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Homepage > Regions / Countries > Middle East & North Africa > Israel/Palestine > The Israeli Labor Party’s "Separation Plan"

The Israeli Labor Party’s "Separation Plan"

Ofer Zalzberg, Friedrich Ebert Stiftung  |   18 Apr 2016

After long years in which Labor did not present an alternative to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s conflict management approach and left it as the sole pertinent option, Labor’s new Separation Plan rekindles a national conversation on the matter.

Labor’s shift is remarkable. The last time the Party Convention endorsed a diplomatic plan was in 2002. In the elections of 2013 and 2015 Labor ran exclusively on a socio-economic ticket. Labor leaders and strategists considered the two-state solution a loser in national elections and instead ran slogans like “a third kindergarten assistant” and focused their campaign on reducing the cost of living.

The pressures within the party that led to championing a plan began long before Palestinian violence erupted in October 2015 and would likely have reached fruition without it. But the fact that the party discussed and endorsed the plan during such violent escalation and while it faced a dramatic electoral crisis in the polls was decisive for its focus on separation, as opposed to the overall cause of a Israeli-Palestinian agreement. Over 70 percent of the public argued the government’s policy fails in dealing with terror.[1] This when in light of the challenges of globalization and the constant security threats Israel’s Jews more than ever prioritize preservation of their ethnic identity over consolidation of egalitarian citizenship. As violence erupted support for dividing Jerusalem on ethnic lines predictably has considerably increased.[2]

The plan calls to first separate Israelis from Palestinians and then move toward the two-state solution. This in contrast to Labor’s traditional paradigm of direct, bilateral negotiations that lead to a final status agreement. Substantively, the Separation Plan addresses four arenas: regarding the West Bank it proposes completing construction of the barrier, avoiding construction outside of the so-called ‘settlement blocs’ and transferring civil powers to the Palestinian Authority over areas beyond the barrier; regarding Jerusalem it calls to exclude many Palestinian villages-turned-neighborhoods in East Jerusalem from the city’s municipal boundaries; on Gaza it suggests stabilizing the ceasefire and incentivizing demilitarization in return for the Strip’s development; and regionally it calls on Israel to officially respond to the Arab Peace Initiative which Israel has ignored since 2002 and convene a regional security conference that would seek to eradicate radical Islam and serve as a basis for regional dialogue regarding an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.

More than any of its details, the plan’s fundamental premise that the two-state solution is currently impossible, accompanied by its emphasis on separating Israelis from Palestinians and its ethnocentric rhetoric, have raised many questions regarding its electoral and substantive merit.

Away from the two-state solution or toward it?

Claims that Labor changed its paradigm and is no longer committed to the two-state solution are unfounded. These assertions were born when the Israeli media reported from the meeting of Labor’s leader, MK Isaac Herzog, in Paris with French President François Hollande an out-of-context sound bite: that Labor’s chairperson told his counterpart that “the two-state solution is irrelevant”. Such a statement, said and reported without its full context, indeed suggests that the Israeli Right was right all along. Understandably, even prominent leaders from within Labor, including its secretary general and former chairperson, strongly criticized it.

But at the Paris meeting itself, and with more vigor and clarity after it, Herzog explained it was only a component of his overall assessment: realizing successful final status negotiations now is impossible. It is not a vision that should be abandoned but it cannot currently be realized in full. While the conditions to fully implement it are not in place now, Israel can and should strive toward (re)creating them. Indeed, Labor’s new plan maintains that the two-state solution is the only possible solution to the conflict and that the party is fully committed to it. No Labor leaders deny this in public or in private. Labor not publishing its plan more than a month after endorsing it, has been a major cause for confusion about it and, as discussed below, for the Israeli public’s limited awareness of its very existence. The plan further specifies that a final status agreement should be based on various versions of the two-state solution: the Clinton parameters of December 2000, the understandings and plans formulated since in negotiations among others by Labor’s ally MK Tzipi Livni and the broad outline presented by MK Hillik Bar.

What Labor changed is the strategy for getting to the two-state solution. Its new plan is a shift from a sole focus on final status negotiations to taking gradual steps toward a two-state reality primarily by promoting separation between Israelis and Palestinian. In the terminology of conflict studies, Labor’s new alternative to Netanyahu’s conflict management is no longer conflict resolution but rather conflict transformation. The plan calls for Israel to take actions that makes it easier to believe that its continued military control of the West Bank is a result of genuine security needs rather than its desire to realize historical claims via the settlement enterprise.

