Naftali Bennett’s annexation plan: A report card

This piece appeared on +972 Mag on 12.25.14

When Naftali Bennett first entered the coalition, I wrote of his plan to create a de facto one-state solution. Now that the current government is in its final days, it is worth taking stock of his progress and looking at what his plans are for round two.

Strengthening the belief in the supremacy of claims to the Jewish homeland and the justness of measures to maintain control of it.

The last straw of this current government was the Jewish Nation-State Bill. As he stated in his much-watched performance at the Brookings Institute, Bennett’s next target is the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty, the constitutional basis in Israel for civil and human rights. He believes the “balance” was tipped by the Supreme Court and that Israel has become too democratic and not Jewish enough.

It is therefore no surprise that Bennett’s Jewish Home party has indicated it will demand the Justice Ministry in the next government.

Uniting the nation and its leadership

Though it was clear that Jewish Home’s Uri Ariel was Housing Minister only for the West Bank settlements, Bennett’s personal popularity has only grown. His latest campaign video shows him trying to break out of the ‘settlement party’ box.

Military strength and controlling of the territory through the security establishment.

Bennett scored big political points during the last war in Gaza by arguing in favor of a ground invasion to shut down the tunnels early on in the operation. The fact that he was ahead of the curve has been important for his profile. Based on this performance (and his previous military service), he now regularly dismisses security officials who disagree with him.

The elimination of terror and cessation of incitement in Palestinian schools.

Bennett has maintained that there is no partner in the PA, pointing to incitement. He continues to do so at every available opportunity.

Making clear to the international community that a second state west of the Jordan River is not viable.

Many folks were surprised by the strength of Bennett’s performance during the Saban Conference in Washington earlier this month. Bennett’s main calling card is that he fully rejects the two-state solution and wants to shift the conversation in a different direction. The cornerstone of his plan is the annexation of Area C and some sort of self-rule in Areas A and B. Gaza isn’t worthy of inclusion in his plan. The more he can get people to agree that the two-state solution is dead, the more he can claim that he is the only person with a path forward.

Advancing the immigration of one million Jews to Israel to secure a permanent Jewish majority in Israel.

Bennett rather enjoyed his position as Minister for Diaspora Affairs. He was Chairman of Birthright and champion of the World Jewry Joint Initiative, a program designed to scale up the concept of Birthright and have Israeli tax-payers responsible for ensuring a strong Jewish identity within the diaspora. As I’ve written previously, the idea of having struggling middle-class Israelis subsidize the humongous costs of Jewish day school education in the States is a losing concept. More importantly, being a third-party funder will give the Diaspora Minster a say over Jewish educational content in the U.S. and will give Bennett a whole new platform — targeting a new generation — to continue advocating and advancing his one-state vision.

One million Jews in Judea and Samaria, tripling its Jewish population.

As Labor MK and Knesset Finance Committee member Stav Shaffir consistently showed, under Bennett’s priorities, the Finance Committee would give larger and more subsidies to West Bank settlements than to the socioeconomically weak towns and cities in the south of Israel. Between the Housing Ministry and the Knesset Finance Committee chairmanship, Bennett’s party has ensured that cash continues to flow across the Green Line in disproportionately larger and larger sums in order to make this his vision a reality.

The creation of large residential areas surrounding the current West Bank settlements.

Though there was no formal settlement building freeze during this government, there were constant rumblings about an informal freeze outside the major settlement blocs. Bennett hopes to continue advancing his one-state vision through his annexation of Area C, which he will be in a greater position to do if he takes becomes Israel’s next Defense Minister.

Palestinian construction workers in an Israeli settlement (Photo by Yotam Ronen/Activestills.org)

Executing a construction, development and economic plan for the million Jewish Israeli residents of the West Bank.

The Defense Minister is the de-facto sovereign of the West Bank. Not due to any lack of effort, many of Housing Minister Uri Ariel’s initiatives never got approval from the Defense Minister under this government. It is no wonder that one of Bennett’s main anticipated demands from Netanyahu in the next coalition is being given the reigns to the Defense Ministry.

Over all, Bennett has done remarkably well. What has stood in his way has been the Supreme Court and his inability to get final approval for settlement projects in the West Bank. It is little wonder that he wants to push through the Jewish Nation-State bill, while insisting on the Justice and Defense portfolios as his price for ensuring Bibi’s return to Balfour Street in Jerusalem.

