The central committee of Israel’s Labor Party has approved a proposal by party chairman and opposition leader Yitzchak Herzog calling for a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from most of the West Bank to “separate” Israel’s Jews from the Palestinian population while retaining the possibility of the creation of a Palestinian state in the future. Herzog, in a bitter speech to a Labor Party convention condemned the policies of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s government in the face of the continuing wave of terror attacks.
Herzog first proposed the unilateral withdrawal last month at the conference of the Institute for National Security Studies. He acknowledged that a resumption of negotiations with PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas does not appear to be feasible under current conditions. But like other liberals, Herzog insists that without a “separation” from West Bank Arabs, Israel would be likely to lose its Jewish and democratic nature.
Labor and Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua party united before last year’s Knesset election to create the Zionist Union faction, which Herzog now leads. As Ehud Olmert’s Foreign Minister, Livni hoped to rise to power on her accomplishments as chief negotiator with the Palestinians, and her support for a withdrawal from most of the West Bank. But her Hatnua party has now all but collapsed, and she no longer has any real influence in formulating the Knesset faction’s policy.
Repeating the argument made by Ariel Sharon to justify the ill-fated Israeli disengagement from Gaza in 2005, Herzog told a Labor Party leadership meeting at the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds on Sunday, “only a separation between us will maintain a Jewish majority in Israel.” He maintains that his proposal was not meant to replace the “vision” for peace and the two-state solution, but rather reflects the reality that those goals are “not going to happen tomorrow.”
Herzog claimed that “only a separation between us and [the Palestinians] will maintain a Jewish majority in Israel. Only a separation between us and them will prevent the infiltration of terrorists and strengthen security. Only a separation between us and them will complete the security fence around the settlement blocs. Only a separation between us and them will disconnect the Palestinian villages from Jerusalem and maintain a Jewish Jerusalem. Only a separation between us and them will maintain security. . .
“Israel is at war, not going through a wave of terrorism; this is the Third Intifada. Every day another Israeli is killed, and unfortunately, the security situation appears to be deteriorating. I’m not willing to accept or get used to this reality,” he said.
“The two-state idea is not dead, because without it the Jewish state will cease being a Jewish state. A separate state for Palestinians is Israel’s only chance to remain a democratic Jewish state with defensible borders. This is a Jewish-Israeli interest. But in order to realize this vision, we must be realistic. We must first dismantle the hatred. We need to eliminate the extremists on both sides because they both oppose the two-state vision and do everything to kill it.”
LOOKING PAST NETANYAHU AND ABBAS
The Labor party chairman despaired of any chance of progress towards peace as long as Netanyahu and Abbas remain in power, calling them “two tired leaders [who] are unwilling to change the awful reality we live in today.
“Israel does not have a functioning prime minister,” Herzog said. “In the prime minister’s house on Balfour Street lives a man paralyzed by fear. Underneath heavy makeup and a meticulous hairdo, you’ll find a frightened Netanyahu hiding.”
Herzog said, “Netanyahu does not want to separate from the Palestinians [because] he is afraid of the extreme messianics on the right who want to drown us in an Arab-Jewish state.”
Addressing Netanyahu’s coalition partner, National Union party chairman Naftali Bennet, Herzog asked rhetorically, “You want to annex more Palestinians into Israel? Are you mad? So there will be more attacks?”
Replying to Bennett’s declaration that, “the two-state solution is dead,” Herzog told Labor Party leaders, “I reply on your behalf: ‘Listen to me Bennett: The two-state solution is not dead. You and your messianics would love for the two-state solution to die.’”
Before last year’s Knesset election, Netanyahu said he was no longer prepared to discuss any West Bank withdrawals because of the deteriorating security situation Israel now faces on many fronts, including the growing threat from ISIS on several fronts, and the chaos along Israel’s northern border with Syria. But Netanyahu still insists, in response to US objections, that he has not abandoned the two-state solution.
REMOVE SETTLERS WHILE LEAVING THE ARMY IN PLACE
Herzog has been calling for a major Israeli withdrawal and the redivision of Yerushalayim since December 2013, and claims that he predicted the outbreak of the Third Intifada in August, last year.
Herzog’s plan would require more than 75,000 Jews now living east of the security fence to evacuate their homes and communities. That is roughly ten times the number of Jews uprooted from the Gaza settlements in 2005. That operation in which Israeli soldiers were ordered to forcibly evict Gaza Jews from their homes created much consternation and distress throughout Israel. More than a decade later, many of the former Gaza residents have still not fully recovered from the disruption of their lives.
Rather than leading to a reduction in tensions between Israel and the Arabs of Gaza, as Sharon had predicted, the disengagement led to Gaza becoming a failed terrorist state ruled by Hamas, which used the territory Israel abandoned as a launching pad for repeated attacks on Israel.
Herzog says his plan learns from the mistakes made in Gaza and would keep the Israeli army in its current positions throughout the West Bank.
