Paul Pillar

Israel's Contradictory Policy Toward the West Bank

The Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu has maintained a policy toward the West Bank, and toward the Palestinian Authority that ostensibly governs it, that serves two distinct Israeli purposes. The policy is to present the West Bank as a project in building a state from the ground up. A Palestinian state, says Israel, will be the result of diligent efforts by the Palestinians themselves to put together the civic and administrative building blocks of an effective state. The policy is presented partly as a challenge to the administration of Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad to erect such a building. And it is presented partly as a success story in progress, with Israelis happy to point out some of the building blocks that have been assembled, to take some steps that facilitate the assembly, and to portray it all as progress toward the eventual creation of a Palestinian state notwithstanding continued Israeli control.

One of the two Israeli objectives this policy serves is that of trying to push Hamas into irrelevance by accentuating the contrast between the relatively more favorable way of life in the “good” Palestinian territory supposedly governed by the Palestinian Authority, and the squalor in the “bad” Palestinian territory: the Gaza Strip governed by Hamas. What Israel has failed to accomplish through rejection of a democratic election, the imposition of a strangulating economic blockade, and the unrestrained use of military force it hopes to accomplish by persuading Palestinians that they can never have a better way of life under Hamas.

The other Israeli objective is to keep kicking the can of Palestinian statehood down the road. Statehood, says the Israelis, is not something that can be bestowed from above like a gift, by Israel or anyone else. Instead, the Palestinians must earn it through that long, slow process of building from below. Yes, say the Israelis (and American supporters of the Israeli government's policies), progress is being made in the West Bank, but there is more progress that has yet to be made. As long as Israel can presume to be the judge of such matters, it can always say that there is still more progress that needs to be made.

These two purposes of Israel's policy toward the West Bank are ultimately contradictory. The more effective is governance under the proto-administration in the West Bank, the more vivid is the contrast with affairs under the hated Hamas in Gaza, but this also makes it all the harder to keep arguing that the West Bank is not yet ready for statehood. Israel has been able to finesse the contradiction as long as others have not presumed to displace Israel as the judge of progress in the West Bank or of what it takes to make popular sovereignty work. But now two others have presumed to do just that.

One of the two is the populace of nearby Arab countries such as Egypt, who have been dramatically demonstrating in the streets their view that popular sovereignty is a right, not something that can only be earned through some long, slow process judged by whoever currently has power. The assertion of this view, and how it shines a fresh new light on the situation of the Palestinians, is part of what makes Israelis exceedingly nervous about the popular upheaval in the Middle East.

The other fresh judge is the Office of the United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, which issued a report this week assessing that in the areas in which the U.N. is most engaged, “governmental functions are now sufficient for a functioning government of a state.” The U.N. office agreed with a judgment by the World Bank last September that “if the P.A. maintains its current performance in institution-building and delivery of public services, it is well positioned for the establishment of a state at any point in the near future.” The U.N. report went on to indicate that what still separated West Bankers from the ability to operate effectively as a real state had to do with the Israeli occupation. “The institutional achievements of the Palestinian statebuilding agenda,” the report states, “are approaching their limits within the political and physical space currently available, precisely at the time that it is approaching its target date for completion.” That space is lacking, according to the report, because of “persistent measures of occupation, the lack of sufficient meaningful Israeli enablement steps on the ground on these issues, and the lack of progress in resolving final status issues in Israeli-Palestinian political negotiations.”

Don't expect Netanyahu's government to react to such judgments by agreeing that the time for Palestinian statehood has finally arrived. The government is more likely to see assessments such as those of the Special Coordinator as part of an effort to make trouble for Israel by preparing the ground for declaration of Palestinian statehood by the General Assembly in the fall. The contradiction in Israeli policy toward the occupied territories will not be acknowledged. Instead we are likely to hear more talk about how what is multilateral (action in the United Nations) is supposedly unilateral, and how what is unilateral (Israeli colonization of occupied territory) is irrelevant.

Image by Markus Ortner