Steps to Shrink the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
By Micah Goodman
April 1, 2019
One evening, about five years ago, I approached a small group of
students. They were at Ein Prat, an institution that I head in Israel, where
some 3,000 young Israelis have studied in recent years. Some are very religious,
others deeply secular, but they share a deep connection. I asked the students
what binds them together. One got up and said something that caused the group to
burst into laughter—a laughter that expressed full agreement. “The
secret,” he said with a smile, “is that we never talk about politics.”
2017, I published in Israel a book called Catch-67 (which
is now out in English translation), with the aim of allowing the left to be
curious about the right, and the right to be curious about the left. The book
presented the philosophical roots of the Israeli left and right, analyzed both
sides’ ideas, and tried to show the depth and genius of their perspectives.
I had not intended to create so much noise, but I
decided to learn from it. Every time I heard that an Israeli party leader, a
Palestinian intellectual, or an Israeli military or intelligence official was
reading my book, I asked to meet with that person. I found myself spending long
hours in conversation with the most senior figures in Israel’s political,
intelligence, and military leadership.
not deal with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, only the broken Israeli
discussion about the conflict. On one side are those who
believe the conflict can be solved—an aspiration that many Israelis believe is
unrealistic, at this point in time, because of the extraordinary risks and costs
involved. On the other are those who believe the conflict can be managed, and
the status quo sustained indefinitely—an aspiration that is equally
But as I spoke with these leaders, who disagreed with
one another about so much, I began to see a remarkable degree of consensus.
There is, it turns out, a third option: The Israeli-Palestinian conflict can be
shrunk, and it can be shrunk dramatically. Israelis could take eight practical
steps right now that would maximize Palestinian freedom without compromising
Israeli security. These steps won’t solve the conflict. They won’t help
manage it. But they can shrink it.
A vibrant and lively political center is emerging in
Israel. But what is its political ideology? That is unclear; the center is
precisely where people make the greatest effort not to talk about politics.
There is tremendous asymmetry, therefore, between the center’s power and its
lack of clarity. The center is winning increasing support, but its platform is
neither clear nor coherent. It possesses an ideology, but those beliefs remain
largely unarticulated. This essay is an attempt to close this gap and articulate
the unspoken ideology of the Israeli political center.
While working on Catch-67,
I discovered one of the reasons that my students do not talk about politics:
Many Israelis have lost their sense of conviction. When it comes to the
Arab-Israeli conflict, Israelis are confused.
situation is new. After the Six Day War, Israelis were blinded by certainty. The
right’s conviction was rooted in the supposedly mystical power of the land of
Israel; the left’s, in a hypnotic faith in peace.
But there existed another utopian, ideological way to
pick the fruits of victory. Instead of giving the territories away, the state
could settle them. According to the great ideologue of the settlement movement,
Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, the Hebrew Bible contains a series of prophecies that the
Jewish people will return to their land and settle it. By settling the hills of
Judea and Samaria, Jews would fulfill these prophecies and provoke a chain of
events leading to the messianic days.
Both sides of Israel’s political debate were
convinced that, over time, most Israelis would see the light, join their
movement, and be swept away by the great political utopia they were promising.
But they were wrong.
Over the past two decades, both the Israeli right and
left have undergone fascinating shifts. The dominant narrative on the right is
no longer about the sanctity of the settlements, the fulfilment of biblical
prophecies, and imminent redemption. The main concern of most right-wing
Israelis is security. The left has also changed; its organizing narrative is no
longer about the new Middle East, international reconciliation, and imminent
peace. Its main concern now is the occupation.
Most demographers believe that the Jews will soon cease
to be a majority in the areas controlled by Israel—and on the day the Jews
become a minority in their land, that land will cease to be theirs. There is a
minority opinion among Israeli demographers that this day will never come. But
even if they are correct and Palestinians would comprise only 40 percent of a
Greater Israel, it would be difficult to define this country as the nation-state
of the Jewish people, because one condition for a nation-state is to have a
massive majority belonging to that nation. Without a decisive Jewish majority,
the State of Israel would be a binational state, and the Zionist project would
The desire to control the whole land of Israel,
therefore, threatens the State of Israel’s self-definition. Paradoxically,
permanent control of the biblical homeland would not deepen Israel’s Jewish
identity, but likely annul it.
