Reassessment of the Israeli Palestinian Political Process: Build a Palestinian State in the West Bank

This document overviews the main dilemmas facing Israel in the political process with the Palestinians as a basis for updating Israel's strategy.

For the full PDF version of the document click here.

  • Our working assumption is that it is important for Israel to design a new strategy in the Israeli-Palestinian political process due to the modest achievements of the Annapolis process and Israel's policies towards Gaza; concerns among the international community surrounding the establishment of the new Israeli government; the distrust toward its ‘economic peace' approach; and the current reassessment by the US Administration of its policies in the region.

    History suggests that Israel can reap great benefits from consolidating a comprehensive strategy that sets clear objectives, sequence and benchmarks. Whenever Israel presented such a strategy, it was able to shape the political agenda and influence the policies of the US. In contrast, in the absence of a relevant strategy, Israel found itself led by the Arab side or the international community.

  • Israel's conundrum regarding its relations with the Palestinians has not changed. On the one hand, continued control over the Palestinian population in the West Bank poses a significant threat to Israel's Jewish and democratic character. On the other hand, to date, any withdrawal has led to increased terrorism and violence (‘land for terror').

    Moreover, Israel's ‘Deluxe Occupation' in the West Bank - the situation in which Israel does not carry the full burden for the Palestinian population despite its legal status as 'occupier' - may end if the Palestinian Authority (PA) implodes.

  • Any new strategy must take into account the fundamental changes that have occurred in recent years, including: the Palestinian political and constitutional crisis and the deep split between Gaza and the West Bank; the consolidation of Hamas' control in Gaza and the creeping international recognition of its rule (despite Israel efforts); the increasing capacity of the PA in the West Bank to govern effectively; the erosion and near collapse of the principle of the Two-State Solution; and substantial international criticism during Operation 'Cast Lead', which led to a significant erosion in Israel's international standing.

  • The Reut Institute identifies ten main strategic issues and dilemmas regarding the political process:

    The framework of the political process: there is no alternative for the Two-State Solution - Despite its many weaknesses, the Two-State Solution remains the only relevant framework for the political process. All other alternative paradigms are immature and any attempt to present an alternative idea is likely to face strong resistance and carry a heavy political price. Moreover, rejection of the Two-State Solution may undermine Israel's legitimacy as a Jewish state. Finally, there are multiple ways to implement the Two-State Solution that may nonetheless serve Israel's interests.

    How to reach Permanent Status (within the Two-State Solution)? In this context, the Reut Institute identifies two main approaches.

    The first approach is to seek a comprehensive Permanent Status Agreement (PSA), which offers a political horizon that is based on an Israeli-Palestinian agreement that establishes End of Conflict and Finality of Claims (the approach of Oslo and Annapolis). The PSA will provide for the establishment of a Palestinian state in permanent borders.

    The second approach seeks to establish a ‘Palestinian State with provisional borders' (PSPB) that may either be established via an Israeli-Palestinian agreement or through a process of systematic building of the capacities of the PA in the West Bank to a level of recognizing it as a state. After a PSPB's establishment, Permanent Status would be primarily shaped based on the relations between the two states.

    How to design the parameters of Permanent Status? A political horizon is considered a prerequisite for stability in the West Bank and for progress on the political process. It may consist of a statements describing permanent status or by a process that combines benchmarks and target dates.

    The Reut Institute identifies two main approaches for defining such a horizon: The Oslo and Annapolis approach, which calls for Israelis and Palestinians to agree on a set of parameters for Permanent Status, or for the USA to superimpose a set of parameters such as the Clinton Ideas or the Bush Rose Garden Speech.

    How to deal with Hamas? - Hamas has succeeded in consolidating its control over Gaza and in gaining partial international recognition despite Israel's attempts to impose an international boycott. The dilemmas created by this situation include: (1) Who can replace Hamas in Gaza? Fatah does not represent a viable alternative, Israel does not want to control Gaza, and without Hamas there is a risk of total breakdown of central governance and anarchy; (2) A ceasefire allows Hamas to build its strategic military capacities with Iranian support while continued fighting risks inevitable escalation; (3) If a Palestinian national unity government is established, the likelihood of a PSA is compromised. In the absence of such government the legitimacy of the political process is eroded and ratification becomes unlikely; (4) How can Israel remove its responsibility for Gaza without opening the border crossings and thus allowing a massive military build-up by Hamas?; (5) To what extent should the Shalit deal be framed as a strategic issue, as opposed to a tactical prisoner exchange deal?

    How relevant is the principle of de- militarization when Gaza is armed to its teeth?

    Palestinian constitutional and political crisis - Addressing this crisis is a prerequisite for any political process that ultimately requires Palestinian ratification of a significant agreement with Israel. In this context, there are two options: reestablishing unity through a Palestinian national unity government; or consolidation of a temporary political and constitutional entity in the West Bank that can become an address and partner for Israel and the international community based on the assumption that the Gaza-West Bank division is irreversible in the near future.

