- - Tuesday, March 7, 2017

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

JERICHO, WEST BANK | This palm-fringed oasis in the Jordan Valley has been continuously inhabited for 10,000 years. That justifies it billing itself as the “oldest city in the world.”

Officers of the Palestinian National Security Force (NSF) headquartered here will proudly tell you that it’s now among the safest places in the Arab Middle East, and that their paramilitary organization is an important reason why. They’re also grateful for the training, arms, ammunition, equipment and even buildings being provided by American taxpayers.

This arrangement was agreed to by the Israelis who, in 1994, gave the Palestinian Authority administrative control over Jericho and other West Bank cities.

Could the next step be a “two-state solution” to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict? Count me among those who see that as unlikely anytime soon no matter how energetic, determined and skillful the diplomacy of the Trump administration turns out to be.

The Middle East, always a bloody corner of the world, has become bloodier over recent years. Historians will debate the extent to which President Obama’s policies contributed to that result. But given this reality, Israeli leaders from Labor on the left to Likud on the right are convinced that the withdrawal of their military forces from the West Bank would leave a vacuum — and that jihadis would fill it.

Consider the precedents. In 2005, every Israeli soldier and settler was pulled out of Gaza. Within two years, Hamas had taken control and begun launching missiles at Israeli villages and cities. A series of small wars followed, as has the incessant digging of terrorist tunnels into Israel.

Five years earlier, the Israelis withdrew from southern Lebanon. That strengthened Hezbollah, Iran’s proxy, with whom other wars had to be fought, the last in 2006. Since then, Hezbollah has installed more than 150,000 missiles in homes, schools and mosques — all aimed at Israel.

Back in 1982, as part of a historic peace agreement signed a few years earlier, Israelis handed the Sinai Peninsula over to Egypt. Today, a branch of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, wages an insurgency there.

Despite all that, and contrary to some reports, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has never ruled out the possibility of a “land for peace” deal with the Palestinians. But in return for relinquishing the West Bank (seized from Jordan in a defensive war nearly 50 years ago), he is adamant that the Jewish state receive a verifiable Palestinian commitment to peaceful coexistence.

Hamas, which controls Gaza and has cells throughout the West Bank, unequivocally rejects that idea. Hamas believes that Islamic law obligates Muslims to fight non-Muslims who control lands that were, at any time in the past, conquered by Muslims.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who turns 82 this month, does not appear to share Hamas’ religious convictions. But were he to end his long career by shaking Mr. Netanyahu’s hand on the White House lawn, he’d be labeled a traitor, not just by Hamas but also by those seeking to succeed him in the West Bank, as well as the Islamic Republic of Iran which, as a direct result of Mr. Obama’s policies, is currently the ascendant power in the Middle East.

You’ll hear it argued that in the absence of a two-state solution there will have to be a “one-state solution,” meaning Israeli annexation of the West Bank and Gaza. At that point, Israelis would face a Catch-22: refuse to grant citizenship to Palestinians living in those territories, in which case Israel ceases to be democratic, or become a minority in their own country.

There is no mystery about what the latter choice would mean. Jewish communities have been persecuted in and expelled from many lands, not least Muslim-majority lands. Nor can we say that was in the past and, since then, attitudes have changed. There are more than 20 countries that call themselves Arab and more than 50 that self-identify as Islamic. Minorities enjoy equal rights in few if any. (By contrast, Arabs and Muslims constitute about 20 percent of Israel’s population and they enjoy more freedom, rights and benefits than do Arabs and Muslims in any Arab or Muslim country.)

All this suggests now is not the time for dramatic diplomatic initiatives. Significant changes will occur once Mr. Abbas passes from the scene. American policymakers should be getting ready.

Meanwhile, it’s worth prodding the Palestinians to develop the institutions — like the NSF — that both define and sustain true statehood. Lacking that, they will remain dependent on the “donor community” indefinitely. Worse, a Palestinian state could arise, achieve recognition — and then fail. Who would benefit from that?

The lives of West Bank Palestinians, in Jericho and elsewhere, can be made better. They are in dire need of more jobs with better pay and benefits. Israelis are willing to assist, willing to expand economic cooperation. But first Palestinian leaders must end both their opposition to “normalization” with Israelis and their support for BDS (Boycott, Divest and Sanction), a campaign that seeks to drive away Israeli investors, businesses and employers.

Finally, a little perspective would be helpful. Palestinian resentment of the Israeli military presence in the West bank is understandable, as is bitterness over the fences and walls that separate the West Bank from Israel. But both were a response to conventional and terrorist attacks that killed thousands of Israelis — they were not the cause.

In recent days, the artist who calls himself Banksy has generated quite a lot of media attention by opening a hotel next to a section of wall in Bethlehem, proclaiming that it has “the worst view in the world.” Is there no reporter with spine enough to ask him why he considers the bombed-out ruins of Aleppo, Mosul and Sana’a more scenic?

• Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a columnist for The Washington Times.

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