Whether or not Bibi gives him everything he wants, Bennett is riding high.

What of the anyone but Bibi coalition (AOBB)?

For the math to work for AOBB, either the ultra-Orthodox need to sit with Lapid (not a chance in hell) or Meretz needs to sit with Avigdor Liberman. With the role of the Arab parties still unknown (as they struggle with the Left to work out how, if at all, they should work together) they have been left on the outside, at best in a supporting role.

Thus the savior of the two-state camp (Avigdor Liberman) is a man who wants to transfer Arab citizens out of Israel, the implementation of which would mark the formal departure of the concept of coexistence from the two-state paradigm.

If Bennett has accomplished anything it is this: he has forced the two-state camp to rely on a party whose main plank is the transfer and disenfranchisement of Arab citizens of Israel.

Until the Left finds a way to include the Arab parties in their potential coalition, the result will be depressing and the coalition-building formula will mean that the two-state solution may no longer be worth the price.

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Kerry’s Task: Close the Incredulity Gap

Daily Beast 24/5/13

With Ghaith al-Omari and Danielle Spiegel Feld

President Obama’s challenge to the thousand Israeli students he addressed in Jerusalem was clear: “Speaking as a politician, I can promise you this: political leaders will not take risks if the people do not demand that they do. You must create the change that you want to see.” The President, once a community organizer himself, understands the importance of grassroots momentum to change the status quo.

Secretary of State John Kerry has since made important progress towards reviving the two-state agenda: On the political front, the Israelis appear to have agreed to impose a settlement freeze of sorts, while the Palestinians have temporarily agreed not to pursue international legal actions against Israel. On the economic front, a private sector team of business leaders now stands ready to examine investment opportunities within the West Bank. And regionally, the Arab League has revived its 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, demonstrating that there is still Arab support for the idea of two states.

Yet, despite these promising developments, the Israeli and Palestinian publics are no closer to believing that peace is on its way.

The latest Pew polls report that 61 percent of Palestinians believe there is no way for an independent Palestinian state to coexist peacefully with Israel. Within Israel the figures are somewhat better—only 38 percent see no way to coexist—but the whole peace process was still virtually ignored in Israel’s last elections.

Thus, even though poll after poll indicates a plurality of each population would accept a two-state solution, a vast “incredulity gap” remains within each society. The physical erosion of the two-state solution due to settlement expansion, provocations by each sides’ leaders, violence that followed the Gaza disengagement, and relentless effects of the occupation, are causing both peoples to lose faith in the ideal of two states living beside each other in peace.

The incredulity gap poses a serious hurdle for Secretary Kerry. If the people do not believe a two-state solution is plausible, they will not actively push for it. And as President Obama made clear, without strong stakeholder engagement, there will be no pressure on political leaders to return to the negotiating table, nor remain there if the talks do take place.

There is, however, one bright spot in the recent polling data: a plurality of Israelis and Palestinians wants President Obama to play a bigger role in resolving the conflict (49 percent of Israelis and 41 percent of Palestinians). This provides an opening for Secretary Kerry to speak directly to these constituencies, bolstering support for civil society groups on both sides of the Green Line.

These groups need this extra attention: We cannot expect the grassroots in the region to make change when the mediators seeking to achieve that change pass them over.

The U.S. has established an admirable record of supporting people-to-people dialogue and regional cooperative initiatives, particularly through the auspices of U.S. AID funding programs. The Obama Administration is also in the midst of an important project to map the different civil society groups in the region to see how American support can best be allocated.

But given the urgency of the moment, the Administration needs to do more. The most immediate way of doing so is for Secretary Kerry to elevate the profile of Israeli and Palestinian two-state advocacy groups by meeting with select organizations during his next visit to the region. This meeting should mark the beginning of heightened U.S. engagement with civil society groups within each nation.

Many Palestinians believe that the U.S. has been deaf to their plight and blinded to the changing realities on the ground. By speaking with Palestinians directly, the Secretary can start a conversation that demonstrates he understands their position and promotes their understanding of his.

To be most effective, Secretary Kerry will need to speak with representatives of the varied voices of Palestinian civil society, including those who have remained active in peace advocacy as well as those who have grown too pessimistic to continue investing in the two-state solution. Kerry might not like all that he hears from these groups, but without engaging all these stakeholders, he will not be able to bring the people with him in this process.