Israeli right has also updated and upgraded its security arguments in recent
years. The right used to contend that the establishment of a Palestinian state
in Judea and Samaria would endanger the State of Israel. It said that a
Palestinian state would likely forge military alliances, build an arsenal, and
invade Israel, already shrunken to indefensible borders, defeating it in a
surprise attack. This is an old position based on a nightmare scenario that most
people agree is no longer relevant.
This is an alarming thought. If the Middle East’s
most radical forces poured into a weak Palestinian state, Israel would likely
find the Middle East’s carnage on its doorstep of Tel Aviv. In other words, if
the Israeli right’s old argument was that an overly strong Palestine would
threaten Israel, its revised argument is that an overly weak Palestine would
The Israeli right and left are mirror images of each
other. The right no longer believes that settling the territories will bring
redemption; instead, it fears that withdrawing from them will bring disaster.
The left no longer believes that withdrawing from the territories will bring
redemption; instead, it fears that staying there will bring disaster. The
Israeli left and right have undergone an identical change, moving from dreams to
These two shifts completely transformed the nature of
the clash between the left and the right. On an intellectual and a conceptual
level, whether such a clash even exists anymore is unclear.
So long as the left promised a utopia of peace and the
right promised a utopia of messianic redemption, Israelis had to choose one path
and rule out the other. But now that the right’s main idea is not the utopia
of messianic redemption but the catastrophe of a withdrawal, and the left’s
main idea is not the utopia of peace but the catastrophe of the occupation,
there is no real clash between them, at least not a necessary one. While rival
visions of utopia can only clash, fears can coincide.
is the psychological nature of fear. People who suffer from phobias know this
well: If one is afraid of heights, one can also be afraid of confined spaces or
spiders. Whereas dreams must come at another’s expense, fears can compound,
and that is exactly what has happened to so many Israelis. They have adopted and
internalized the great fear of the right, as well as that of the left. They
believe that Israel cannot guarantee its Jewish national majority if it
continues to control Judea and Samaria and, at the same time, that Israel would
struggle to guarantee its national security if it withdrew from Judea and
Certainty has been replaced with confusion. If Israel
remains in the territories, it will endanger its future, but if it leaves the
territories, it will also endanger its future. This dilemma has created a new
space for new ideas.
In some sense, this space can be called the political
center ground, and is where most Israelis find themselves. But the political
center ground does not fully overlap with the center of the partisan political
map. Centrist Israelis do not necessarily vote for centrist parties—because
many still vote based on identities and tribes rather than political positions.
Viewed from the perspective of political positions, not
identities, the political center is the widest space for consensus in Israel.
Unnoticed, the conflict that once divided Israelis and placed two rival
ideological camps in fiery collision now unites them. Most Israelis share the
same set of positions about the conflict. But paradoxically, this new, broad
Israeli consensus is not about what Israel must do, but what it must not do. It
is not an agreement on a way forward, but on a stalemate. Political confusion,
one could say, is the new political consensus in Israel.
Confusion can produce paralysis, but it does not need
to. It can lead to fresh thinking and new courses of action. Karl Popper, the
philosopher of science, once observed that new ideas are not born in ideological
spaces paralyzed by certainty, but in places where doubt fills the human mind
with curiosity and openness. In Israel, however, that is not what has happened.
The new political center is not a place for innovation, but mostly apathy. The
political center has changed the subject of conversation to the cost of living
and other important matters—but not the conflict. What I learned from hundreds
of my students at Ein Prat is that centrists do not offer a moderate position on
the conflict; they simply don’t talk about it.
