Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a public request last week to Ambassador David Friedman at a ceremony marking the one-year anniversary of the opening of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem — a request that spoke to the urgency that Israelis feel as the U.S. approaches the 2020 presidential elections.
David, I suggest that in the coming year you and I will continue the talks we’ve had and talks that I’ve had in Washington to make sure that what we see today is not on a sliding ramp, that we move forward and get to the altar. Let us move forward and cement the Israeli-American alliance as never before so it stands for all time.”
Netanyahu’s message could not have been any clearer. Israel is acutely aware of the Democrat Party’s growing hostility towards it. To weather a future Democrat administration, Netanyahu seeks to institutionalize to the greatest degree possible Israel’s strategic ties with America.
One of the most pressing issues Israel faces is the resolution of the Palestinian issue. The key aspect of this issue is the permanent disposition of Judea and Samaria. Judea and Samaria, otherwise known as the West Bank, are at the center of the Palestinian conflict with Israel.
Israel has sovereign rights to the areas that are the cradle of Jewish history and home to nearly half-a-million Israeli citizens. The 1922 League of Nations Mandate for Palestine allocated the areas to the future Jewish state. The mandate’s determination that these areas are sovereign Israeli territory was never superseded or abrogated.
For its part, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) has claimed Judea and Samaria and Jerusalem for the Palestinians. This position was backed by the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations. Any future Democrat administration can be expected to do so as well.
This then brings us to the Trump peace plan, scheduled for release next month. The Trump plan is expected to set out the Trump administration’s position on the disposition of Judea and Samaria. The position the administration takes will determine to a significant degree if Israel is able to secure its future with the Palestinian in a manner that will stabilize relations and if the U.S.-Israel alliance will weather the storm posed by a hostile administration in the future.
To understand why this is the case, we must first understand the current administration of the areas.
After Israel secured its control over Judea and Samaria from Jordan during the 1967 Six Day War, it instituted a military government that governed the areas through its civil administration. The law in force remained Jordanian law, which was amended from time to time through military orders to enable adequate administration of the areas.
In 1995, Israel concluded an agreement with the PLO in which it ceded land in Judea and Samaria, along with the Gaza Strip, to the PLO. The PLO established a government, called the Palestinian Authority, which was responsible for administering the areas. In “the Interim Agreement,” signed in September 1995, Israel and the PLO agreed that Palestinian self-rule in Judea and Samaria would be implemented in the Palestinian cities and villages in Judea and Samaria. They agreed that the rest of the area would remain under the Israeli administration, controlled via the Israeli military government and its civil administration. To this end, Judea and Samaria were divided into three areas, dubbed A, B, and C.
Area A included all of the Palestinian cities. Area B included all of the Palestinian towns and villages. And C included the rest of Judea and Samaria. In all, about 98 percent of Palestinians live in Areas A and B, where they are governed by the PA.
Area C includes the Jordan Valley – the frontier separating Israel from Jordan; all of the Israeli communities in Judea and Samaria; the military bases and installations; and the critical infrastructures in the areas.
The number of Palestinians who live in Area C has been estimated at somewhere between 50,000 and 150,000. Nearly 500,000 Israelis live in Area C.
As retired Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Maj. Gen. Gershon Hacohen wrote in a recent monograph, to secure its strategic interests, Israel requires perpetual control over all of Area C. Without control over its eastern frontier with Jordan, Israel will be hard pressed to prevent the mass transfer of either light weapons or heavy weaponry to the Palestinian Authority (PA). Likewise, diminishing or ending its control over the eastern border with Jordan – and providing the Palestinians with a land bridge to Jordan — will facilitate unlimited immigration of foreign Arabs, as well as the entry of regular or irregular forces into the Palestinian state and through it, into Israel.
Despite Israel’s sovereign rights to the area, which encompasses the historic heartland of the Jewish people, and despite its critical security needs that cannot be secured without Area C, the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations all embraced the Palestinian position. That position insists that in any future peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians, Israel will be required to withdraw from all, or nearly all, of Judea and Samaria. The previous administrations similarly supported the Palestinian position that to achieve a peace deal, Israel would be required to expel the Israeli citizens who live in Judea and Samaria and transfer control over their cities and villages to the Palestinians after they had been emptied of all of their Jewish residents and institutions.
Obviously, such a position, if implemented, would radically destabilize Israeli society. It would also render Israel’s borders indefensible. And without defensible borders, with or without a peace treaty with the PLO, Israel could not long survive. In other words, adoption of the PLO position would not bring peace. It would foment Israel’s destruction.
Recognizing the unfeasibility of previous administrations’ positions, the Trump administration has indicated that the peace deal it is now in the process of finalizing will mark a radical shift from the positions of its predecessors.
Among other things, several reports have indicated that the Trump peace plan will not call for the evacuation of Israeli communities in Judea and Samaria. Instead, the reports indicated that the Trump peace plan will express support for applying Israeli law to the communities and the concomitant cancellation of the military government that presently governs the Israeli communities along with the rest of Area C.
There are weighty reasons to support the application of Israeli law to the Israeli communities. But there are equally weighty reasons to deem such a move insufficient and, ultimately, destabilizing. This is true particularly in light of the Democrat Party’s growing hostility towards Israel.
