Opinion |

It's Not So Simple for Israel to Just 'End the Occupation'

There are no instant solutions at hand, and easy, self-righteous slogans don’t help. This is why Israel can't just walk away from the West Bank

Peter Lerner
Peter Lerner
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Israeli soldiers at a roadblock in the West Bank, March 2017.
Israeli soldiers at a roadblock in the West Bank, March 2017.Credit: \ Alex Levac
Peter Lerner
Peter Lerner

"End the occupation!" a middle-aged man shouted at me at one of my recent speaking events. "It’s that simple, just end it!"

We are in an impatient era, an era of instant tweets, of news at our fingertips, Peace Now and Breaking the Silence now. If only it were that simple.

As we continue to brace ourselves for President Donald Trump’s "Deal of the Century," we need to keep a few things in mind. I’m not talking about the debate about historical and religious rights, Abraham buying the Machpela Cave in Hebron, and everything that defines us as a Jewish nation.

Israeli soldiers stand guard at the scene of a thwarted stabbing attack at Elias junction near Hebron and the settlement of Kiryat Arba in the West Bank on November 5, 2018.Credit: AFP

Those rights are widely quoted by many politicians, and are a source of inspiration for many Israelis and Jews. But they are not the realpolitik factors for a final settlement between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

While those issues are important, they bring us no closer to understanding the challenges we face today amid the looming demand by international and national organizations that we "end the occupation." The peace camp, as they like to call themselves, are no closer to bringing peace - and this is due to their failure to grasp the very real challenges Israel faces.

Here’s why Israel can’t just walk out of the West Bank.

The challenges in 2018 are threefold. Leadership, geography and trust.

First, let’s address leadership, or lack of leadership. The Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas is 82 years old, has been hospitalized several times this year and suffers from failing health.

Since 2007, he has empowered his security forces to coordinate so closely with Israel we could almost call them relations of intimacy. The Palestinian security forces work with Jerusalem not out of love for Israel, but out of fear of Hamas taking over the West Bank. But as Abbas threatens time and time again to cancel this security coordination, it leaves Israel is in a constant state of national security limbo.

Abbas has no clear successor, and if the lessons of the Middle East can teach us anything, a power struggle will most surely happen within his own camp once he leaves the stage. Hamas, too, is watching like a panther preparing to pounce in order to challenge the Palestinian Authority’s West Bank leadership.

Palestinian children walk past paintings depicting the 1948 'Naqba' or catastrophe, and the UNRWA site in the Fawwar Palestinian refugee camp, near Hebron, on September 2, 2018Credit: AFP

On the Israeli side, Benjamin Netanyahu has toned down his 2009 Bar Ilan endorsement of two states. He now says different people understand different things when discussing a negotiated agreement. He has refrained from repeating the 10-month settlement construction freeze he imposed in 2009 in an attempt to appease then-U.S. President Barak Obama and entice Abbas back to the negotiating table.

Neither benefits accrued, and his actions came with a huge political price. None of the Israeli contenders for the country's leadership have any other viable plan, from Naftali Bennett’s autonomy and citizenship, to Lapid’s hyperbolic economic peace, high walls and no splitting of Jerusalem. This leaves very little chance for change in the future.

Secondly, topography and geography remain the only static factor in the strategic debate about peace with the Palestinians.

Judea and Samaria - the West Bank of the Jordan river - are a mountain ridge. Those mountains create a strategic depth that Israel requires in order to safeguard its civilians. In the shadows of the West Bank’s hills, between Haifa and Ashkelon, lies 70 percent of Israel’s population and 80 percent of Israel’s industry, including power stations, offshore gas rigs, and Ben-Gurion International Airport. Anybody who controls that mountainous area controls everything beneath it.

With all the regional turmoil, with Iranian leaders calling Israel a cancerous tumor in the region and eyeing Jordan as its next playground for Middle East upheaval, can any Israeli leadership relinquish security control over such a strategic asset?

Finally, trust. The failures of the Oslo process, the ongoing settlement activities, the repeated wars with Gaza and the political animosity leave both Israelis and Palestinians in a deep state of mistrust. This constantly deepens the current stagnation.The U.S. cutbacks to USAID’s staff and funding - which may lead to the agency’s complete collapse, according to recent reports - will undermine stability even further.

For the Jewish state to have a real future, and to prevent a slide into a one-state future, these challenges must be addressed - and sooner rather than later.

A stone barrier painted with an Israeli flag in Hebron, December 15, 2015.Credit: Gil Cohen-Magen

Trust must be built with the help of international partners - NGOs like USAID, state actors like Egypt and Jordan - and maybe that's where Saudi Arabia fits into the puzzle. Alliances must be built.

Confidence in a process to be rekindled and for Israel to extend that hand of peace and good neighborliness towards the common good of the region that its Declaration of Independence first offered.

Technology and safety measures must be devised to safeguard the strategic depth that a two state solution would require for Israel’s security.

The next generation of pragmatic leadership on both sides must be cultivated – on both sides.

We must look at the issues with open but realistic and practical eyes. We have to explore a path for Israel that recognizes our Jewish heritage here – but also admits that insisting on a "Jerusalem eternally united" under sole Israeli sovereignty, and maintaining the Jewish settlement in the heart of Hebron, may well mean we end up a minority in a one-state Holy Land. And we know what happens to minorities in the Middle East.

All of these are long processes and they must be accepted as such. There’s much work to do both for Israelis and Palestinians. There are no instant solutions at hand, and easy, self-righteous slogans won’t help.

So stop shouting, "End the occupation!"

Lieutenant Colonel (ret.) Peter Lerner is a crisis communications consultant. He served for 25 years in the IDF as a spokesperson and a liaison officer to international organizations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Twitter: @LTCPeterLerner

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