Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s foreign minister, recently startled his fellow cabinet ministers – and Middle East analysts everywhere – with a proposal that Israel end its status as an occupying power in the Gaza Strip and allow Hamas to establish an independent Palestinian state in that enclave.
Most everyone dismissed Lieberman’s suggestion out of hand, coming as it did from a man derisively referred to by his Israeli critics as "the bouncer from Kishinev" (having in fact been employed as a night club bouncer in the Moldavian capital before emigrating to Israel).
Lieberman proposed that Israel fashion a border regime that removes Israel’s effective control over Gaza’s economic lifelines while satisfying legitimate Israeli security requirements – hardly an idea expected from an Israeli leader who has distinguished himself by his contempt for democracy and xenophobia towards Arabs, whether Israel’s own citizens or under Israeli occupation.
Geoffrey Aronson has been a lone dissenter from this general reaction to Lieberman’s proposal. In a posting here at The Middle East Channel, the highly respected director of the Foundation for Middle East Peace endorsed Lieberman’s idea. He noted that in 1974, the PLO committed itself "to establish the independent combatant national authority for the people over every part of Palestinian territory that is liberated." Aronson argues that if Israel and the Palestinians are unable to achieve this objective in the entire West Bank, "that is no reason to prevent [the creation of a territorially contiguous area under sovereign Palestinian control] in Gaza, or anywhere else where such an opportunity exists." He believes that an independent Palestinian state in the Gaza Strip "cannot but positively transform both the internal Palestinian and the international diplomatic landscape."
My respect for Aronson’s exceptionally thoughtful analyses of the Israel-Palestine conflict notwithstanding, I believe his take on the Lieberman proposal to be mistaken.
The PLO’s 1974 commitment referred to by Aronson speaks of the establishment of an "independent combatant national authority." I take the term "combatant" to mean an authority that would continue to struggle by all means for the recovery of Palestinian territory – or at least all territory within the pre-’67 borders. This would certainly be inconsistent with the condition Lieberman attached to the ending of Israel’s status as an occupying power in Gaza, namely "satisfying legitimate Israeli security requirements."
The expectation that Hamas would agree to end its own efforts to roll back Israel’s occupation of the West Bank in return for Israel’s recognition of Gaza’s independence is utterly unrealistic. Hamas won’t even satisfy Israel’s "security requirements" if Israel were to offer to withdraw from Gaza and 95% of the West Bank. Indeed, even the "moderate" Palestinian leadership in Ramallah, which declared its willingness to consider equal exchanges of territory on both sides of the pre-1967 border, rejected the Israeli proposal for Palestinian sovereignty in temporary borders.
Hamas has offered to renounce violence against Israel in return for Israel’s acceptance of a long-term Hudna and a withdrawal of its occupation forces to the pre-1967 border. But it would never agree end its "resistance" in return for an arrangement that frees Israel to continue to deepen its colonial project in the West Bank.
Imagine if Israel’s War of Independence in 1948 had ended differently, with Palestinians in control of 99 percent of Palestine, and the Jews confined to an enclave comparable in size to that of Gaza. Imagine further that the Palestinians had offered the Jews statehood in that enclave, but on condition they cease all activity that might compromise Palestinian "security requirements." Would the Jews have agreed?
Lieberman has advanced this proposal because he favors any measure he believes would relieve U.S. and international pressure on Israel to withdraw from much more than about half of the West Bank, the rest of which he and Netanyahu want to annex to the Jewish state – and for all practical purposes have already done so.
He and Netanyahu are desperately in search of strategies that would distract the outside world long enough to enable them to anchor the settlement enterprise even more deeply and more irreversibly than they already have; and what better way of doing that than by getting the international community (i.e. George Mitchell, Dennis Ross, the Quartet) to busy itself for the next five years with arrangements for Gaza’s independence and statehood that satisfy "Israel’s legitimate security requirements" – as Israel completes its "Judaization" of East Jerusalem and of much, if not all, of the West Bank.
Lieberman’s idea may indeed "transform both the internal Palestinian and the international diplomatic landscape," but I fear only in a way that spells the death of what hope there still exists for something other than a cataclysmic outcome of Israel’s unrestrained land grab to achieve an "Eretz Yisrael Hash’lemah" (the Whole Land of Israel).
It is an idea that has been rightfully ignored.
Unfortunately, however, so has the idea that President Obama finally renounce the "incrementalism" that has enabled both Israel and the Palestinians to prolong the agony called a "peace process" that has turned the goal of a two-state accord into an empty slogan, and instead present both parties with an outline of an agreement he and the international community are prepared to enforce.
The half-life of that so-far ignored idea is about to run out.