The Devil is in the Details

Reading the plan with policy lens (as opposed to electoral ones), as most external observers have done, gives a sense of a half-baked, amateurish plan whose implementation may in fact lead to further radicalization and violence. The plan is weak on detail. At one-and-a-half pages long these are at best contours for a policy rather than a full fledged policy plan. Yet, not all detail is minutiae; some can indeed be decisive.

Some of the plan’s central components appear counter-productive in achieving their declared goal. Consolidating Israeli control over the so-called settlement blocs, supposedly in order to preserve the two-state solution, is highly controversial when Palestinians and many internationally consider some areas within the Israeli definition of the blocs (above all E-1 near the settlement Ma’ale Adumim), to be decisive for the feasibility of the very same solution. Additionally, the plan's call for completing Israel's barrier along a torturous route — one that many Israeli security officials say is ghastly due to its excessively long and, at times, topographically inferior trajectory.

Similarly, unilaterally excluding large sections of Arab East Jerusalem and stripping its inhabitants of their residency rights, without coordination with any Palestinian interlocutor,  be it behind a new wall or not, would create a void in which Hamas and various criminal elements would prosper, endangering the very security for Israelis that the step purports to promote. And for a peace plan to simply assume that Palestinians would entirely give up on Jerusalem’s Old City and its environs only builds antagonism and hostility among Palestinians toward Labor’s broader intentions in the city and beyond. 

There is also no reason to think that Hamas would give up on its weapons in exchange the for reconstruction of Gaza while even for the less ambitious leaders of the movement the resistance cannot end before the West Bank and East Jerusalem are freed from Israeli control.

Making Peace with the Palestinians by Focusing on the Israelis

Whether or not Labor leaders see these as policy disadvantages, it is evident that they pursued such a plan because their immediate focus, understandably, is winning the support of a majority of the Israeli public. Their main goal is to embarrass Netanyahu: to demonstrate that he fails to address a major strategic problem. To demonstrate that Netanyahu is unable — because of his unfavorable ideological disposition vis-a-vis Palestinian statehood and its undeniable price, including letting go of most of the West Bank and Jerusalem’s Arab sections, and because of his political commitment to his pro-settlement national religious allies — to provide security for Israel’s citizens. And most importantly, Labor goal is also to highlight that the recommended steps can be implemented without taking any security risk — hence the plan’s pledge to keep the Israeli military in the West Bank to show that Labor will not repeat mistakes committed by (Likud-led) Israel during its 2005 withdrawal from Gaza.

From an electoral perspective, whether this would be the exact plan Labor would indeed pursue if it were at the helm is irrelevant. This is why Labor leaders advocate completing the construction of the separation barrier without acknowledging any of the reasons its construction was not completed. This is why they call to divide Jerusalem without coordination with a Palestinian interlocutor even though most, in fact, would prefer to do so. And this is why they sell what Israeli experts agree are empty promises regarding demilitarizing Gaza. And undergirding all these, this is why Labor presents a plan which on paper appears to be implementable without Palestinian consent: because they focus on showing Netanyahu’s omissions to Israelis.

These considerations determine also the plan’s tone, not only its substance. In contrast to the cosmopolitan win-win rhetoric and emphasis on international law which characterizes the informal Geneva Initiative that prominent Israeli left-wing leaders have crafted with Palestinian counterparts, Labor now embraced self-interest rhetoric. Upon launch of the program its chairperson declared: “I want to get rid of as many Palestinians as possible, as quickly as possible”.  

In the past Labor leaders took pride when Palestinian leaders supported their views: they cited congruent statements as evidence for feasibility. But nowadays Herzog presents Palestinian rejection of the plan — such as the PA’s objection to the separation of Palestinian villages from Jerusalem — as evidence for its value for Israelis. In this sense, the plan is presented within a zero-sum game perspective that under Netanyahu’s rule has come to dominate Israeli mindset. Worse, the plan’s strong focus on separation and omission of the option of interim agreements suggests that for Labor the PLO currently is not a partner even for more modest peace accords.