The silence of the Israeli center abandons the
conversation about the future of the territories to the hard right and hard
left. And their monopoly over the conversation has created an undesirable, false
illusion: The only options are to manage an unsustainable status quo, or to
solve an intractable problem. The Israeli political center should offer a middle
way, but it remains quiet, apathetic, and preoccupied with other affairs.
first step toward dramatically shrinking the conflict is to break free from the
flawed equation that more control over the Palestinians equals more security for
Israel. In reality, the occupation of the Palestinians can be shrunk without
also shrinking Israelis’ security—but not as part of a perfect, redemptive
project. In meetings with intelligence and military officials in the two years
since Catch 67’s Hebrew
publication, I discovered that their desk drawers contain modest and practical
proposals for policies that offer an alternative to the zero-sum game. Israeli
think tanks have also proposed important and interesting ideas, which the wider
public and international community should seriously consider. Any proposal for
shrinking the conflict must meet both the following criteria: shrinking the
occupation of the Palestinians, but also leaving
Israelis’ security intact.
There are eight concrete steps that Israel could take
now that would increase Palestinian freedom without decreasing Israeli security.
This is not a comprehensive list of such policies or ideas, nor does it touch on
the problem of the Gaza Strip. Each of these measures alone is a small step, but
many small steps will go a great distance together. These policies will not end
the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and repair the Middle East—but they will
guarantee Israel’s vital interests and dramatically improve day-to-day life
for everyone on the ground.
The 1993 Oslo Accords created the Palestinian Authority
and granted it control over 40 percent of the West Bank. The Palestinian
autonomous zones are called Area A and Area B. Area A covers the main
Palestinian towns, where the Palestinian Authority has full civilian and
security control; Area B encompasses the outlying areas and villages, where the
Palestinian Authority has only civilian control. The remaining 60 percent,
called Area C, remains under the control of the Israeli army. Although some 90
percent of the Palestinian population lives in areas under Palestinian Authority
control, these areas are not contiguous.
This has created dozens of autonomous islands of
Palestinian territory, surrounded by territories under Israeli control. A
Palestinian resident of Ramallah does not directly experience the Israeli
occupation on a daily basis. The authority that governs him is Palestinian, the
television he watches is Palestinian, the textbooks his children use are
Palestinian, and the police force that protects him is Palestinian. But this is
only true as long as he remains inside Ramallah. When he wants to visit family
in Nablus, he must pass through territory under Israeli control, and many
unexpected things can happen on the way. First, he might not even be able to
leave Ramallah if the Israeli army has placed the city on lockdown that day. And
if he can leave the city, he might be stopped at an Israel Defense Forces flying
checkpoint. When he finally gets there, he might be unable to enter Nablus,
because now this city is under IDF lockdown.
Oslo, the occupation has been less directly felt inside the Palestinian
autonomous zones and more a result of the disconnect between these dozens of
isolated islands. Most of the time, Palestinian cities remain open and there are
few checkpoints, but nobody can make predictions. Palestinians cannot know
whether it will take them 20 minutes or eight hours to travel to visit family.
But more important, they experience persistent humiliation, because even if the
roads are open, they know that this is because the Israeli military authorities
have decided to keep them open. They know that they are traveling by the grace
of the foreign army that rules them. This is the occupation.
If Israel were to pave this network of roads—and more
important, give the Palestinian Authority autonomous control over it—the
reality on the ground would be completely transformed. Palestinians would be
able to leave their home in Hebron and visit family in Jenin without
encountering a single Israeli soldier, because all the roads would be under
Palestinian control. Israel would thereby be able to abolish the main source of
friction between the civilian population and the military authorities. This
endeavor would meet the two criteria listed above: It would shrink Israel’s
control over the Palestinians without also shrinking Israelis’ security. In
other words, this plan proves and illustrates that the zero-sum game between
security and occupation can be ended.
If this is so simple, why has it not been done yet? The
hard right opposes any territorial concessions to the Palestinians, because it
believes the land is holy and must not be conceded. But many members of the hard
left are also against it, because policies that make life easier for
Palestinians in the territories will normalize the occupation and thereby
legitimize it. Some on the left feel that shrinking the occupation has no moral
significance. Either there is an occupation, or there isn’t one.
