Shiite Iran aspires to regional hegemony at the expense of the Sunni states. In Netanyahu’s view, these are positive developments which may enable him to reach a regional settlement while skirting the Palestinian issue. Later, he will impose autonomy on them, as Sadat did.

Netanyahu’s understanding of reality is in direct opposition to that of Europe and the US, who see recent developments in the region as no less than a disaster. From their point of view, Saudi Arabia is trying to prevent democratic change in the region, as expressed in the Arab Spring, and was behind the military coup in Egypt and the murderous suppression of the Egyptian opposition. Media in the US publish information almost daily about serious human rights violations in Egypt and continuously condemn Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s regime, which has become Israel’s “strategic” ally. In the opinion of the West, the situation in Egypt suggests that Sisi’s fate will be no different from Sadat’s, and that he is leading the country to national and economic disaster.

From the Oslo Accords to autonomy

Netanyahu’s path has no international support because it relies on regimes which are waging a rearguard battle against the democratic forces of change. For this reason it is untenable. There is not a single state in the region or in the world willing to support the Netanyahu-Yaalon vision, because it means the death of the Oslo Accords and all that this entails. Oslo was a response to the Begin-Sadat autonomy plan, and it gave a partial but insufficient answer to the demands of the Palestinians during the first Intifada. Oslo was an interim solution which was to lead to the creation of a Palestinian state, but Israel had no intention of fulfilling its side of the deal by reaching a permanent settlement: it has never indicated what the permanent borders of the future state would be, because the government was not prepared to confront the settlers, and it left other critical issues unsolved such as the fate of Jerusalem.

The Oslo Accords also determined the economic mechanisms that enabled the creation of the Palestinian Authority (PA), which relies almost entirely on foreign aid. The US and Europe funded the wages of the police and civil service as well as economic development projects and infrastructure. But they did this only as long as they believed the aim was to pave the way towards a Palestinian state, and not to shore up autonomy under Israeli occupation. This arrangement was very convenient for Israel: the US trained Palestinian police officers who acted in “security coordination” with Israel, while the Israeli governments strengthened their hold on the West Bank undisturbed, through massive construction in the settlements. However, Netanyahu decided that his political survival was more important than anything else, and he’s killing the goose that laid the golden egg. By casting Abu Mazen in the mold of enemy of the Jewish people and supporter of terror, he has also cast doubt on the continued existence of the PA and of security coordination with Israel.

Now Netanyahu and Yaalon are aiming to go even further. Making the PA an “empire which means autonomy” – the mountain that gave birth to a mouse – puts an end to the idea of a Palestinian state and to the PA itself. So far, there has been no Palestinian leader willing to head an autonomous entity in the shadow of occupation. The separation barrier, separate buses for Jews and Palestinians, land expropriation, magnetic cards, limitations on freedom of movement and arbitrary arrests create a reality which no Palestinian leader can accept. Yaalon is fooling himself and all Israelis, since there is no way of compelling Palestinians to accept autonomy while not continuing to rule over them. Israel has been controlling the Palestinians for almost 50 years, from determining their ID numbers to controlling the water they drink and the electricity they use. The false reality it created through the PA is coming to an end.

In despair, Abu Mazen does all he can to escape Israel’s grasp by what are generally called “unilateral steps,” crawling towards the UN where he will meet the US administration, which will send him away empty-handed as usual. It will refuse to recognize a Palestinian state and refuse to compel Israel to leave the West Bank. The frustrated Americans have no option but to grit their teeth, curse Netanyahu, call him a spineless coward, and… veto Palestinian demands. The strategic alliance between Israel and the US has so far only perpetuated the conflict, and it is now bringing Abu Mazen’s political demise ever closer, together with that of the PA itself. Bankrolling states are warning that if this should happen, they will cease funding the PA. The bill for the occupation will have to be paid by Israeli citizens, who even now find it hard to make ends meet. It is true that Netanyahu benefits from the fact that he has no opposition within Israel, but he faces increasing international criticism as well as millions of Palestinians who are not willing to dance to his tune.

Translated by Yonatan Preminger

About Yacov Ben Efrat