On the positive side, U.S. support for the right of these communities to exist and be governed under Israeli law would clarify the legal status of these communities. During the Carter administration, the State Department’s legal adviser, Herbert Hansell, argued that Israeli communities in Judea and Samaria were illegal under international law. Hansell’s position, set out in a letter to Congress, ignored the binding nature of the League of Nations Mandate and relied on tendentious interpretation of later, more general, conventions related to belligerent occupation of territory.
U.S. Jewish groups, including the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), have lobbied the Trump administration to cancel the Hansell letter and replace it with a legal brief aligned with the actual legal status of Judea and Samaria.
Beyond abandoning 40 years of bad legal interpretation, disavowing the Hansell letter will make it more difficult for the U.N. and the E.U. to continue their campaigns of political and legal warfare against Israel.
So, too, if the plan calls for Israel to apply Israeli law to the Israeli communities in Judea and Samaria, the initiative would constitute a disavowal of the previous administrations’ effective support for the mass expulsion of Jews and anti-Jewish ethnic cleansing. That would provide a needed injection of moral sanity to the discourse on the Palestinian conflict with Israel.
Finally, ending the military government in Israeli civilian communities – including large cities – would end an anomalous situation where nearly a half-million Israeli citizens do not enjoy the protections of Israel’s liberal legal code.
But while such a U.S. move would signal a positive step away from the failed positions previous administrations adopted, it would be insufficient for a number of reasons.
First, limiting the scope of the areas governed by Israeli rule to the Israeli cities, towns, and villages would effectively ghettoize all of the Israeli communities. Rather than remain integrally connected to their surroundings as they are at present, these communities would become islands in Palestinian territory or in territory whose final disposition remains up for grabs.
The Palestinians’ behavior today in Area C makes clear just how devastating such a split in governance would be for stability and safety.
In 2009, then-Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad announced a two-year plan for Palestinian statehood. The plan, enthusiastically supported by the E.U., the U.N., and the Obama administration, called on the Palestinians to seize as much land as possible in Area C.
Soon after Fayyad announced his plan, the Palestinian Authority along with the E.U. began massive illegal building in Area C. Most of the building takes place adjacent to Israeli communities and/or along major traffic arteries.
Were Area C governed by Israel’s legal code, it would be relatively easy for government ministries to destroy illegal structures. But the military code renders all such law enforcement operations prolonged and difficult. As a consequence, the landscape of Area C is now dotted with thousands of illegal Palestinian buildings and, in some cases, communities. These illegally constructed outposts and installations threaten the Israeli communities, military positions, and highway arteries. If left unattended, they will render it difficult, if not, as a practical matter, impossible for Israelis to travel on the roads without fear. They will also make legal expansion of existing Israeli communities, as well as the construction of new, legal communities, exceedingly difficult.
One such building project – Khan Al-Ahmar – was built on state land adjacent to the Israeli community of Kfar Adumim and athwart a major highway. Khan Al-Ahmar’s slightly raised positioning above the highway renders it a threat to highway traffic. So, too, its position along the access road to Kfar Adumim presents a security threat to residents who have to drive past a hostile enclave en route to their homes.
Finally, the encampment constrains Kfar Adumim’s ability to grow over time.
Due to the limitations of the military law which governs Area C, Khan Al-Ahmar has stood for more than a decade. The E.U. provides support, both politically and financially. When Israel’s Supreme Court finally ordered its destruction last year, German Chancellor Angela Merkel led an aggressive diplomatic campaign against fulfilling the court order. To date, under pressure from the E.U., Netanyahu has repeatedly postponed destroying Khan Al-Ahmar. In the meantime, as Israel has been unable to enforce planning and zoning laws surrounding the original encampment, a dozen other illegal encampments have been built. And as is the case with Khan Al-Ahmar, Israel will have great difficulty destroying them.
So while U.S. support for applying Israeli law to the Israeli communities will improve life inside of them and go a long way towards ending their unfair international discrimination based on a false interpretation of international law, drawing a distinction between the communities and their surrounding areas will boomerang. It will ensure that they are besieged while Israel will be hard pressed to defend its interests and its civilians — and the Palestinian will be empowered to threaten both. This will be the case particularly in the event of a Democrat administration, which will be committed to rolling back Trump’s Middle East policies.
Indeed, rather than stabilize the situation, U.S. support for the application of Israeli law within the Israeli communities in Judea and Samaria, combined with opposition to its application to surrounding areas in Area C, would deny Israel the means to secure the long-term peace of these communities and of its eastern frontier. As a consequence, the advantage Israel gains from a changed U.S. policy would be limited and, in all likelihood, temporary.
A far better policy under the circumstances would be for the U.S. to support the application of Israeli law to all of Area C. As was the case with the Palestinians of Jerusalem when Israel applied its law to the unified city in 1967, the Palestinians in Area C would be granted permanent residency status in Israel and the right to apply for Israeli citizenship.
By applying Israeli law to Area C, Israel would secure its interests for the long haul in a manner that would prevent destabilization based on the partisan identity of a U.S. administration. It would stabilize Israel’s relations with the Palestinians and the rest of the Arab world in a manner that protects Palestinian self-rule while enhancing and securing the civil rights of all residents of Area C – Israeli and Palestinian alike.
Caroline Glick is a world-renowned journalist and commentator on the Middle East and U.S. foreign policy, and the author of The Israeli Solution: A One-State Plan for Peace in the Middle East. Read more at www.CarolineGlick.com.