Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is invoking the renewed military conflict with Hamas to argue it’s risky to trade more land for peace with the Palestinians.
Netanyahu, speaking as warplanes pounded the Gaza Strip in an attempt to stop rockets attacks, scoffed at an assertion made by White House Mideast coordinator Philip Gordon last week that withdrawing from most of the West Bank would make Israel more secure. “I am not prepared to create another 20 Gazas,” he said July 11, referring to the size of the territory sandwiched between Israel and Jordan.
“Netanyahu doesn’t want to give up territory, although he says he’s willing to make limited withdrawals under terms that he can argue keep Israel secure,” said Shmuel Sandler, a political scientist at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv. “The conflict with Hamas in Gaza gives him more reason to say that the U.S. assurances aren’t good enough to justify pulling back in the West Bank.”
The Palestinians, whose security forces coordinate with Israel in the West Bank, reject Netanyahu’s argument.
Disagreements over the borders of the future Palestinian state and the extent of an Israeli pullout contributed to the collapse of U.S.-sponsored negotiations talks in April. Two months later, Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, a member of Netanyahu’s governing coalition, said Israel should abandon the two-state solution and annex its West Bank settlements, prompting a threat by Finance Minister Yair Lapid to topple the government if the proposal was approved.
The land-for-peace premise underlies decades of diplomatic efforts to reach a two-state solution. The Palestinians want the West Bank as part of their future country and say Israel’s settlement construction and its demands to retain control over security in the area undermine their right to a viable state. Israel captured the West Bank in the 1967 Mideast war.
It was the kidnapping and killing of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank last month that set off the current round of Gaza fighting. Rocket fire from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip intensified after Israel arrested Hamas operatives in the West Bank and flared further after a Palestinian teenager died in suspected retribution for the death of the Israeli students.
More than 200 Palestinians, including women and children, have been killed since Israel stepped up its offensive last week, according to the Gaza Health Ministry. Militants fired more than 1,250 rockets at Israel, killing one person and injuring several more. Israel, along with the U.S. and the European Union, classify Hamas as a terrorist organization.
Netanyahu is using the barrage to argue that ceding territory in the West Bank would make Israel vulnerable to more attacks.
“The Israeli people understand now what I always say: there cannot be a situation, under any agreement, in which we relinquish security control of the territory west of the Jordan River,” he said July 11. The Palestinians seek that part of the Jordan Valley lying on the West Bank’s border with Jordan for a future state.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and retired Marine Corps General John R. Allen in December presented a plan to Netanyahu that aimed at satisfying Israel’s security requirements without the long-term presence of Israeli troops. Gordon told the audience at a conference in Tel Aviv last week that Israel would be “more secure than it is today” if it adopts the plan, whose details weren’t made public.
“I told John Kerry and General Allen, the Americans’ expert: We live here, I live here, I know what we need to ensure the security of Israel’s people,” Netanyahu said.
To be sure, pressure on Israel is unlikely to abate in any new round of talks no matter how dire Netanyahu portrays the threat from a resurgent Hamas on the West Bank, said Natan Sachs, a fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
“If and when negotiations resume between Israel and the Palestinians, I don’t expect any major change in the territorial contours of the proposals,” Sachs said. “I do expect a reinforced Israeli insistence on the security aspects of ceding territory.”
Netanyahu still supports a two-state solution under terms discussed before, such as retaining control over the Jordan Valley and demanding a demilitarized Palestinian state, according to an Israeli government official who asked not to be identified because there are no peace talks.
Xavier Abu Eid, a spokesman for the Palestinian negotiating team, said Israel was “cynically using its aggression against a defenseless civilian population in Gaza in order to consolidate its occupation.”
“Israel should realize that the best way to ensure its own security is by respecting international law and stopping their systematic denial of Palestinian national rights,” he said in an e-mail.