As the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, resumed talks in Jerusalem in the quest to create “two states for two people”, a vocal faction in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government is, more openly than ever, opposing the very idea of a Palestinian state – and putting forward its own plans to take, rather than give away, territory.
Ministers in Mr Netanyahu’s ruling coalition and leaders of his party, the Likud, are in revolt against the international community’s long-held consensus that there should be two states between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean.
While once content to simply voice their opposition to giving up what they see as Jewish land or rights in the West Bank, these two-state opponents have gone beyond shouting “No” and are preparing details of their own vision for how Israel should proceed unilaterally after the current round of peace talks fails – which they say is inevitable.
“The day after peace talks fail, we need to have Plan B,” said Knesset member Tzipi Hotovely, a rising star in the Likud party and Deputy Minister of Transport in Mr Netanyahu’s government.
Instead of a sovereign Palestinian nation arising in the West Bank and Gaza, with East Jerusalem as its capital – which has been the focus of on-again, off-again peace negotiations since the Oslo Accords in 1993 – the two-state opponents envision Israel annexing large parts of the West Bank.
As for the Gaza Strip and its 1.6 million inhabitants, which Palestinians consider central to any future nation, the Israeli expansionists say Gaza should be abandoned to its own fate – to be eventually absorbed by Egypt or left as a hostile semi-state, run by the Islamist militant organisation Hamas.
As for the Palestinians living in the West Bank, the annexationists suggest that they be offered Israeli citizenship or residency, or be made the responsibility of Jordan. “I think we should no longer think of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, but Palestinian settlements in Israel,” Danny Danon, the Deputy Defence Minister, said.
Mr Danon, recently elected to head the central committee of the Likud party, imagines an archipelago of Palestinian cities – Jenin, Nablus, Ramallah and Hebron – as Arab islands in an Israeli sea. “The Jewish people are not settlers in the West Bank, but Israel will make the Palestinians settlers and Jordan will be the one taking control over Palestinians and that’s it,” Mr Danon told Israel’s Channel 1 this summer.
Mr Netanyahu declared himself an advocate for two states in 2009. He repeated his commitment to the idea last month – as long as Israel’s security demands are met and the Palestinians recognise Israel as a Jewish state.
But opponents and sceptics of the two-state solution represent a formidable bloc in the Israeli government and parliament. Those who would unilaterally annex all or part of the West Bank comprise a smaller but still-potent number.
Though they are sometimes depicted as a right-wing fringe, there is considerable support for their ideas. A survey of Jewish Israelis for Ariel University, which is in a Jewish settlement in the West Bank, found that 35 per cent said the government should annex all the land of Judea and Samaria – the biblical names some use to describe the West Bank.
Palestinian leaders and their negotiating team say the ideas put forward by the annexationists reveal Israel’s true heart. Israeli leaders, they say, do not really want a deal and instead want to keep the land they won from Jordan in the 1967 war and have occupied since.
Of course, the Palestinians have their own expansionists who would like to take all of the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan. Hamas does not recognize Israel’s right to exist and has for decades waged a campaign of violence against Israeli military and civilian targets.
In academic and activist circles, there is also support for a bi-national solution among Palestinians who have grown frustrated with a long-delayed peace process.
Many Israeli leaders who support the two-state solution acknowledge that they are tired of failure and cynical about prospects for a US-brokered deal. But they say the idea of annexing the West Bank is not only unrealistic but also incendiary.
“The fact that the right wing is thinking about solutions without the two states worries me,” said Hilik Bar, Deputy Speaker of the Israeli parliament and a member of the Labor Party.
He said that as painful as it will be to surrender most of the West Bank for a Palestinian state, it is necessary to end the conflict and to keep Israel both Jewish and democratic. If all of the Palestinians in the West Bank became Israeli citizens, they would wield tremendous influence in Israel’s government and could dilute the nation’s Jewish character.
The annexationists say they have solutions to that problem ranging from creating high bars for citizenship to the immigration of a million or more Jews from around the world. The status quo will not hold, they argue, and it is time to pursue their goals in the open.
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