Adam Yefet is pursuing a Master’s degree in International of Affairs at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, based in Washington D.C. He can be found on Twitter at @yefet4USA. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.
National Security Situation: Israel-Palestinian Conflict.
Date Originally Written: January 13, 2016.
Date Originally Published: February 2, 2017.
Author and / or Article Point of View: Author is pursuing a Master’s degree in International Affairs at George Washington University and has written on Middle East affairs for Gulf State Analytics. He writes as an international observer.
Background: On December 23, 2016 the United Nations (UN) passed a non-binding resolution censuring Israel for activities in the Palestinian Territories, occupied since the 1967 Six-Day War. The United States’ abstention on UN Security Council Resolution 2334 demonstrated the rift between the current U.S. and Israeli administrations. While the Obama administration has been a useful political foil for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition, Obama’s policies allowed Netanyahu to hold back from the most egregious moves supported by his cabinet. Netanyahu may have difficulty balancing his policy and his coalition with an ideologically friendlier U.S. administration
The Palestinian Territories are governed by the relatively secular group Fatah in the West Bank and Islamist group Hamas in Gaza. Several attempts by the two parties to unify and collaborate in the last decade have failed. In the meantime, Hamas in Gaza has engaged in three significant conflicts with Israel. There are few signs of hope for united Palestinian leadership. Israel maintains tight control over whom and what can enter and exit the territories. There is a continued cycle of Palestinian terror attacks and Israeli reprisals.
The expansion of Israeli settlements into West Bank territory, considered to be part of the biblical Jewish state, seeks to annex the land permanently to Israel and interfere with the creation of a Palestinian state. The settlement enterprise has yielded limited results in terms of changing the demographic landscape to prevent a two-state solution but it has incurred a high cost to Israel’s relationship with the Palestinians and the international community at large.
Meanwhile, the Arab world’s focus has shifted from Israel to the Saudi-Iran conflict. The 2002 Arab Peace Initiative (API) parameters, reaffirmed in 2016, provide significant diplomatic incentives for Israeli action but Israeli leadership has largely ignored it. Palestinian leadership rejected peace deals in the 1990s and 2000s. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s coalitions since 2009 have included key ministers publicly opposed to a two-state solution.
Significance: Peace between Israel and Palestine, and Palestinian statehood, is a multigenerational goal for the international community. However, the two sides have not found their way to a peace agreement for many reasons, any of which is most important depending on who you ask. The conflict is deadly for Palestinians and Israelis and has the potential to escalate the Middle East into war or reshape the regional order with a peace deal. The options analyzed here are along the lines of those presented by significant figures in Israeli politics.
Option #1: Israel continues the expansion of settlements in disputed areas of the West Bank.
Risk: If Israel pursues expansion even more aggressively with the tacit, or vocal, support from the new U.S. administration, it will further alienate the international community including Israel’s few strong allies in the West and provoke further hostility from adversaries, neutral parties, and non-state political movements.
The API and its subsequent reaffirmations, as well as covert cooperation in the Syrian theater between Israel and Saudi Arabia, suggest a growing acceptance of Israel in the region and the potential for practical alliances. Following Option #1, Israel will risk losing the geopolitical moment of opportunity to secure diplomatic, economic, and military relationships with its neighbors.
Israel expanding settlements risks undermining and antagonizing Palestinian leadership in the West Bank, which has cooperated with Israel, and empowering Hamas in Gaza, which has actively fought Israel and won concessions. The last year has seen dozens of individual attacks by Palestinians, mainly in the occupied territories and around settlements.
Gain: Proponents of expanding settlements maintain that the expansion of settlements is dedicated to ensuring a secure and defensible border for Israel in the face of its international threats. It also sends a message to Palestinian leadership that time is running out to secure a Palestinian state. Settlement expansion seeks to ensure the establishment of the state on biblical and historical lines and there is a strong domestic constituency in Israel, and non-state foreign support, for that cause. Prime Minister Netanyahu and others in his cabinet also find domestic support for policies in defiance of the UN and U.S. policy. With the advent of an ideologically friendlier administration in Washington D.C., Prime Minister Netanyahu may feel fresh license to continue and expand those policies.
Option #2: Israel unilaterally recognizes a Palestinian state along 1967 lines with land swaps.
Risk: Israel’s difficult unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was met with Hamas claiming victory and launching attacks against Fatah and against Israel. A repeat of that scenario could plunge the conflict into disastrous war between the Palestinian groups themselves for control, and with Israel. Unilaterally recognizing a Palestinian state without a functioning, unified partner government in Palestine could be tragic for both sides.
Option #2 risks the dissolution of the governing coalition if members opposed to a two-state solution left because Netanyahu would be breaking a key election promise that there would not be a Palestinian state on his watch, though he backtracked after the election due to U.S. pressure. Without enough members of Knesset (parliament) in support, the Knesset would be dissolved and require new elections, essentially a referendum on the move. Prime Minister Netanyahu carries substantial credibility on security issues like no other Israeli politician, but elections can be unpredictable and are a significant political risk.
Another risk is physical violence and political chaos. Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin was assassinated in 1995 by an anti-two-state solution Israeli settler upset by the progress towards a Palestinian state.
Gain: If successful, Israel would spark a shift in the regional order in the Middle East, open relations across the Arab world, and diplomatically isolate Iran, Israel’s key adversary. International allies would warm to Israel while seeking to support the new state. There is a strong constituency in the Israeli security community that supports this option. Palestine’s governing parties would be forced to work with the deal or deny themselves a state, a move that would result in a significant loss of diplomatic credibility and fit Israel’s claims of Palestinian intransigence.
Other Comments: Any peace deal would require significant international financial and security support to succeed. The withdrawal of Israeli troops from the territories and the management of security inside the territories after withdrawal would be challenging for both sides. Non-state actors in the territories would have many opportunities to undermine peace and would quickly test both sides’ patience, but especially Israel’s.
 Arieli, S. (2016, June 27). Look at the Figures: Israel’s Settlement Enterprise Has Failed. Retrieved January 16, 2017, from http://www.haaretz.com/wwwMobileSite/opinion/.premium-1.727398
 Sharon, J. (2016, December 30). Analysis: Will The Trump Era Be Bennett’s Finest Hour? Retrieved January 16, 2017, from http://www.jpost.com/Israel-News/Politics-And-Diplomacy/ANALYSIS-Will-the-Trump-era-be-Bennetts-finest-hour-476964
 Lubell, M. (2015, March 16). Netanyahu Says No Palestinian State As Long As He’s Prime Minister. Retrieved January 17, 2017, from http://www.reuters.com/article/us-israel-election-idUSKBN0MC1I820150316
 Gross, J.A. (Jan 15, 2017). Former Defense Leaders Take Aim at Bennett’s Annexation Plan. Retrieved January 22, 2017, from http://www.timesofisrael.com/former-defense-leaders-take-aim-at-bennetts-annexation-plan/