Herzog expects the displaced West Bank Jews to be resettled in the large settlement blocs near the Green Line, which would remain in place. The plan also calls for completing the security fence around settlement blocs, and leaving Arab neighborhoods in Yerushalayim outside the fence
CONSPIRING WITH KERRY
The Labor Party chairman discussed his withdrawal proposal with Secretary of State Kerry last week at a meeting in Rome.
This was the fourth meeting between Kerry and Herzog over the past six months. In their previous meetings, Herzog called upon the US to encourage the formation of a regional security committee consisting of Israel, Egypt, Jordan and other Arab states to coordinate joint efforts to fight radical Islamic terror. In a meeting with Kerry last November Herzog said that the formation of the regional committee would be preceded by “confidence building measures” including “removing territories from Israel.”
Last week, Herzog told Kerry, “The security situation cannot continue. Israelis are murdered on the streets and the world is focusing on ridiculous initiatives and boycotts. This ignores the reality.”
Herzog insisted that his “separation plan is the only way to move things in the region and advance towards the vision of two states in the future. It won’t be realized tomorrow morning, but if we want to succeed in creating a true prospect (for peace) we need to take drastic steps. To stop with the big words.
“Israel cannot wait for long negotiations. Our citizens are being murdered and we must begin the process of separating (from the Palestinians) which will be the realistic basis for the vision of two states, which I firmly believe is the only solution to the conflict.”
ASKING OBAMA TO GET INVOLVED
Herzog told Kerry that the first meeting of his proposed regional committee must “take place before the end of President Obama’s term.” A statement issued by Herzog’s office said that Kerry expressed interest in Herzog’s plan and said it contained elements similar to his own initiative for advancing security and cooperation in the Middle East. However, since the collapse of US-sponsored peace talks in April 2014, the White House and State Department have shown no interest in moving forward on such an initiative before Obama and Kerry leave office. After Herzog and Kerry met in Rome, the State Department said Kerry had no plans to visit the region to restart peace talks in the near future.
Meanwhile, Israeli media reports say that Netanyahu fears an effort by the Obama administration to pressure Israel by threatening to permit passage of a UN Security Council resolution which would define the pre-1967 borders as the basis for a future two-state solution. Until now, the US has exercised an “automatic veto” against such resolutions because that they are in conflict with the principle that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can only be resolved through direct negotiations by both sides. The State Department has denied that the US intends to change its position on such resolutions at the UN.
FRANCE GIVES ISRAEL AN ULTIMATUM ON THE PALESTINIANS
Two weeks ago, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius announced that France had issued an ultimatum to Israel, threatening to recognize the Palestinian state unilaterally if an international peace conference France has been trying to convene fails to result in a new diplomatic effort to reach a negotiated peace agreement.
Addressing a conference of French diplomats in Paris, Laurent attributed the failure of diplomatic efforts to date solely to Israel’s West Bank settlement policies. He declared, “Unfortunately, Israeli settlement construction continues. We must not let the two-state solution unravel. It is France’s responsibility as a permanent member of the UN Security Council.”
Chief PA negotiator Saeb Erekat welcomed the French initiative and asserted that any peace agreement require the end of Israeli settlement activity within a “specified timeframe.”
Netanyahu rejected the French proposal. As he explained to the Israeli cabinet on Sunday, France’s threat to grant unilateral recognition by a set deadline was counterproductive because it would “only encourage the Palestinians to refuse to negotiate.”
France has been working since December 2014, to force a diplomatic solution. It started by proposing a UN Security Council resolution outlining a final resolution of the Israel-Palestinian conflict based upon the pre-1967 borders, but it failed due to opposition from Israel and the US, and the Palestinians’ unwillingness to compromise on the wording of the resolution.
Last year France organized an international support group for peace talks which met on the sidelines of the General Assembly session last September, but without Israeli or Palestinian cooperation. Fabius then pushed for a Security Council condemnation of Israeli settlements, but that initiative also failed.
Israeli foreign policy officials do not take France’s latest proposal for an international conference seriously because the French have not done the diplomatic work necessary to put such a conference together. According to the State Department spokesman, the French have not consulted with the US on the initiative either.
Israeli officials suspect the French proposal is a diplomatic smokescreen to justify France’s intention to recognize a Palestinian state, as Sweden did in October 2014, and which the French parliament approved by passing a non-binding resolution in November 2014.
ISRAEL NEGOTIATING A NEW US AID PACKAGE
Netanyahu updated the cabinet on Sunday on talks with the Obama administration about renewing the 10-year agreement for US military aid to Israel which is up for renewal next year. In light of its increased defense needs, due in part to US agreement to the Iran nuclear deal, Israel requested an increase in its military aid from the current $3 billion annually to $5 billion.
Negotiations for renewal of the ten year agreement, which is known as a memo of understanding (MOU), began in 2013, but were interrupted by the bitter disagreement between Obama and Netanyahu over the Iran deal.
