Professor Efraim Inbar tells Fathom deputy editor Neri Zilber about the delusions of the Oslo Peace Process, the old “Allon Plan” for the territorial division of the West Bank, and where the recent Trump “Deal of the Century” can be placed in historical context. The interview can be read together with ‘The Last Dove: an interview with Ehud Olmert’ by Tal Kra-Oz, also in Fathom
Neri Zilber: From your experience and expertise, and given the return of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the top of the agenda, how do you view the Oslo Accords over a quarter century after its signing?
Efraim Inbar: First a positive: Everybody understands that we [Israel] really tried to make peace by giving up territory. However, most Israelis now understand that the mantra ‘We have no Palestinian partner for peace,’ penned by Ehud Barak, is true. Therefore, despite the price we paid in thousands of casualties, I think the Oslo Accords was in fact an important learning experience for the Israeli public. Unfortunately, sometimes you learn only by paying with blood.
I supported Oslo at the time because I initially favoured some kind of partition – I was never against partition between us and an Arab partner, not necessarily with the Palestinian national movement. But I changed my mind when Oslo II [the expansion of Palestinian rule in the West Bank in September 1995] was released, because I didn’t think the functional division of the West Bank into Areas A, B, and C was wise – especially when Area B, under Palestinian control around Jerusalem would enable terrorist groups to target the two main arteries around the capital. I don’t believe in functional divisions. I believe that clean-cut borders and territorial compromise is better than enclaves.
NZ: There were efforts after Oslo and the 2000 Camp David Summit. What do you make of the effort by former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert?
EI: I think the compromise suggested by Olmert was not wise strategically because I’m a proponent of the Allon Plan [from the late 1960s and 1970s] which requires Israeli control and sovereignty over the Jordan Valley. Moreover, I cannot support the division of Jerusalem, not only due to religious and historic grounds but also on strategic grounds, as Jerusalem is the linchpin to the Allon Plan. Basically, if you want to move forces from Israel’s coast to the Jordan Valley, greater Jerusalem is the only junction in the mountains of Israel where there is a Jewish majority through which to do that.
NZ: So explain to us the Allon Plan.
EI: The Allon Plan [named after senior Labor party minister and former military commander Yigal Allon] was initially an informal plan not adopted by the government, which suggested the main defence line against an invasion from the east is the Jordan Valley. If you look at the topography of the area, the mountains surrounding Jerusalem are about 1,200m higher than the Dead Sea, a short distance of roughly 30km, and with very few roads. You can put anti-tank crews on these roads and stop an armoured invasion. Allon suggested that the most defensible border at the time was along this stretch.
At the time in Israel there was a discussion about what constitutes ‘defensive borders,’ and the Allon Plan was eventually adopted by the Labor Party, which initially included [former Defence Minister] Moshe Dayan who had a functional view of what is strategically important to Israel. According to Dayan, the crest of the [West Bank] mountains was important and since the crest was populated predominately by Arabs, he suggested a functional division between Israel and whichever Arab side would rule over there. In other words, whatever Israel didn’t need in the West Bank would have been handed over to an Arab partner.
Apart from Ariel, which was needed as it allowed Israel to access the water aquifers under the West Bank, there would have been very minimal settlement building beyond the pre-1967 lines under the Allon Plan. Labor generally only allowed settlement building in the Jordan Valley, Gush Etzion, and the Golan Heights, even Ma’ale Adumin was built according to the Allon Plan, as it controls the main highway from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea. Implicitly if not explicitly this was the policy of those Labor governments.
NZ: Rabin came to power in 1992. In your mind, was Oslo something that Rabin thought was part of the Allon Plan or was it more along the lines of what we came to know from the 2000 Camp David Summit, the Clinton Parameters and the Olmert offer?