This indeed is unpleasant to foreign and, of course, to Palestinian ears. But with Labor in a dramatic electoral crisis, and with Israeli Jews increasingly granting high priority to preservation of their ethnic identity, the party leadership opted for a sharper focus than ever on separation when relating to such trends.

The Electoral Advantages of Aiming Low

The plan moves Labor rightward in the diverse spectrum of Israeli politics, toward those who seek to separate from the Palestinians in order to ensure Israel’s character as a democratic nation-state for the Jewish people but believe it is impossible to do so currently via a conflict-ending agreement. Many such people have so far opted for the Likud because they felt it is the only party that would not irresponsibly expose Israel to enormous security risks. This rationale has gained more resonance with Israelis ever since Arab states around them collapsed and faltered. Fears that Palestine would become a failed state from which rockets and mortars land on Israel seem increasingly realistic.

Prominent Likud members like Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon and MK Avi Dichter, a former General Security Service Director, base their membership in Likud exclusively on this rationale. They note in private that they are willing to tolerate the growing influence of pro-settler groups within Likud even though they prod the party to a policy that gradually renders the two-state solution unfeasible: expanding settlements and gradually applying more Israeli laws and regulations to the West Bank. At least, they explain, these steps do not immediately drive Israel into a security calamity by turning the West Bank into a launch pad for attacks against Israeli citizens.

In light of Labor’s latest plan, particularly when Palestinian violence seems insuperable, Israeli security-focused voters would now arguably find themselves confronted with a real choice between what they would see as Labor's pragmatic, security-centered policy and Likud's ideologically-tinged policy that entrenches Israel in an irresolvable problem.

Israeli politics isn’t all about strategy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There are many reasons why such security-focused voters and opinion leaders would still not opt for Labor: Labor’s condescending Ashkenazi, urban, upper-middle class image and its historic record of discrimination toward certain groups; its avowedly secular attitude; and Herzog’s lack of security credentials and charisma deficit. But while these will make it impossible for many to place a Labor ticket in the ballot box, the party’s policy shift would nevertheless make it less problematic to support centrist parties who would enter a Labor-led government. The 2015 elections were in fact decided two months before they took place when leaders of key parties — Shas and Israel Beitenu — promised, respectively, to empower Netanyahu and to disempower leftist parties. These promises were kept and Netanyahu won another term.

In Israel's coalition-based system, acceptance by potential coalition partners can be more decisive than the number of seats a party won at the ballot box. And endorsing a policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict which allows political kingmakers to throne Labor is therefore consequential. The plan’s insistence that a final status agreement would provide for mutual recognition between the two nation states — seen by Israelis as the most indicative signal of a change in Palestinian intentions — and that the agreement will be brought to a national referendum (rather than by a Laborite leader alone in his office) is helpful in making Labor and its plan easier to stomach — if only as allies.

Implications for 2016

What if anything would this plan change? It is far from clear that it would place Labor as the centerpiece of Israel’s next government. But it likely would affect Israel’s national conversation. Two initial changes and an important trend can already be identified.

First, a single day after Labor endorsed its Separation Plan, Netanyahu, who has not done so since he entered office in 2009, committed publicly to complete the separation barrier (as part of a broader project of surrounding the country with defensive walls). Three weeks later Netanyahu passed a cabinet decision to continue construction of the barrier (around Jerusalem and the South Hebron Hills) despite opposition from pro-settler forces in Israel and within his party,[3] and despite reservations of the defense establishment regarding the barrier’s inferior route.

Second, since the publication of the plan the wisdom of Israeli rule over the Arab parts of Jerusalem — unchallenged for nearly a decade — has been put in question. Labor politicians like MK Omer Barlev, MK Hilik Bar and former Defense Minister MK Amir Peretz defend the proposal in the Israeli media and the hard-line Education Minister Naftali Bennett clashes with Herzog over the proposal by declaring 2016 a year in which Israel's education system will celebrate Jerusalem’s unity. British Prime Minister David Cameron’s statement days later in a parliament debate that the “effective encirclement of East Jerusalem… is genuinely shocking” strengthened the pro-partition position and may serve as an example for how statements by the West can positively affect the internal Israeli debate.