A high level delegation from the White House National Security Council arrived in Israel last week to resume the negotiations with members of Netanyahu’s staff and defense ministry officials. They were unable to reach agreement on the overall size of the US aid package. As a result, Netanyahu told the cabinet that he may wait until after Obama leaves office to finalize the negotiations.
White House officials were reportedly angered by the Israeli decision to wait for the next administration and hold out for more aid. The NSC officials warned their Israeli counterparts that they are unlikely to get a better offer from Obama’s successor.
DIVISION WITHIN LABOR’S RANKS
Meanwhile, Herzog’s proposal has stirred controversy within the more liberal wing of Labor, led by former party chairwoman Shelly Yachimovich. She sees his disengagement plan as a thinly veiled abandonment of the peace process.
Stressing the importance of renewing negotiations to end the current wave of violence, she told Israel Radio that while Abbas may not be a “lover of Zion,” he may represent Israel’s “last opportunity to speak with a secular, pragmatic, Palestinian leader. We can’t lose this opportunity and play into the hands of Netanyahu.”
Labor’s leadership has undergone a great deal of internal turmoil, with more than 10 leadership changes in the last two decades. Yachimovich, Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai, and former Defense Minister Amir Peretz are expected to challenge Herzog for the party leadership in Labor’s next primary.
Herzog managed to delay the primary until later this year through a disputed vote at the start of Sunday’s central committee meeting. It approved Herzog’s proposal to put off finalizing the date for the next party primary, which had been tentatively scheduled for May, until the next leadership meeting. Many party leaders expect Herzog to push for a further delay in setting a date for the primary.
Sunday’s vote to postpone the primary date took place when there were only about 20 people at the Labor leadership meeting, just five minutes after it started. Labor Party leaders who arrived later were surprised to find out that the vote had already taken place.
“That was a Barak-style political trick,” said a Yachimovich supporter. He was referring to former prime minister Ehud Barak, who was ousted as Labor’s leader in 2011 after he was accused of having conspired with Netanyahu to keep Labor in the government to preserve his own position as defense minister. Barak then left the Labor Party to start his own Knesset faction, taking some of the Labor MKs with him.
Later in the meeting, hundreds of Labor activists voted to endorse Herzog’s disengagement plan and to incorporate it into the party’ political platform.
Herzog told the activists, “The two-state vision did not die, but it will not happen tomorrow. What can be achieved today is security for the citizens of Israel and separation between us and the Palestinians, with actions, not mere words.” He also promised that his plan would “end the third Intifada” and lead to enhanced regional cooperation on security.
Yachimovitch did not raise her objections to Herzog’s plan at the Labor meeting, but it was criticized by the head of Peace Now, Yariv Openheimer, who has run for Knesset on the Labor Party list in the past.
“If we want to win more Knesset seats, we need to differentiate ourselves from the Likud,” Openheimer said. “Whoever copies Netanyahu will be irrelevant. If we want to win the election, we should have the courage to tell the public what we believe in.”
CALLS FOR PARTY UNITY
After the meeting, the party issued a statement saying that “for the first time in decades” it had “adopted a complete and comprehensive security policy outline.”
Labor Secretary-General MK Yechiel Bar called Herzog’s plan “responsible, realistic and courageous.” He had criticized Herzog’s plan just two weeks earlier, but said that he dropped his objections because party unity comes first.
“I thank Herzog for his leadership on the political issue, and call on all of us to unite around the plan approved today. As of today everyone has one outline. Our strength is in our unity,” Bar said, calling for an end to internal disputes and a new focus on defeating Labor’s external rivals.
On Monday, Herzog defended his disengagement plan at a right wing conference in Yerushalayim sponsored by Arutz Sheva. “I came here to tell you that you also need to change direction. The leadership of the right has no solution. Bennett has no solution. Annexing Area C [the portion of the West Bank under full Israeli control] will only encourage more terror and more fences,” he said.
“My proposal is to finish building the fence. What’s happening today in Gush Etzion is a fiasco. When we pray ‘Le’yerushalayim ircha be’rachamim toshuv’ we aren’t referring to the 13 Arab villages around Yerushalayim.
“We should not repeat the mistake made in the Gaza Disengagement by removing the Israeli army, but on the other hand (we should) give the Palestinians more self-rule,” Herzog said.
He added that the world’s recognition of Israel’s right to keep the large settlement blocs, “foremost among them Gush Etzion, to which I am personally connected,” should be a sufficient “victory for Zionism. . .
“I myself come from religious Zionism,” said the Labor party chairman, who is the grandson of the Chief Rabbi of Ireland, Rav Yitzchak Halevi Herzog, who then served as the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel from 1936 until his death in 1959. “I want us to reach an agreement that will leave the blocs to us. It can’t be any other way in the international reality we find ourselves in,” Herzog said.