    Relationship between Gaza and the West Bank - The principle that Gaza and the West Bank constitute a single territorial unit has been one of the cornerstones of the Israeli-Palestinian political process. However, Hamas' control over Gaza has de-facto created two separate territorial and political units. Any agreement with the PLO is likely to re-anchor this principle and re-join the two entities, thus compromising the prospect of allowing actual progress in the West Bank.

    The legal framework and status of the Interim Agreement (9/95) - What is the legal framework for Israel's relations with the PA in the West Bank? In recent years many of the working assumptions of the Interim Agreement, which limited the attributes of sovereignty of the PA, have been eroded. Therefore, Israel may choose to transcend this agreement in the West Bank by systematically transferring powers and responsibilities to the PA or by offering to conclude a new interim agreement.

    ‘Economic Peace' - It is widely agreed that significant economic development is critically important for political stability. This can be achieved by 'gestures' such as removing roadblocks and easing travel arrangements, encouraging investments etc; by strengthening the institutions and existing powers and authorities of the PA in the West Bank within the framework of existing agreements; or by upgrading the powers and responsibilities of the PA over and above those already existing courtesy of the interim agreement (see above).

    Outposts and Settlements - The carrying capacity of the Government of Israel is limited in terms of its ability to limit settlement activity. Hence, genuine Israeli commitment to the political process may challenge the wisdom of confrontation with Israel on this issue.

  • Three possible strategies for the Israeli-Palestinian political process - The Reut Institute identifies three possible strategies (which can also be combined):

    Seeking a comprehensive PSA (the Oslo and Annapolis Approach) - This approach aims to reach a comprehensive PSA whose objective is to resolve all the outstanding issues and declare an End of Conflict and Finality of Claims. Such an agreement would lead to the establishment of a Palestinian state in permanent borders towards Permanent Status between Israel and the Palestinians.

    Aiming to establish a Palestinian State in provisional borders (PSPB) via an agreement (the Roadmap Approach) - This approach calls for reaching an agreement on the establishment of a PSPB that will serve as a stepping stone for shaping Israeli-Palestinian Permanent Status, primarily based on the state-to-state relations and agreements between Israel and Palestine.

    Upgrading the political status of the PA in the West Bank to a level of de-facto recognition as a state - This approach seeks to bypass ratification on the Palestinian side by systematically upgrading the powers and responsibilities of the PA to the point that it can be recognized as a PSPB. Thereafter, permanent status will be shaped based on the state-to-state relations and agreements between Israel and Palestine.

    For more details see the table in the document.

  • Bypassing the Palestinian constitutional crisis is a key challenge when designing the political process. This is a violent ideological, constitutional and political crisis that is anchored in the physical, political and governmental division between the West Bank and Gaza.

    Due to this constitutional crisis, the political process should avoid a ‘moment of truth', as well as a 'shelf agreement', which is signed but not ratified. In light of the crisis, there is a high likelihood that an agreement that would be signed with Israel would not be ratified or that the results of the ratification process would be bitterly disputed to the point of undermining the foundations of the PA or bringing about its collapse. Such a scenario could lead to renewed IDF presence in the heart of the West Bank population centers and to the demise of the PA and the Two-State Solution.

    At the same time, there is a grave risk in signing a shelf agreement that is not ratified by the relevant legislative bodies of the PLO and remains dependent on Abu-Mazen's personal signature. Such a situation is dangerously similar to the 1982 peace agreement between Israel and Lebanon, which was rendered irrelevant with the assassination of Bashir Gemayel.

In light of the above analysis, the Reut Institute concludes that the most viable strategy for the Israeli-Palestinian political process should be based on the following principles:

The principle of two states for two peoples - the 'Two-State Solution' - provides the overarching principle for the Israeli-Palestinian political process;

Both parties reiterate their commitment to the existing agreements - including the Madrid Process, the Oslo Agreements, and the Roadmap - that anchor the process whose objective is to end Israel's control over the Palestinian population while addressing its security concerns;

The systematic build-up of powers and capacities of the PA in the West Bank will continue. Its responsibilities and territorial scope will be according to the Interim Agreement and systematically expanded;

When conditions ripen, the PA will become a state via an Israeli-Palestinian agreement or through Israeli or US recognition in its new political status;

The Chairman of the PA will adjust the constitutional structure of the PA in the West Bank and establish new laws for elections of the legislative and executive bodies for the West Bank. Israel will allow the PA to hold elections according to the new laws in the West Bank and East Jerusalem to establish a temporary representative body for the West Bank until the conflict with Hamas is resolved;

Israel will freeze the building of outposts and expansion of existing settlements;

The US could provide a political horizon if one is required (similar to the Clinton Ideas, the Roadmap or the Bush Rose Garden Speech);

Permanent Status will be shaped through a series of agreements on the outstanding issues (economy, security, water etc) between Israel and the future Palestinian state. While any issues affecting the entire Palestinian people will be dealt with by Israel and the PLO, the Palestinian state will begin to dissolve the refugee issue within the Palestinian state.