EI: The initial Oslo was definitely along the lines of the Allon Plan, which did allow Jericho to be handed over to non-Israeli hands. It was Kissinger that developed the idea to hand Jericho over to Jordan in exchange for non-belligerency, but it didn’t work out because the Arab League recognised the full liberation rights of the Palestinians, which forced King Hussein to back out.
Oslo II was drawn up along more ‘functional’ lines, much more aligned with the thinking of Shimon Peres who was a disciple of Moshe Dayan. Dayan, per this functional division, was willing to allow a Jordanian presence in the West Bank, but government functions would be divided: Israel would maintain security and the Arabs would take care of civilian governmental functions (like what would later come to be known as Areas A, B, and C).
Territorial division results in clear cut lines; functional division allows for an amalgamation of responsibilities which is politically problematic. Rabin didn’t want a Palestinian state, but he was willing to give a clearly defined territory to the Palestinian national movement. He also wanted a strong Palestinian government formed, without the Israeli Supreme Court and without human rights organisations, that would allow them to more forcefully tackle terrorism. In other words, if the Palestinians could emulate their Arab neighbours in Egypt, Jordan, and even Syria – keeping a strong hand on things – Rabin was prepared to concede territory for security. And he was willing to give more and more territory after the Palestinians proved themselves on providing security.
Rabin adopted a very gradual approach then, a Kissinger-ian approach. Unfortunately, he was assassinated [in November 1995]. There were indications right beforehand that Rabin considered reversing the Oslo Process and sending Yasser Arafat back to Tunis. After Rabin was murdered the process continued under Benjamin Netanyahu in 1996, due primarily to American pressure.
NZ: So given the context of Allon and Oslo, how do you understand the recently released Trump plan?
EI: The Trump plan to a large extent conforms to the Allon plan as it gives Israel control over the Jordan Valley, keeping Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty. Those are the main elements in the Allon plan. I don’t think Rabin or Allon envisioned territorial swaps, but these ideas developed afterwards.
NZ: Do you think this was Netanyahu’s game all along? He was always viewed as someone who opposed territorial compromise and strongly campaigned against Oslo.
EI: My feeling is that Netanyahu was and is willing to make territorial compromises to the Palestinians if they behave. Netanyahu has in fact been in the ‘left wing’ of his Likud party, and I’ve heard he’s not averse to give up additional land for a good deal. But of course, a good deal in his eyes is different from a good deal in Palestinian eyes. And the proof of this is that he accepted the Trump plan as well as indirectly the idea of a Palestinian state, which is included in the Trump plan. And his right wing, especially amongst the settlers, is up in arms.
NZ: How do you explain that, because Netanyahu is usually viewed as someone who acts due to political need and not grander strategic objectives?
EI: There are always tensions between the strategic goals and tactical needs of every politician. But I believe he is ready for a deal. Even during the Obama Administration, Netanyahu was willing to say yes to Kerry in Spring 2014, including giving up sovereignty in exchange for military control over the Jordan Valley. This image that he’s not willing to accept a Palestinian state doesn’t do him justice.
NZ: Is there a possibility that he agreed to the Trump plan knowing that the Palestinian would object, which would then allow him to act on the good parts of the plan and ignore the rest?
EI: This is of course a possibility, but it would endanger his political base. I think he agreed to the plan because he understood he had to for a variety of reasons, even though part of his political base is being estranged. However, he clearly worked with the Americans on the plan and accepts it. This is a Jerusalem-Washington plan.
NZ: How do you explain the European criticism of the US plan? Are they simply dealing with an old paradigm?
EI: The Europeans have a Pavlovian response: what doesn’t please the Palestinians they say is ‘not good’. Not all the European states think this way, however, thanks to Israeli diplomacy that has made inroads in Eastern Europe. This helped to prevent the European Union releasing a unanimous statement condemning the plan. Part of the EU is, for a variety of reasons, anti-Israel.
