As I speak with well-intentioned and informed supporters of Israel, I often hear of their difficulty in envisioning how Israeli sovereignty in Judea and Samaria would work on a practical level. Behind this comment is really the question of what will become of the Arabs living there. It has become a core issue of debate, as the Israeli government grapples with even limited application of Israeli law to the area, as part of U.S. President Donald Trump’s “Peace to Prosperity” plan.
The concern is completely understandable. In spite of Israel’s historic, legal and security rights to Judea and Samaria as the heartland of the Jewish people and state, fears of a demographic onslaught, international judgement and Western discomfort—and even denial of the reality of Middle Eastern culture, corruption and violence—create heightened worry about any movement towards Israeli sovereignty, including within the areas of current Israeli settlement where few Arabs reside today.
However, the lack of sovereignty creates numerous debilitating consequences for Jewish Israelis living in Judea and Samaria in towns and villages built by successive Israeli governments as part of official policy. They are, in many respects, second-class citizens in comparison to their counterparts inside the “Green Line,” the border determined in the 1949 Armistice Agreements between Israel and its Arab neighbors after the 1948 War of Independence.
This is clearly untenable.
How, then, will sovereignty work, and why is it superior—regardless of international preference and pressure on Israel—to a so-called “two-state solution”?
To answer the question, one first must assess the risks and returns for each approach in the broader context of the Middle East. Doing so is better than relying on “belief”—as it is usually articulated—in a two-state solution. Indeed, no course of action should be based on blind faith, particularly when pertaining to decisions that involve severe strategic consequences in the event of failure.
Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005 clearly demonstrates the risk of any attempt to transfer land to the Palestinian Authority. Within two years, Gaza became a Hamas-ruled terrorist entity that has wreaked death and destruction on Israeli border communities, with no recovery plan other than for Israel to invade the enclave. Even without such a measure, Israel is under constant international pressure to avoid any form of conflict, thus placing it in an unwinnable dilemma. The risk involved in withdrawing from Judea and Samaria—a move promoted by those who favor a two-state solution—the risk would be on a far more complex and dangerous order of magnitude. Only a masochist would attempt the same approach twice and expect a different result.
Let us examine three approaches from a risk-balancing perspective.
The first, a two-state approach, is simple. Whether involving the establishment of a full Palestinian state, or one minus certain features—such as control of the Jordan Valley, air space and the communications spectrum—Israel would be prevented from interfering in the internal security affairs of this state and under constant international pressure to avoid intervention. This has been demonstrated conclusively in numerous situations around the world. Why it would be different in this case is hard to fathom. What it would mean for Israel is the inability to confront terrorism, which–after a withdrawal from Judea and Samaria—would be conducted from the high ground overlooking 70 percent of Israel’s population, in addition to its major infrastructure and transportation systems.
Nor does the chorus of politically motivated Israeli military and security experts supporting separation from the Palestinians and a two-state approach have an answer to this fundamental problem.
The second approach is based on U.S. national-security interests. Israel’s being situated on the mountain ridges of Judea and Samaria extends the strategic hand of the United States, sparing Washington the need to deploy additional military divisions and aircraft carriers to the Persian Gulf, Indian Ocean, Mediterranean Sea and the Middle East at large, which would cost the American taxpayer $15-20 billion annually. This enhances the survivability of the region’s shaky, pro-U.S. regimes, such as Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
An Israeli withdrawal from Judea and Samaria would doom these regimes and add much fuel to the highly volatile, violent Middle East, undermining vital U.S. interests and awarding Iran, Turkey, Russia and China a huge bonanza. The bottom line is that Israeli presence on the mountain ridges of Judea and Samaria is a lucrative, geostrategic asset for the United States, and the absence of such an Israeli presence would be a costly and risky liability.
A third approach is the engagement of the hamulot, or family clans, which dominate all social and political activities in the Arab Middle East, not just among Arabs in Israel. These clans are connected by blood, and typically dominate a town or distinct area. They deeply resent the oppressive and non-democratic Palestinian Authority, and prefer Israeli sovereignty to a corrupt P.A.
Hamulot chieftains represent at least 70 percent of Israel’s Arab population. Their honor was impugned, and their leaders deeply shamed, by Israel’s decision to empower “outsider Arabs” who were invited back from Tunisian exile, resulting in the hamulot’s degraded status under the Oslo Accords. Their natural alignment with Israeli sovereignty places this risk assessment in favor of Israel.
By reengaging local hamulot, Israel would create a joint vision with Arab partners on how to build the economy and support local populations. This process already has begun in earnest between Israeli and hamulot leaders in Judea and Samaria, who meet regularly.
The single greatest obstructionist in this process of ground-up coexistence is the Palestinian Authority. It actively threatens, harasses and arrests anyone who attempts coexistence or collaboration with Israel. In contrast, the hamulot leaders understand the difference between civil and national rights. They will be amenable to Israeli sovereignty and autonomous rights for their communities, such as residency status now in place for Jerusalem Arabs, with a long-term highly vetted and controlled path to citizenship.
The typical retorts from two-states are: 1. The local Arab population will resist sovereignty. In fact, it is more likely that resistance will come from a small group within the P.A., which certainly is no worse than the substantial risk of having a terror-sponsoring state on the high ground overlooking Israel. It is highly doubtful that any other type of Palestinian state is possible, given the 70 years of delegitimization and incitement against Israel by all P.A. institutions; 2. Israel will be an international pariah. This has been demonstrated repeatedly to be false, as countries ultimately operate out of self-interest; and 3. The persistent myth of the demographic time bomb between Jews and Arabs in Israel.
This myth is based on intentionally misleading and politically charged data produced by the P.A. Census Bureau, where not a single audited and monitored census has occurred in years. Israel disbanded its own census of Judea and Samaria years ago, and relies solely upon the P.A.’s politically driven figures. The second part of this false narrative is negated by the fact that Israeli Jews now have the highest fertility rate in the developed world and have overtaken Arab fertility rates in Israel, Judea and Samaria. (This has been studied extensively by Ambassador Yoram Ettinger.)
The combination of cooperation with hamulot, municipal autonomy for Arab areas, a highly vetted and controlled path to citizenship and economic prosperity makes sovereignty quite viable and fair. From a security perspective, it’s the only approach that mitigates the very serious downside risk of another failed Arab state engaged in terrorism on Israel’s border (as if Syria, Lebanon and Gaza were not enough), without the legal recourse to recapture the territory.
Furthermore, it confronts head-on the common charge that Israel will become, with sovereignty, an “apartheid state” as being totally sophistic and not comporting with the realities on the ground. It resolves the serious issue of two different sets of laws for different Israeli citizens, while dealing, once and for all, with the P.A.’s culture of conflict, incitement and corruption, as well as its engaging constantly in and “anti-normalization” campaign, to the detriment of its compatriots.
Israeli sovereignty in Judea and Samaria, and cooperation with hamulot, is the best, most viable and least risky approach. It is certainly worth considering.