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A Near-Consensus: Israel’s Security Establishment and the Two-State Solution

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The Palestinian flag crossing with the Israeli flag. The word 'peace' is written in Arabic and Hebrew.

In a dynamic, ever-changing world, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict stands apart for its consistent position as one of the globe’s most intractable dilemmas. Generations have lived in the shadow of this impasse, which can seem all but permanent to the outside observer.

On the inside, however, opinions and positions among both Israelis and Palestinians can and do differ greatly. Even within a group of seemingly like-minded individuals, opinions on the efficacy of the two-state solution—one independent nation-state of Israel and a separate nation-state of Palestine—diverge.

SIS professor Guy Ziv and his former student, Benjamin Shaver, SIS/BA ’18, have published an article in Survival titled “A Near-consensus: Israel’s Security Establishment and the Two-state Solution,” which examines opinions of retired generals and former members of the Israeli security establishment. We had a chance to ask Professor Ziv some questions about the article.

Read Ziv’s and Shaver’s full original article with access provided by American University Library.

Q: Your article is a study of the opinions of various retired members of the Israeli security establishment on the question of a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict. What method did you use to assess their positions on this issue? How many individual opinions are represented in your study?

This project employed a mixed-methods design. We analyzed published statements by senior ex-security establishment figures, coupled with nearly two dozen personal interviews. We then tried to disconfirm our thesis—that a majority of these retired high-ranking security officials support the two-state solution—by conducting a content analysis of newspaper sources, covering more than 5,000 articles from LexisNexis Boolean searches published over a 17-year period. Sixty-two individuals comprised our dataset—not a comprehensive list, but a representative sample of the larger population of interest. By including former officials from the entire range of senior ranks—the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), the Mossad and Shin Bet intelligence agencies, and Israel’s National Security Council—our dataset provides for a robust check for the conclusions drawn from our analysis of our interviews and published articles.

Q: Choosing to use media statements might be considered a risky method if one believes that people in public life change their public statements to suit prevailing popular opinions. Why do you believe that the statements made by these former security officials can be relied upon to assess the real beliefs of these individuals?

I interviewed not only those retired security officials who have entered the political arena, but also those that are involved in various NGOs and researchers in think tanks who have no political aspirations. If anything, given the zeitgeist in Israel—the country has been dominated by the nationalist-right for the past decade—those who have joined the political fray have been far more cautious in their public comments in terms of expressing support for the creation of a Palestinian state. Our finding that 85 percent support the two-state solution is a conservative estimate and is probably, in reality, higher. A few interviewees told me that ex-security establishment figures seeking to enter public life are afraid to speak out publicly in support of the two-state solution due to potential political repercussions. We are, therefore, confident that those who have expressed support for the two-state solution on multiple occasions probably meant it.

Q: In your article, you walk through a synopsis of the history of the idea of a two-state solution, which has its roots in the early Zionist leadership of the 1930s. The general trend, which as you point out has its outliers, seems to be that the more directly responsible a person is for Israeli security, the more likely they are to eventually support the two-state solution. This even proved true for a notable hardliner like former prime minister Ariel Sharon. Why do you think this is the case?

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, himself an ex-general, indeed withdrew unilaterally from the Gaza Strip and four West Bank settlements in August 2005. He was asked how he could do so given that most of his political career was focused on promoting and funding settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, famously stating that “the fate of Netzarim, [then a settlement in Gaza], is the fate of Tel Aviv.” His response in light of the evacuations of all of the settlements in Gaza, including Netzarim: “You see things from here that you don’t see from there.” People in a position of responsibility, who have access to more information, tend to have a broader perspective. The top brass of the IDF and their counterparts in the intelligence community have decades of experience, accumulated knowledge, and a deeper understanding of the consequences of ruling over another people. This is especially the case with those generals who have served as coordinators of government activities in the territories (COGAT); they tend to be even more outspoken against the occupation than other military figures, upon retirement.

Q: You describe a reality in which 85 percent of Israel’s former spymasters and ex-generals support a two-state solution. To what, then, do you attribute Prime Minister Netanyahu’s vow that there will never be a Palestinian state as long as he is prime minister?

Netanyahu endorsed the two-state solution ten years ago, on 14 June 2009, but it has been clear for years that it was merely a tactical maneuver aimed at lowering tensions with then-President Obama. Despite several goodwill gestures early on, he did not negotiate earnestly with the Palestinians and has done much to undermine the status of Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas. It is hardly a coincidence, therefore, that more than five years have passed since the Israelis and Palestinians last sat down in face-to-face negotiations. He has no intention of pursuing the two-state solution, preferring instead to continuing “managing” (as opposed to trying to resolve) the conflict. He is concerned, first and foremost, about his political survival. He is beholden to the settlers and their supporters in the Knesset and in his cabinet. The real danger is that his right-wing, religious coalition partners are pushing him to annex the West Bank, which would put an end to all hopes for the two-state solution. The security establishment veterans are alarmed at the possibility that Israel will turn into a binational state given the demographic realities; annexing parts of the West Bank would all but ensure that a binational state would become the new reality. Even skeptics of Palestinian statehood in the security community want Israel to remain a Jewish and democratic state. The establishment of an independent Palestinian state that would live side-by-side in peace with Israel would enable the Palestinians to rule over themselves while saving Israel.

Q: As you worked on this article and reviewed all this history, were you left with a sense that there will ever be the right confluence of leaders and circumstance to allow for an end to this conflict?

Leadership is essential to peacemaking, and I am convinced that there will be no peace in the Netanyahu-Abbas-Trump era. I will not predict what will happen in a few years when one, two, or perhaps all three leaders are replaced with others. What I will note is that Egypt’s Anwar Sadat visited Israel just four years after he surprised Israel with a war; the two countries made peace. Jordan’s King Hussein joined Egypt’s Nasser in fighting Israel during the 1967 War, but he eventually made peace with Israel. Yitzhak Rabin, the IDF Chief of Staff during the 1967 War, like Sadat before him, ultimately paid the ultimate price—his life—for making bold moves for peace. Who knows what sort of leaders will emerge in the coming years? For the sake of Israelis, Palestinians, and US stability in the region, I just hope that the two-state solution will still be alive at that point for it to even make a difference.