Israel’s April 9 election may be its most significant since 1992, Dr. Michael Koplow believes.
Dr. Koplow, who earned a Ph.D. in international affairs from Georgetown, a masters degree in Middle Eastern studies from Harvard, and a law degree from NYU, is the policy director for the Israel Policy Forum. (He is coming to Teaneck to speak at Davar next Shabbat; see box.)
Dr. Koplow, who grew up in New Rochelle, wrote his doctoral dissertation on Turkey. But because he went to Jewish day schools (SAR and MTA) and traveled to Israel with his family, and spent his gap year in an Israeli yeshiva, Yeshivat Sha’arei Mevaseret Zion, and continued to read the Israeli dailies, he found himself writing about Israeli politics. While he “didn’t want to be another American Jew working on Israel,” that became his fate.
The Israeli Policy Forum dates back to the immediate aftermath of the 1992 election that made Yitzhak Rabin prime minister, opening the way for the 1993 Oslo accords between Israel and the Palestinians. Mainstream Jewish organizations were slow to adapt to Israel’s new policies, a phenomenon dubbed “diaspora lag.” So Mr. Rabin plucked the head of Americans for Peace Now, Jonathan Jacoby, to start a new organization to support his policies in Washington and among American Jews.
Twenty six years later, the Forum advocates for a two-state solution in a far less hospitable time. On the one hand, there’s the fight against BDS. On the other, negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians have been frozen for more than a decade.
Now, Dr. Koplow believes the Israeli election may break the status quo — and not in a good way. That’s why it’s important.
“If Netanyahu is returned to government, the threat that Israel will annex the West Bank is very real,” he said. “It’s an idea that a few years ago was completely fringe, even on the right. But since the last election, it has moved to the mainstream. Twenty-eight of 29 Likud Knesset members are on record as supporting annexation.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is the only Likudnik in the Knesset not on record supporting annexation. And annexation “is the number one policy priority for Yemin Chadash,” the new party led by Education Minister Naftali Bennett. “If Netanyahu is reelected, he will have a difficult time standing up to the annexationists within his party and within his bloc,” Dr. Koplow said.
Dr. Koplow believes it would be disastrous for Israel to annex the West Bank, or large portions of it.
“If you annex Area C, which is 60 percent of the West Bank, and tell the Palestinians they have some sort of autonomy in the 40 percent of the West Bank that is areas A and B, there’s no chance the Palestinian Authority will survive,” he said. “The one thing the PA does very well is security cooperation in the West Bank. They keep Hamas out and keep things very quiet. If the PA no longer exists, it means Israel itself has to go back into areas A and B, which are Palestinian cities and towns where there are no Jews, back to patrolling those on a daily basis and keeping law and order. It’s something Bennett say he wants to avoid, but he’s unlikely to.”
The West Bank Areas A, B, and C were defined in the agreement Israel and the Palestinians signed a quarter century ago. Area A includes the Palestinian cities and is under full Palestinian control. Area B includes more rural villages and is under joint control. Area C includes Israeli settlements and the West Bank’s open areas, and Israel controls it.
If “by some miracle,” the PA does survive after annexation, Dr. Koplow said, there will be another problem: “Areas A and B are not contiguous. They are 169 islands surrounded by area C.
“You have 169 new borders, 169 new security barriers. It’s $7.6 billion to build, $1.1 billion annually to maintain. That’s before you factor in the added security costs, both financial and human, of the additional soldiers you will need to patrol 169 different barriers.
“It’s easy to say, let’s just annex Area C! What’s the big deal? But when you take a minute to see what it means in practice, it’s almost impossible to pull off.
He said he has spoken to Mr. Bennett and Likud Knesset members about annexation. “It’s slogans over substance,” he said. “They themselves don’t quite understand what the implications are.”
One implication will be for the battle against BDS.
“It’s very easy right now for the organized Jewish community to discredit BDS, as it should be. It’s a movement that calls for the effective end of Israel as a Jewish state. It’s not an anti-occupation movement — it’s something a lot more sinister.
“If Israel actually goes on to annex the West Bank, it makes it a lot more difficult for people who want to combat BDS. If you want to give the BDS movement the biggest shot of pure oxygen you can give it, annex the West Bank and tell the Palestinians you’re foreclosing a state for them forever.”
On the other hand, if the new centrist Blue and White Party led by Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid were to lead the government, “my guess is you would have a policy that looks a lot like the stuff the Israel Policy Forum is advocating: taking small, easily digestible positive steps in the West Bank that keep a two-state solution possible.”
“Ganz and Lapid are not Peace Now folks,” he said, and neither is the Forum. “Our thrust is not to call for negotiations or encourage any type of peace plan, but to figure out a policy right now that would not concede anything unilaterally to the Palestinians, but would improve Israel’s security and also preserve the two-state option for a time in the future where it’s more viable.”
One such policy advocated by the Israel Policy Forum: Finish building the West Bank security barrier.
“Most people credit the barrier, built by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon during the Second Intifada, as being the biggest single factor that eventually ended the wave of suicide bombings within Israeli cities,” Mr. Koplow said. “But it was never completed. There are three big gaps that total 40 kilometers.
“Every day, 80,000 Palestinians enter Israel with work permits, and 50,000 come in illegally through the gaps in the barrier.
“In the last 12 years, there have been only four terrorist attacks in Israel by Palestinians who were in Israel with work permits. Every other attack committed by West Bank Palestinians in Israel were done by those who came illegally through the gaps.”
So why was the barrier never finished?
“For political reasons. The gaps are opposite Maale Adumim and Gush Etzion. If you complete them, it prevents two of Israel’s largest settlement blocs from expanding further east.”
The lack of the barrier “damages Israel’s security on an ongoing basis,” Mr. Koplow said.
Conversely, “if you close up the security barrier, it shows the Palestinians there is a political horizon for them if they ever get a leadership that is serious about negotiating. It’s something that can be done by Israel on its own. It doesn’t require a partner on the other side.
“But there’s a large lobby of settlers who for political reasons do not want the barrier completed.”