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Robert Grenier
Robert Grenier
Former CIA station chief Robert Grenier heads ERG partners, a financial consultancy firm.
Netanyahu's 'catastrophic success'
The ongoing colonisation of the West Bank may have unintended and unwanted consequences for Israel.
Last Modified: 19 Sep 2010 11:02
The 'facts on the ground' in the West Bank have important practical consequences that are far removed from what their authors originally intended [GALLO/GETTY]

The George W. Bush administration had a phrase for it: "Catastrophic success." As part of the planning process before the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, a comprehensive list of potentially disastrous unintended consequences of a successful military campaign was drawn up. Though initially there was considerable relief when none of the developments on the list came to pass, it eventually became apparent that the list - which failed to anticipate a string of supremely unwise post-invasion decisions - was far too short.

Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, may soon be wishing he had drawn up such a list - and paid attention to it - many years ago. For the consequences of his own - and his party's - catastrophic success are becoming manifest.

A 'Jewish state'

I have thought previously that Netanyahu, whatever he may be saying to the contrary, is really not interested in direct negotiations with the Palestinians - that his avowed interest in a viable settlement is a sham. I now think that judgment may be partially incorrect. The Israeli prime minister is surely not interested in actually implementing any agreement which would be marginally acceptable to the Palestinians. But there is something from these talks that he appears desperately to want, and to have wanted for some time: A formal Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state.

Some, particularly among the Palestinians, appear a bit mystified by this Israeli demand. After all, they ask, 'if we are willing to recognise Israel, and if we reach agreement on the key issues, why must we also endorse Zionism? Let the Israelis define themselves as they please'.

Part of the rationale for Netanyahu's insistence may relate to the understandable desire of Israelis to gain recognition not only of the fact of their existence as a nation, but of the genuine legitimacy of the premise upon which Israel came into being. That desire alone, however, would not seem sufficient to raise this as a core issue.

More importantly, the demand relates directly to the claimed Palestinian 'right of return'. Issues regarding the right of return, though, can be negotiated directly and in concrete terms, irrespective of some broad principle, and in any case few serious observers of the current effort to achieve a two-state solution think that a generalised right of return of Palestinian refugees and their descendents to homes within the pre-1967 'Green Line' is anything but a non-starter.

'Saving Israel from itself'

No, there seems to be something additional going on here. My strong suspicion is that Netanyahu has something else on his mind: Managing the consequences of Likud's ongoing success in colonising the West Bank.

The idea that Israeli settlement policies in the West Bank would be disastrous for Israel is hardly a new one. I remember as a young lad in the 1970s reading articles by George W. Ball - in my opinion, the most lucid and prescient American foreign policy theorist and practitioner of the last century - in which he argued that the US must "save Israel from itself," particularly as regards its settlement policy.

Indeed, I have recently re-read a long-ago column written by George F. Will, one of the best-known and most respected political commentators in the US, and among the strongest and most vocal defenders of Israel anywhere. In that column, which appeared on June 14, 1977, he said the following concerning the Occupied Territories: "A few Israelis hope that occupation will become annexation. They are not facing demographic facts. There are 700,000 Arabs on the West Bank, where the average age is under 30 and the birth rate is high. Annexation might eventually produce an Arab majority in expanded Israel. Such a state could not be both democratic and Jewish."

As predicted, the Palestinian Arab population in the West Bank and Gaza has exploded; it currently numbers over 4 million, to Israel's 7.2 million - perhaps well over a million of whom are also Arab. Moreover, 30 additional years of assiduous attempts to create "facts on the ground" in the West Bank have done just that: Many facts have been created; they are immutable, and they have important practical consequences which are far different from what their authors intended.

The Israeli withdrawal from a handful of settlements in Gaza, about which practically no one in Israel other than the leaders responsible for encouraging them ever cared very much, demonstrates not the possibility of a large-scale withdrawal of Jewish settlers from occupied territories, but the opposite. The searing experience of those few Gaza withdrawals makes withdrawal on a far larger scale in the West Bank almost unimaginable, and well beyond the political capability of this, or any conceivable Israeli government. And though Palestinian leaders have stated that Jewish settlers would be welcome to remain in a new Palestinian state, it seems unlikely that many would ever agree to acquiesce to Palestinian rule.

'Objective allies'

That the Israelis and Palestinians could reach agreement on a comprehensive two-state settlement under the current circumstances is hard to imagine. That they could actually implement such an agreement is impossible.

It is therefore significant that Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev has said that the current Israeli government hopes to "negotiate an agreement quickly," but adds that it "would be implemented over a long time".

Someday, enterprising graduate students will write theses - if indeed they have not done so already - describing how Netanyahu and the leadership of Hamas were "objective allies" in scuttling the Oslo peace process.

While the idea of any form of collaboration between them would be anathema to both, their de-facto cooperation in undermining implementation of the 1993 agreement was quite effective:  Both Likud and Hamas had their own reasons for wishing the process to fail, and the actions of one greatly facilitated the efforts of the other.

Based on past performance, Netanyahu would have no difficulty manipulating a lengthy peace process to produce what he wants and, more importantly, to avoid what he does not.

A model for the region?

But in the meantime, there is lurking danger. Netanyahu is no doubt aware of the growing talk of a one-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. That may be why he is suddenly willing to countenance the possibility of a Palestinian state, at least in some truncated form, and at least in principle. And that may also be why he needs Palestinian recognition of the principle of Israel as a Jewish state. It is not clear that Mahmud Abbas, in his greatly diminished state, can provide the Israeli prime minister with the lasting commitment he wants, particularly in the absence of a fully-implemented peace agreement, but that does not make Netanyahu want it any less.

The fact of the matter, however, is that the idea of a two-state solution in Palestine is finished. Israeli settlements in the West Bank and their attendant infrastructure have made a viable and independent Palestinian state impossible. The settlements, moreover, cannot be undone. Their existence obviates the need for formal Israeli annexation: The de-facto annexation of the West Bank has already taken place. The only remaining solution is a single, unified, bi-national state.

The fact that a bi-national state is inevitable will not make its formation any easier; nor will the great difficulties involved in forging a truly bi-national state make its emergence any less inevitable. Such a state will, of necessity, eventually be fully democratic; and its character will of necessity be substantially - though by no means exclusively - Jewish.

Even with wise leadership on both sides, the creation of such a state would surely take a couple of generations. With the sort of leadership both sides we are likely to get, however, it may well take much longer. As the need for such a solution becomes more obvious, however, and as the violent struggle for Palestinian national rights becomes a peaceful struggle for Palestinian civil rights, the effort is likely to unite Arabs on both sides of the Green Line.

If there is any linear progress in history, however, such a secular, democratic and bi-national state will eventually come. When it does, it will doubtlessly be a good thing - indeed, it could serve as a model for the region.

The likelihood of such an eventual outcome may become apparent sooner than many think. As it does, Netanyahu and the leaders of his generation may yet have occasion to contemplate, at their leisure, what will inevitably appear to them to be the unwanted consequences of their catastrophic success.

Robert Grenier is a retired, 27-year veteran of the CIA's Clandestine Service. He was the director of the CIA's Counter-Terrorism Centre from 2004 to 2006.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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