NZ: Anti-Israeli or anti-perpetuation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
EI: It’s very naive if you think you can stop this conflict. It’s over 100 years old but compared to other protracted, territorial-religious conflicts it’s still young. I think the conflict will continue for a long time because the populations still have a lot of energy to fight for interests that are important to them. For many in the West, peace is the most important value, but this is not true for Israelis and Palestinians here. Honour, pride, Jerusalem’s Temple Mount [Al Aqsa Mosque], are more important than peace and the Europeans don’t get that.
NZ: Stemming from that, is the Trump plan a solution to the conflict?
EI: Definitely not. I do not believe we should be speaking in terms of solutions but rather in terms of managing and limiting the conflict for both sides. The conflict cannot be solved, it’s a zero-sum game and both societies are not tired enough to stop fighting. In the meantime, we should try to manage it within bearable parameters.
NZ: So even if the Palestinians tomorrow decide to accept the Trump plan, it won’t end the conflict?
EI: It would be a massive step, but I cannot see the Palestinians adopting it. We know they made no effort to contact the US administration to influence the content of the plan, but will Hamas be satisfied? We should remember that 30 per cent of Palestinian society are totally against any compromise with Israel.
I can understand why the Palestinians would not want to accept a deal on only 15 to 20 per cent of their ‘dream land’. From their point of view, they have already compromised on 78 per cent [of historic Mandatory Palestine]. Israel starts off with this remaining 22 per cent on which to compromise. It’s a different picture.
NZ: There are also many critics from the centre and Left in Israel who say that if Israel doesn’t pursue a solution or separation, then the most likely outcome will be a one-state solution with Palestinians demanding voting rights in Israel. Is that how you see it?
EI: I do not think it’s realistic that Hamas will demand voting rights in a Jewish state. It’s theoretical. If it does come to this, we can always build a fence and say this land is ours, the rest is yours, we have no claims, and you can do whatever you want.
NZ: Something like a unilateral disengagement from the West Bank?
EI: No; we can never give up security control over the West Bank. The Trump plan acknowledges that. We will continue more or less what we are doing now. The status quo is bearable, and I do not see the Palestinians being able to fulfil the minimum criteria of a state, which is the monopoly over the use of force. This is not only a Palestinian problem, but a general Arab political and cultural problem in the region.
NZ: Looking at the last 50 years, there has been an evolution. Labor after 1967 used to be hard-line but turned more dovish with Allon initially, then Peres, Rabin and Barak. Same in the Likud, which was hard-line but Tzipi Livni, Ariel Sharon and Olmert moved further towards the Left. Then you have Netanyahu, who at first campaigned against the Oslo Process but now agrees to the Trump plan and the establishment of a Palestinian state. The Right-wing may have won politically, but has the Left won the argument?
EI: I think Israel’s mainstream has never been blind to the demographic argument. Most mainstream Israelis were ready for territorial concessions, primarily because of demographics, and hoping for some kind of amelioration of the conflict. But I think the Israeli public has become more united over the territorial compromise idea and this is why the Trump plan is basically acceptable to both Blue and White and the Likud. The big territorial questions are finished: the Sinai Peninsula is gone, Gaza is gone, the Golan Heights is staying put. It’s important to remember – more people support the annexation of the Jordan Valley than the Golan Heights.
Trump is a believer in his plan because he has warm feelings towards Israel, he knows it will help Netanyahu – his personal friend for years – and of course to please his US evangelical base. And finally, being pro-Israel is okay in America. If you look at the polls, the majority of Americans are supportive of Israel, so he doesn’t pay a political price for publishing this plan. And Netanyahu is popular in the US. They both benefit politically.
NZ: Finally, should we be worried about more violence due to the release of the US plan, or is it just business as usual?
EI: We should always be concerned and careful. But when Trump moved the embassy to Jerusalem there was very little commotion from the Arab street. Now it’s just a plan, it hasn’t been implemented yet. It’s the ‘Deal of the Century’ – by the end of the century we’ll see what’s happened.