Engaging with peace advocates in Israel is equally as important. Despite the fact that a majority of Israelis still identify the two-state solution as their preferred outcome, Israeli groups advocating two states are demoralized right now. By giving these groups an audience, Secretary Kerry can help reenergize Israel’s committed two-state advocates, emboldening them in their fight against the skepticism that abounds. And by speaking with political groups outside of the committed “left,” the Secretary can help publicize news of the promising recent developments, hopefully chipping away at the sense of futility that fuels many Israelis’ detachment.

With the same enthusiasm that Secretary Kerry has approached the economic, political and regional dynamics, he must now try to bring the people on board by directly engaging with those who have suffered the continued failures of initiatives past, building their support for efforts to start anew. If he is diligent in this task, the Secretary may just be able to translate his early diplomatic progress into concrete changes on the ground.

Nine Steps that will Kill the Two-State Solution

Daily Beast 3/21/13 also Ottomans and Zionists

With Obama visiting Israel, many groups are trying to get his attention so they can let the President know what they think he should do. Included within the pleas from the peace camp and the ‘Free Pollard’ camp is a document prepared by the Yesha council titled, “Judea and Samaria – It’s Jewish, It’s Vital, It’s Realistic.”

Questions answered within this Kafkaesque document include: why the demographics are on the Settlers’ side, why are the Palestinians stealing water from Israel, and what is the legal history of Israel’s settlement enterprise. Most interesting, however, is the nine-step plan that the Yesha council has created at the end of the document to fulfill their vision.

The main tool that the Yesha council has to achieve its vision are its political advocates in the Knesset and in the government. Their building in the West Bank happens through the good graces of the state authorities. Of course the main party for the Yesha council is HaBayit Hayehudi, but they also have representation through the Likud and Yisrael Beytanu and a scattering of MK’s in some of the center parties. Members of their communities operate across the center and right of the Israeli political spectrum.

Looking at the nine steps we can see the underlying HaBayit Hayehdui strategy during the coalition talks. Additionally we can start to make sense of some of the other Knesset and moves and statements by members of the settler community on the national stage.

Step 1: Renewing the strong belief in the supremacy of the Jewish claim to the Jewish Homeland and the justness of taking measures to maintain control of it

In the coalition agreement between Likud and HaBayit Hayehudi was a bill to make the Jewishness of the State supreme. This is a redo of the Avi Dichter bill from the last Knesset. No one is quite sure of which version will hit the Knesset, if it gets through Livni, but it is part of a big move to decouple the concepts of Jewish and Democratic state as equal and promote the former at the expense of the latter. The motivations behind this become clear in a strategy that is tied into biblical land claims and preparing for a situation where the civil rights of millions of Palestinians are going to have to be restricted.

Step 2: Uniting the nation and its leadership

Throughout the coalition talks, Bennett was the peacemaker between Lapid and Netanyahu and has pledged to be a leader for all of Israel, not just the settlers. His party has also taken over key ministries that can affect the cost of living across Israel. Bennett has been very keen to be seen as responding to the J14 protests and be a transformative politician that can transcend the tribal politics of the moment and be one of the new leaders of Israel alongside Lapid. By also slipping in the raising of the electoral threshold into the coalition agreement, he can ride the wave of HaBayait Hayehdui current popularity and force others from his camp to work with him if they want any representation at all. By forcing people into a broad tent he gives himself a broader appeal and solidifies himself and by extension the Yesha council firmly into the mainstream.

Step 3: Military strength and control of the territory by the security establishment

Though many ex-military and security men veer to the left after they retire from service (just see The Gatekeepers), the new Defense Minister, Moshe Yaalon, most definitely veers to the right and was the first choice of the settler community. Though the security establishment is pretty much entrenched in the West Bank already, Barak had been the thorn in the side of the Yesha council. With him removed the security establishment can work in concert with the Yesha council in helping it expand both from the Knesset and on the ground itself.

Step 4: The elimination of terror and cessation of incitement in Palestinian schools

While all Israelis want to see an end to terror and incitement, the previous governments’ flat-out rejection of the State Department’s school textbook report demonstrates a complete unwillingness to examine the issue of incitement on both sides of the border. It is essential to demonize the Palestinian national narrative while maintaining that individual Palestinians are ok and stating that the Settlements actually have had great relationships with the communities pre the first intifada.

