Options Israel Will Allow Fail the Workability Test

<i> Joseph Alpher is deputy head of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, and co-editor of the center's recently published reports "The West Bank and Gaza: Israel's Options for Peace" and "Israel, the West Bank and Gaza: Toward a Solution." </i>

Any Israeli politician worth his salt has to propose his very own option--sometimes two--for a solution to the Palestinian issue. During the first week in March, for example, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir suggested comprehensive autonomy on one day, then promised annexation on the next; Labor’s Shimon Peres called for federation, and another prominent Labor minister suggested unilateral withdrawal from Gaza for a starter.

Meanwhile, the new Administration in Washington was assuring Israel that it would not support a Palestinian state solution; President Bush is on record supporting a Jordanian-Palestinian federation. And Yasser Arafat was captivating his many visitors in Tunis with detailed descriptions of Japanese-designed tunnels to link the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, the two parts of the state he proposes.

These and many additional “options” have in common one crucial drawback: Those who propose them appear to have made no serious effort to investigate their strategic ramifications for Israel.

That was the purpose of a comprehensive study by the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University. A team of more than 20 generals, professors, researchers and former government ministers--a membership whose diverse views represent around 75% of Israeli public opinion--labored for eight months to produce detailed scenarios of the consequences for Israel of adopting any of the options that are currently on the agenda. We asked ourselves what the ramification for Israel would be if an Israeli government were to seek to implement a given option--what might we expect interms of war risks, economic, demographic and geographic effects, the American and Soviet reactions, the danger of internal conflict among Israeli leftists and rightists, the reaction of Israel’s own Arab sector (18% of its population) and of the Arab world and the Palestinians?


We pondered whether an attempt by a rightist government to deport hundreds of thousands of Palestinians might not generate a near-war between Israeli leftists and rightists. And we assessed the reaction of Israeli soldiers upon receiving orders to remove by force tens of thousands of Israeli settlers from territory destined for a Palestinian state.

The results of our investigation are at once frightening and depressing: All of Israel’s current options are either not feasible or not advisable.

Annexation would catalyze war, isolation and civil strife; unilateral withdrawal would be perceived as weakness, and would produce an instant irredentist Palestinian state that owed Israel nothing in return; open-ended autonomy would find no Palestinians willing to collaborate; a Jordanian-Palestinian federation is no longer on Jordan’s agenda (it never was on the Palestinians’), and a Palestinian state that came into being without extensive transition arrangements could catalyze war, terrorism and Israeli domestic strife.

Israel, we concluded, remains stuck in a status quo that threatens escalating war risks, growing loss of American support and rising domestic discontent. Yet our leaders seem alarmingly incapable of taking bold new initiatives.

Our own ideas for a more realistic peace process left most of the politicians predictably cold. The Likud and many in Labor did not like our call for the government to talk directly with PLO-approved Palestinians, or our suggestion that the eventual emergence of a demilitarized Palestinian state, surrounded by Arab states at peace with Israel, need not threaten Israel strategically. Labor continues to long for a Jordanian solution, while many on the left complain that the 10- to 15-year transition period that we propose is unrealistic. Palestinians argued that our demands on them--demilitarization, border alterations, rehabilitating the refugees to prove they have renounced their claim to “return” to Israel--were exaggerated.

The politicians were hardly expected to react otherwise to this academic intrusion into policy-making. Perhaps, with time, some of our ideas will filter through. But on a deeper level we feel that we have already provided everyone concerned with a better yardstick with which to measure proposals for a Palestinian settlement--a model for assessing their strategic ramifications for Israel.

The troubled Israeli breadwinner doing his two-month reserve stint in Nablus, concerned American Jews, Palestinian Arabs--all can now hold their leaders to a higher standard. The politicians in Jerusalem, Washington and Tunis may not like this either. But perhaps it will now be a little harder for them to ignore the demand for more creative and responsible thinking on the Palestinian issue.