A Greater Israel? Faction says no to two-state solution, yes to annexing Palestinian areas
By William Booth and Ruth Eglash
JERUSALEM -- As Secretary of State John F. Kerry resumes talks here Wednesday in the quest to create "two states for two people," a vocal faction in Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government is, more openly than ever, opposing the very idea of a Palestinian state -- and putting forward its own plans to take, rather than give away, territory.
Ministers in Netanyahu's ruling coalition and leaders of his party, the Likud, are in revolt against the international community's long-held consensus that there should be two states between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. In the process, they are seeking to overturn the commitments of every U.S. president since Bill Clinton and at least four Israeli prime ministers, including the current one.
While once content to simply voice their opposition to giving up what they see as Jewish land or rights in the West Bank, these two-state opponents have gone beyond shouting "no" and are preparing details of their own vision for how Israel should proceed unilaterally after the current round of peace talks fails -- which they say is inevitable.
"The day after peace talks fail, we need to have Plan B," said Knesset member Tzipi Hotovely, a rising star in the Likud party and deputy minister of transportation in Netanyahu's government.
Instead of a sovereign Palestinian nation arising in the West Bank and Gaza, with East Jerusalem as its capital -- which has been the focus of on-again, off-again peace negotiations since the Oslo Accords in 1993 -- the two-state opponents envision Israel annexing large swaths of the West Bank.
As for the Gaza Strip and its 1.6 million inhabitants, which Palestinians consider central to any future nation, the Israeli expansionists say Gaza should be abandoned to its own fate -- to be eventually absorbed by Egypt or left as a hostile semi-state, run by the Islamist militant organization Hamas and isolated from Israel by existing separation barriers.
As for the Palestinians living in the West Bank, depending on the ideas under discussion, the annexationists suggest that they be offered Israeli citizenship or residency or be made the responsibility of Jordan.
"I think we should no longer think of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, but Palestinian settlements in Israel," Danny Danon, deputy defense minister, said in an interview.
Danon, recently elected to head the central committee of the Likud party, imagines an archipelago of Palestinian cities -- Jenin, Nablus, Ramallah and Hebron -- as Arab islands in an Israeli sea.
"The Jewish people are not settlers in the West Bank, but Israel will make the Palestinians settlers and Jordan will be the one taking control over Palestinians and that's it," Danon told Israel's Channel 1 this summer.
Beyond the fringe
After years of criticism, Netanyahu declared himself an advocate for two states in a speech at Bar Ilan University in 2009. He repeated his commitment to the idea last month -- as long as Israel's security demands are met and the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state.
But opponents and skeptics of the two-state solution represent a formidable bloc in the Israeli government and parliament. Those who would unilaterally annex all or part of the West Bank comprise a smaller but still-potent number.
Though they are sometimes depicted as a right-wing fringe by their critics in the peace camp, there is considerable support for their ideas. An April survey of Jewish Israelis for Ariel University, which is in a Jewish settlement in the West Bank, found that 35 percent said the government should annex all the land of Judea and Samaria -- the biblical names some Israelis use to describe the West Bank.
About a quarter of those polled said only the areas containing large Jewish settlements should be annexed. These areas represent about 6 percent of West Bank territory, and the idea that Israel would keep them and swap other land to a new Palestinian state is a mainstream view that is at the center of Kerry's peace initiative.
Palestinian leaders and members of their negotiating team say the ideas put forth by the annexationists reveal Israel's true heart. Israeli leaders, they say, do not really want a deal and instead want to keep the land they won from Jordan in the 1967 war and have occupied since -- land that Israelis want for security and because they believe that it is their ancestral home.
Of course, the Palestinians have their own expansionists who would like to take all of the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River. Hamas does not recognize Israel's right to exist and has for decades waged a campaign of violence against Israeli military and civilian targets. In academic and activist circles, there is also support for a binational solution among Palestinians who have grown frustrated with a long-delayed peace process.
Many Israeli leaders who support the two-state solution acknowledge that they are tired of failure and cynical about prospects for a U.S.-brokered deal. But they say the idea of annexing the West Bank is not only unrealistic but also incendiary.
"The fact that the right wing is thinking about solutions without the two states worries me," said Hilik Bar, deputy speaker of the Israeli parliament and a member of the Labor Party.
He said that as painful as it will be to surrender most of the West Bank for a Palestinian state, it is necessary to end the conflict and to keep Israel both Jewish and democratic.
If all of the Palestinians in the West Bank became Israeli citizens, they would wield tremendous influence in Israel's government and could dilute the nation's Jewish character. The annexationists say they have solutions to that problem ranging from creating high bars for citizenship to the mass immigration of a million or more Jews from around the world, especially the United States.
The status quo will not hold, they argue, and it is time to pursue their goals in the open.
The deputy foreign minister, Zeev Elkin, a staunch opponent of a two-state solution, said at a conference last year that "regardless of the world's opposition, it's time to do in Judea and Samaria what we did in [East] Jerusalem and the Golan."
After the 1967 war, Israel incorporated East Jerusalem into the greater Jerusalem municipality. Israel annexed the Golan Heights in 1981. However, both remain contested territories.
The debate among annexationists is not whether to take greater control of the West Bank -- it is how much to take.
The Oslo Accords of 1993 divided the West Bank into three areas. In areas A and B, which constitute about 40 percent of the West Bank and include the major Palestinian cities and most of the Palestinian population, the Palestinian Authority was promised full civil control and full or shared security duties. In Area C, the Israeli military maintains full civil and security control.
Area C is the least populated and includes the Jordan Valley, the border area that Israelis say is crucial for maintaining security.
Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, who also leads the political party called the Jewish Home, published his "Tranquilizing Plan" last year, whereby Israel would unilaterally annex Area C and leave areas A and B to be administered by the Palestinian Authority with oversight by Israel security forces.
Bennett said the 48,000 Palestinians living in Area C -- others say there are three times as many -- would be offered Israeli citizenship or residency. The 350,000 or so Jewish settlers, who are already Israeli citizens, would remain, and their population and settlements, which would become towns, would grow.
Uri Ariel, the housing minister, has said he would start with Area C and continue to assert sovereignty in stages to eventually annex all of the West Bank.
Ariel said Palestinians who wish to become citizens would have to apply and meet criteria such as speaking Hebrew and pledging allegiance to Israel.
Hotovely, the deputy transportation minister, said she envisions annexing all of the West Bank and granting its residents full Israeli citizenship. She said her Greater Israel would remain democratic and Jewish by encouraging the mass migration of Jews from around the world to Israel.
"This is not a binational state. There will still be 70 to 75 percent Jews, with a large minority of Palestinians," Hotovely said. "Israel can live with this reality."