While Labor’s potential allies in the Jewish part of Israel (centrists, ultra orthodox, Russian speaking, Sephardic) generally received the plan positively, Israel’s Arab-Palestinian citizens clearly view it negatively. Its ethnocentric rhetoric reinforced existing trends that push the state’s national minority toward alienation, falling out with Israel's political establishment. When even the opposition among Israel’s Jewish majority does not propose an alternative, inclusive policy toward the state’s national minority, the likelihood that Arab citizens would ultimately withdraw from participating in Israel’s electoral democracy increases. Moreover, Labor’s own chances to reassume power may well require the support of Israel’s Arab parties — a support which the plan makes only less likely.

What the Future Holds

The plan’s relevance would be determined also — for some primarily — by events. Specifically, if violence continued or escalated, then advocating separation, perhaps tragically, would become more relevant for Israelis. Depending on the origin of its perpetrators, Jerusalemites or West Bankers, separation in Jerusalem and completing the separation barrier would likely, respectively, gain popularity.

Though some significant pundits associated with the center-left lauded Labor for finally endorsing a pragmatic plan and many ideological leftists criticized Labor for abandoning humanistic values, so far Labor failed to place the proposal at the center of the popular debate as a prominent alternative. Labor now promotes a plan that according to polls wins clear majority support — some 65% of Israelis (even more among the Jewish citizens). But only a minority of Israelis actually identify the plan with the party. It would be Labor’s failure if prominent center-right figures like former Netanyahu adviser Yoaz Hendel and MK Michael Oren, Netanyahu’s former ambassador to the US, could continue to advocate similar plans without even referring to Labor’s plan when doing so.

How Labor would seek to operationalize the plan is another open question with potentially significant consequences for Israelis at large and more specifically for the party itself. Herzog does not have a bold leadership style. Internal party dynamics ultimately pushed him to endorse the plan. Labor MKs Hilik Bar and Omer Bar Lev have both published progressive diplomatic plans many months before violence erupted in late 2015. So did MK Amir Peretz of HaTnuah (who has since returned to Labor). Notably, it was based on MK Bar’s plan 700 Labor Convention members forced Herzog to summon the party gathering on the issue in which a plan was ultimately adopted. Would Laborites prod their party to take a further step? If past is precedent, Herzog would not do so himself. Would a subset of Labor MKs now promote Knesset bills based on the progressive components of the different plans which were not taken into the party’s plan? Would Labor MKs, for example, now support a voluntary evacuation-compensation bill for settlers beyond the barrier as Bar’s plan did? Would they pass a bill calling the Israeli government to declare that Israel seeks to separate from most of the West Bank lands and the Palestinian population there as MK Bar Lev suggested or to recognize the State of Palestine as MK Bar has proposed?

To the extent Europe and others in the international community seek to propel such actions by the Israeli government and support for them by the Israeli public they could harness public diplomacy to the cause. They would do well to ask publicly, in their capitals and in Israel, why the Israeli government avoids these and other pragmatic modalities that do not endanger Israeli security and lie in the spectrum between full resolution of the conflict and its tactical management.

It is impossible to predict how the plan and Labor’s promotion of it would make Labor stronger in the next elections. This would depend on many other things and on the changing context and personalities. Even if the context would make the plan more relevant, it is at least as plausible that other parties would embrace it to preempt Labor’s rise. To the extent that Likud would do so, Labor would be robbed of its distinctiveness but compensated by affecting Israeli policy. If centrist parties adopted similar agendas, Labor would not be able to significantly increase its power in the Knesset but it would increase its acceptability among king makers, turning it into real contenders for Israel's premiership.


[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cNLiO2QbsUw

[2] While in late 2014 some 56 per cent opposed and 38 per cent supported the division of Jerusalem along demographic lines, by late 2015 some 69 per cent expressed support and only 24 per cent insisted on maintaining Israeli sovereignty in the Arab parts of the city. Zipi Israeli, Public Opinion and National Security, Strategic Survey for Israel 2015-2016, The Institute for National Security Studies, p. 119.

[3] Settler leaders fear that the barrier would deem the roughly 92 percent of the West Bank beyond it — including 75 Jewish settlements, home to roughly 85,000 settlers — as areas that would fall outside of Israeli sovereign claims and ultimately become a Palestinian state.

 
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