(June 22, 2020 / JNS) As the July 1 date for Israel to begin the process applying sovereignty to parts of Judea and Samaria approaches, there has been no shortage of opinions from the left and the right over the soundness of the move, spearheaded by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
In particular, concern has been raised that the plan could end up damaging the carefully crafted relations that Israel has developed with several key Arab Gulf states in recent years under Netanyahu’s direction.
Amid the debate, representatives of the Kohelet Policy Forum recently met with Netanyahu to present him with its most recent paper supporting Israeli sovereignty over Judea, Samaria and the Jordan Valley.
According to Kohelet founder Moshe Koppel, by applying sovereignty, the Jewish state would change the calculus by which the Arab-Israeli conflict is measured. He told JNS that it “establishes that Israel is not leaving.”
The Trump administration’s Mideast peace plan has received criticism from all sides. Detractors on the right dislike the part of the plan that requires Israel to freeze building in Jewish communities in Area “C,” as well as the plan’s allowance for the establishment of a Palestinian state. Detractors on the left say this is not the right time to go ahead with such a move, and that it will provoke the United Nations, European Union, International Criminal Court (already with Israel in its judicial crosshairs) and Arab nations.
This view includes former Israeli security officials like Amos Gilad, who says sovereignty would be a “disaster” for Israel’s national security.
In Gilad’s view, Arab countries have become Israel’s strategic partners, “even friends,” in a way few could have imagined just a few years ago. Annexation, or the more accurate term of “sovereignty,” would place these relationships at risk.
For Gilad, Israel’s flourishing relationship with Arab countries and its good security coordination with the Palestinians is reason enough not to introduce cause for anger and disruption.
“Why do we need to make them angry?” he asked in a recent discussion with the American Jewish left-wing Israel Policy Forum. “We need to enhance the relationship and not make them nervous, even if you think they are wrong,” he said.
“In the long run,” he concluded, if Israel applies sovereignty, it “will be doomed.”
This week, key figures of the Trump administration are expected to meet to discuss the upcoming Israeli sovereignty plan. Since taking office, the Trump administration has helped to foster Israeli-Gulf relations. Indeed, several key Arab ambassadors in the region attended the unveiling of the U.S. “Peace to Prosperity” plan in January, with Bahrain having hosted the launch of the economic component of Trump’s peace plan in June 2019.
‘Recalibrate the Arab-Israeli conflict’
But for those Israelis who support sovereignty, doing so would recalibrate the Arab-Israeli conflict by setting more realistic parameters and would remove veto power from the Palestinians, who have consistently rejected peace proposals for years.
While Gilad believes that sovereignty “is a direct threat to the security of Arab nations” and “a provocation to Arabs,” most Israelis, as well as many Arabs, disagree.
While the United Arab Emirates’ ambassador to Washington, Yousef Al Otaiba, wrote in the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot last week that Israel cannot expect to normalize relations with the Arab world if it pushes ahead with sovereignty, UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash said last week that Israel and the UAE could separate the political from the non-political.
“Can I have a political disagreement with Israel, but at the same time try and bridge other areas of the relationship? I think I can. I think that is fundamentally where we are,” Gargash said in an interview for the American Jewish Committee Virtual Global Forum.
Signaling is important; in the Middle East, it is essential. By applying sovereignty, Israel sends the message that it will no longer be dragged through tried-and-failed formulas to achieve peace with the Palestinians.
Nevertheless, in a recent radio interview in Israel, former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk said, “The damage to Israel’s reputation and its relationship with Arab countries will be irreplaceable.”
Still, not everyone agrees with that assessment. Some Arab countries appear to have understood Israel’s signals.
Yoel Guzansky, a senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies, noted the “alleged understanding that Arab leaders, including those in the Gulf, have given the American team on the issue, in effect, a ‘green light’ to continue mapping work” to promote sovereignty. “This, despite their official position against the plan,” he told JNS.
Against the background of these contradictory positions, Guzansky questioned whether and to what extent sovereignty could indeed harm Israeli-Persian Gulf relations.
According to Guzansky, the shared Iranian threat to the region will not go away anytime soon, so the issue of sovereignty is not expected to have a long-term impact on the deep security cooperation that currently exists between Israel and the Gulf countries.
Instead, those leaders fear that sovereignty “will provoke unrest that will hamper the stability of their regimes,” said Guzansky. “They will be portrayed not only as having abandoned the Palestinians, but as cooperating with Israel.”
Kohelet emphasized in its report that the reason sovereignty is important is that years of Israeli hesitance in Judea and Samaria provided the Palestinians with the opportunity to run a false campaign against Israel that presents it as a conqueror in a foreign land. In order to put an end to this delegitimization and remove this false claim, Israel must back up its justification for sovereignty in deeds.
By not applying sovereignty, Israel signals to the world that its presence in the territories is temporary. “Applying Israeli law on the ground will present to the world a new reality in which the State of Israel is the sovereign in the disputed territories, both legally and practically,” said the report.
Joshua Krasna, a fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, told JNS the Arab countries “didn’t really care that much”; however, the high-profile debate is “forcing them to care.”
“No Arab government can be seen to officially acquiesce to Israel’s ‘taking off the table’ a large part of the disputed territory,” he said. “Also, once Jordan has taken such a strong stance, the other Arab conservative states line up with her to various degrees.”
While the acquiescence of Arab states is taken as a given—and even trumpeted—and used as a key argument for sovereignty by Israel, Krasna warned that “while they are far from being democracies,” these Arab countries must also worry about the Arab “street.”
“There may be an aspect in which the upcoming American elections and questions about the identity of the next administration may have them wishing that there not to be major changes on the ground, which would require them to take a clear stand on the Trump initiative,” he said.
Kohelet emphasized though that a historic opportunity exists now to apply sovereignty, saying “it is doubtful whether such a golden opportunity will ever return. Washington has never been as sympathetic to Israel as President Trump has been.”
“It is unclear whether Trump will be re-elected. Hence the urgency,” explains the report. “There is a historical opportunity ahead of us: to fully return to the homeland where our national, spiritual and religious identity was formed, and from which we were expelled 2,000 years ago. A window of opportunity is about to close. If we don’t take advantage, it could be a cry for generations.”
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