Analysis from Israel

Ever since the Trump administration published its Mideast peace plan, critics have vociferously claimed that it “violates U.N. resolutions” and “challenges many of the internationally agreed parameters” guiding peacemaking since 1967. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, this is the first plan that actually relates seriously to the document every plan cites as the basis for those parameters: U.N. Security Council Resolution 242.

The resolution was adopted in November 1967, five months after Israel captured the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Golan Heights, eastern Jerusalem and Sinai Peninsula in the Six-Day War. But contrary to popular belief, it was carefully crafted to let Israel keep some of this territory by demanding a withdrawal only from “territories occupied in the recent conflict,” rather than “the territories” or “all the territories.”

As America’s then U.N. ambassador, Arthur Goldberg, later said, the omitted words “were not accidental … the resolution speaks of withdrawal from occupied territories without defining the extent of withdrawal.” Lord Caradon, the British ambassador to the United Nations who drafted the resolution, explained, “It would have been wrong to demand that Israel return to its positions of June 4, 1967, because those positions were undesirable and artificial.”

The reason was that, in the resolution’s own words, a “just and lasting peace” would require “secure and recognized boundaries” for all states in the region. But the 1967 lines (aka the 1949 armistice lines) did not and could not provide secure boundaries for Israel. As Goldberg explained, the resolution called for “less than a complete withdrawal of Israeli forces” precisely because “Israel’s prior frontiers had proved to be notably insecure.” And since Israel had captured these territories in a defensive rather than offensive war, the drafters considered such territorial changes fully compatible with the resolution’s preamble “emphasizing the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war.”

But then, having successfully defeated the Arab/Soviet demand that Israel be required to cede “all the territories,” America abandoned its hard-won achievement just two years later, when it proposed the Rogers Plan. That plan called for an Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 lines with only minor adjustments (since nobody back then envisioned a Palestinian state, the West Bank would have returned to Jordan, even though Jordan had illegally occupied it in 1948).

This formula made a mockery of Resolution 242 because it failed to provide Israel with “secure boundaries.” Yet almost every subsequent proposal retained the idea of the 1967 lines with minor adjustments, even as all of them continued paying lip service to 242.

Now, for the first time, a plan has attempted to take that resolution seriously and provide Israel with defensible borders. That’s why it assigns the Jordan Valley to Israel, reflecting the long-standing Israeli consensus that this territory is crucial to defend the country against threats from the east (in this regard, the name “Jordan Valley” is misleading because what makes the area critical for defense is its high ground—the eastern slopes of the Judean Mountains and Samarian Hills).

Even Israel’s mainstream left has long deemed the valley essential, aside from a brief flirtation with Oslo-era delusions of a New Middle East. Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who signed the Oslo Accords in 1993, said in his final speech to the Knesset in 1995 that Israel’s “security border … will be located in the Jordan Valley, in the broadest meaning of that term.” And today, both the center-right government and the main center-left opposition party agree that Israel must retain the valley. Parties seeking to cede it constitute a mere 20 percent of the Knesset (and just 10 percent of Jewish MKs).

There is similar consensus around the need for the belt of territory near the Green Line where most settlements lie, since this provides a territorial buffer for Israel’s major population centers. And a united Jerusalem under Israeli rule is essential because dividing it would leave Israel’s capital vulnerable to nonstop shelling from the city’s eastern half: For evidence, see Jerusalem’s experience when the city was divided from 1948 to 1967, or the experience of communities along the Gaza border today. Again, even Rabin’s final speech envisioned a “united Jerusalem … under Israeli sovereignty.”

The plan’s limited version of Palestinian sovereignty derives from the need for defensible borders as well, since as the past quarter-century has shown, Palestinian military control over territory means kissing Israeli security goodbye. The Palestinian Authority was able to wage the Second Intifada—which killed more than 1,100 Israelis, 78 percent of them civilians, including through suicide bombings in major Israeli cities—because the Oslo Accords barred the Israel Defense Forces from entering P.A. territory. Only after the IDF reasserted control over those areas did the terror wane. Similarly, the IDF’s absence from Gaza is what has allowed Palestinians to fire more than 20,000 rockets at Israel from that territory, even as not one rocket has ever been launched from the West Bank.

Having learned this lesson, Trump’s plan assigns security control of the West Bank solely to Israel. And again, this used to be an Israeli consensus before Oslo fever took hold; even Rabin, in his final speech, envisioned a Palestinian “entity which is less than a state.”

One could obviously quibble with certain details of the plan; for instance, the idea of leaving some settlements as enclaves in Palestinian territory sounds like a security nightmare. One could even legitimately wonder, given the experience of the last 25 years, whether any kind of Palestinian state is compatible with Israel’s security.

Nevertheless, Trump’s plan is the first serious attempt to give Israel what Resolution 242 promised more than 50 years ago—borders that are not only recognized, but secure. As such, far from “violating U.N. resolutions,” it’s actually the first plan that doesn’t violate them.

This provides Israel and its allies with a golden opportunity to remind the world that contrary to what is widely believed today, U.N. resolutions and “internationally agreed parameters” originally promised Israel defensible borders. Thus all the plans that broke this promise are the ones that ought to be deemed illegitimate—not the one plan that finally seeks to keep it.

This article was originally syndicated by JNS.org (www.jns.org) on February 5, 2020. © 2020 JNS.org

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Israel’s constitutional crisis has been postponed, not resolved

After years of leftists crying wolf about democracy being endangered, Israel finally experienced a real constitutional crisis last week. That crisis was temporarily frozen by the decision to form a unity government, but it will come roaring back once the coronavirus crisis has passed.

It began with Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein’s refusal to let the newly elected Knesset vote to replace him as speaker and culminated in two interventions by the High Court of Justice. I’m one of very few people on my side of the political spectrum who considers the court’s initial intervention justifiable. But its second was an unprecedented usurpation of the prerogatives of another branch of government, in flagrant violation of legislation that the court itself deems constitutional.

Edelstein’s refusal, despite its terrible optics, stemmed from a genuine constitutional concern, and was consequently backed even by Knesset legal adviser Eyal Yinon, who had opposed Edelstein many times before and would do so again later in this saga. The problem was that neither political bloc could form a government on its own, yet the proposed new speaker came from the faction of Benny Gantz’s Blue and White Party that adamantly opposed a unity government. Thus whether a unity government was formed or Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s caretaker government continued, the new speaker would be in the opposition.

But as Yinon told the court, speakers have always come from the governing coalition because an opposition speaker can effectively stymie all government work. And once elected, he would be virtually impossible to oust, since 90 of the Knesset’s 120 members must vote to do so. An opposition speaker would thus “hurt democracy,” warned Yinon. “We’re planting a bug in the system, and this, too, undermines our constitutional fabric.” That’s why Edelstein wanted to wait, as Knesset bylaws permit, until a government was formed and could choose its own speaker.

Yet despite this genuine and serious concern, the fact remains that a newly elected majority was being barred from exercising its power. Moreover, it had no parliamentary way of solving the problem because only the speaker can convene parliament and schedule a vote. Thus if you believe majorities should be allowed to govern, the court was right to intervene by ordering Edelstein to hold the vote.

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