Israel is recognized as a military power in the Middle East and an economic power within the world, said Ilan Goldenberg, but the Palestinian conflict remains a destabilizing problem.
The senior fellow and director of the Middle East security program at the Center for a New American Security in Washington, D.C., spoke Sept. 25 at The City Club of Cleveland at a breakfast forum.
In an intimate breakfast, Goldenberg addressed questions from City Club CEO Dan Moulthrop and from attendees, following his visit to Israel earlier in the month.
His topic was “Israel’s Elections – What Happens Next,” but with an uncertain outcome, Goldenberg turned some of his time and attention to other issues affecting Israel.
“I think Israel, militarily, it’s the regional power, the most significant military power,” said Goldenberg, who also spoke at a Sept. 24 JStreet event in Shaker Heights. “Economically, Israel is still humming. Per capita GDP at this point is higher than Japan’s, higher than UK’s.”
The country’s external threats are lower than they were at the time of its founding and 25 years ago he said.
“And the Arab world I think increasingly recognizes that too,” he said. “I think there’s progress in terms of Arab states being willing to come engage with Israelis.”
He said Israel’s position is weakened by the current U.S. leadership, which is not acting as a credible mediator to Palestinians.
“Annexation, I think for Israel is very, very dangerous, and dangerous for the Palestinians,” he said. “If Israel starts taking pieces of the West Bank and saying these are permanently ours, you’re really ending the possibility of a two-state solution ever. You’re closing off that pathway, and then eventually you’re looking at the reality of a one-state solution.”
He said he views three foundations of Israel as a triangle in an untenable balance: land, democracy and the Jewish state.
“There’s the land Judea and Sumaria, let’s call it the West Bank,” he said. “There is democracy: one person, one vote, and there is the Jewish nature of the state. You can choose two of those. You can’t have all three.”
If Israel takes the land and continues to remain a Jewish state, “almost 50% of Arabs who are living in this area don’t get a vote. What does that mean long term? Or it’s a democracy, in which case annexing this territory – then you’re looking at a one-state binational state. … Bring all those Palestinians in, you do lose the Jewish nature of the state of Israel. So that’s the question, that’s the core of all of this. What do Israelis want? They can’t have all three.”
Goldenberg spoke in detail about the territories, labeled A, B and C, that make up the West Bank.
“It’s not like you just have a nice clean division of area A, B and C. Area A is 169 small enclaves and pieces of territory inside area C, and you can’t move between them without going through area C.”
Annexing a portion of the West Bank would strand Palestinians, he said.
“So now you’re saying to the Palestinians, you want to go from Bethlehem to Ramallah, two of the major cities in the West Bank, and you’re going to have to go through Israeli territory,” he said.
Goldenberg offered a different plan of action for the West Bank. He suggests giving “small portions” of area C to Palestinians.
“That would make a huge difference for them economically and also you have something like 200,000 Palestinians living in area C. All of those homes are under constant threat of Israeli demolition, because legally they should not have been built. … Settlements don’t get demolished and Palestinian homes do.”
He said Israel can take positive unilateral steps in East Jerusalem as well.
“Gaza is an almost entirely separate challenge,” he said.
Both local actors and international actors are at play in that area; among them Egypt, Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Hamas and the United Nations.
“You’ve got Qaatar who throws money in behind Hamas. You’ve got Saudi Arabia and the UAE sometimes supporting the PA, sometimes not. You’ve got Turkey messing around. The U.S. and everybody does something different and nothing gets done.”
He recommends the U.S. work with Egypt and the United Nations, “who are two of the most effective and influential players on the ground just to direct the international community.”
Gaza has electricity only four to eight hours a day, he said, and “97% of the drinking water is not fit for human consumption.”
In addition, it has 53% rate of unemployment, Goldenberg said.
“And there are all kinds of steps that can be taken immediately to increase water, increase electricity,” he said. “You used to have 25,000, 100,000 Gazans working inside Israel. That needs to happen again. The Israelis know who these guys are. They can start with a few thousand work permits. And there’s a lot of support for that in all of the Israeli communities around Gaza.”
Goldenberg acknowledged the long-term solutions will not be as simple.
“There’s a much more complicated long-term political game there, where we eventually need to find a way to bring the Palestinian Authority and Hamas some kind of a three-way deal,” he said. “But we’re not there yet. We can start with a lot of the early stuff first.”