Step 5: Creating a situation where it becomes clear to the international community that another state west of the Jordan River is not viable

The serious policy community is split about whether the two-state solution has already been killed by the settlements and the Yesha Council or if it is merely on life support. Needless to say, the Yesha Council is well on its way to pulling the plug. The new Deputy Foreign Minister, Ze’ev Elkin, already ascribes to this point of view. Though many advocates of one-state agree that the settlements have killed the two-state solution they do not share the Yesha councils vision of what a one-state solution would look like. The power and establishment will be with the Yesha council and in doing so they will have a tremendous momentum on the ground when two-states is officially abandoned to fulfill their vision before anyone else gets a look in. Yes Israel will lose friends and allies and there might be a brain drain that could seriously affect the economy. But I sadly have less faith that pressure will force Israel to give up its reason d’état of providing the Jewish People with self-defense and power by giving those they have been occupying full civic rights. The death of the two-state solution will mean the Yesha council has won, read the rest of their document to see how they view Palestinians.

Step 6: The further immigration of one million Jews to Israel to secure a permanent Jewish majority in Israel

In the coalition talks, Bennett managed to carve the Diaspora portfolio out of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and into his own portfolio. The reason for this now becomes crystal clear, he is desperate to get more Jews to immigrate. Bennett demanding this portfolio always seemed odd. The Settlements are often the largest bone of contention between Israel and her Diaspora (amongst Jews who are engaged at least). Passing on this responsibility to the former general secretary of the Yesha council looks on the surface to be a recipe for disaster. This step helps us understand the real consequence of why this demand was made. What will be interesting to see is how Bennett attempts to bring the Diaspora to Israel and how their aliyah will be tied to step 7. Is the aim just to lock in the demographics regardless of where the Jews live or to get them to move to the West Bank and lock in the settlements?  We will have to wait and see but watch to see where new job incentives will be made for new immigrants, Bennett has the ability through Trade and Industry to create incentives where he chooses.

Step 7: One million Jews in Judea and Samaria, tripling its Jewish population

With the housing and trade ministries, Habayit Hayehudi can now start working on this. The proof will be in where the new low-income housing is built. Even if just restricted into the settlement blocs, if this plan is being followed the aim will be a massive increase in settlers. As with step 6, we will have to see if alyiah and settlement are linked. President Bush (1st one) conditioned the aid to help resettle the Russian Jews on them not being housed in the West Bank understanding the threat there. One other important step to remember, Bennett received the public diplomacy portfolio as well. Through this he can push the settlements into the official Israeli government narrative both at home and abroad.

Step 8: The creation of large residential areas surrounding the current communities of Judea and Samaria

Housing, Trade, Knesset Finance chair – between these three portfolios and a willing defense minister the sky is the limit on step 8. I predict the concept of settlement bloc will expand and large scale projects begin to be planned as expansions in key areas. Even more so then Yaalon, Danny Danon is a particular fan of the Yesha council and he is deputy Defense Minister.

Step 9: The execution of a construction, development and economic plan for the million residents of Judea and Samaria

Habayit Hayehudi has already indicated that they would rather release prisoners and transfer taxes to the PA than freeze settlement construction. Looking at this nine-step plan, it is easy to see why he would rather give any other ‘confidence building measure’ than allow the slowing of the settler population.  The one thing that they cannot allow is a settlement freeze as it destroys the plan above.

This should be seen as nothing less than a strategic effort to kill the two-state solution. Keep in mind that Prime Minister Netanyahu just committed his new government to two states for two peoples in his joint press conference with the President on Wednesday. Looking at how this is planned out it is clear that the only thing that could stop this from happening is freezing settlement construction. The sad fact is that a settlement freeze has already been tossed by the US administration as a failed attempt.

The Yesha Council is very open about their aims, objectives and methods. If people want to do more than pay lip service to the idea of two-states, they must not only oppose the Yesha council at every turn of this plan but offer their own step by step approach to how to create a two-state reality today. Though it is the establishment opinion that two-states will happen, those opposing it literally are executing on a plan to kill it. Those of us who wish to see it come about must equally set out a plan and start building today facts on the ground to make it so.