An unconscious alliance exists between the Israeli
peace movement and the Israeli nationalist camp. Both are entrenching the status
quo. When the left conditions any progress on a full peace treaty, the
unattainability of a peace treaty means there will never be progress. The myth
of peace and the myth of the land of Israel both keep things as they are.
Ironically, Israelis’ faith in the great ideologies that promise to completely
transform the existing situation is what’s keeping the existing situation
the Palestinian Autonomous Zones
Palestinian autonomous zones are too small for the population, and cannot
accommodate its current rate of growth. Areas A and B have not grown since the
1990s, but the population has. As a result, Palestinians have built some 20,000
houses that spill over the boundaries of the autonomous zones. This construction
is illegal and unregulated; Israel has placed many of these structures under
demolition orders. Palestinian towns and villages have no space to develop,
creating self-confined and densely packed population centers that require the
authorization of the Israeli army for any changes.
Palestinians’ Travel Abroad
The Palestinians do not have their own airport, but the
construction of a Palestinian airport would boost Palestinians’ independence
at the expense of Israel’s security. Today the Palestinians’ gateway to the
world is the international airport in Amman, Jordan. Crossing the border to
Jordan at Allenby Bridge, though, involves a long wait time. Palestinians’
access to the world can be expanded in two ways. First, Israel could greatly
reduce waiting time at Allenby Bridge, including by introducing advanced
technological means to speed up and ease border crossings. Second, it could
enable Palestinians to fly abroad through Ben Gurion Airport via direct, secured
shuttles, connecting the West Bank to Israel’s international airport.
Some 120,000 Palestinians work in Israel, bringing
large sums of money to the Palestinian territories and providing a livelihood
for 600,000 people. There is a large pay differential between employment in the
Palestinian Authority and in Israel; for the same job, workers in Israel earn
twice as much. In recent years, the IDF’s top brass have concluded that the
number of permits for Palestinians to work in Israel can be dramatically
Employment opportunities can be opened up to women and
older men with clean records, with a supervised but minimal risk to Israel. If
400,000 Palestinian workers entered Israel every day, this would significantly
improve the Palestinian economy. More than 1 million Palestinians would directly
enjoy the fruits of working in Israel, and the whole population would benefit
from the injection of new cash into the local market.
Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies, a
think tank, has published a plan—the Political-Security Framework for the
Israeli-Palestinian Arena—in which Israel would allocate parts of Area C for
Palestinian economic development and industrial estates. The plan would
encourage international investment in these areas and create a special credit
scheme for loans to build businesses there.
To facilitate shrinking the conflict, Israel would have
to refrain from expanding its settlements outside the major blocs and allocate
land in Area C for Palestinian economic initiatives.
and Local Trade
of the greatest weaknesses of the Palestinian economy is its isolation from the
outside world. A new railroad between Jenin and Haifa and the construction of a
Palestinian seaport in Haifa Bay under Israeli supervision would solve this
problem. The Israeli army’s “door-to-door” plan would have Israeli
security officers inspect the loading of goods into marked and locked containers
at the border crossings, to avoid the need for unloading and inspection at
various checkpoints. The full, accelerated implementation of this plan would
enable goods to move easily from Judea and Samaria to the ports at Haifa and
Ashdod, and from there to the rest of the world.
One annex of the 1995 Oslo Accords is the Paris
Protocol, which makes the Palestinian economy entirely dependent on the Israeli
economy and the State of Israel. The Palestinian tax, customs, import, and
export systems rely on and are effectively controlled by Israel. The Paris
Protocol can and must be revised to end this dependence. The INSS framework referred
to earlier contains a detailed economic plan to give the Palestinians full
Note the complementary process here. Alongside
political separation is economic integration. These policies would connect the
Palestinian labor market to Israel and the Palestinian economy to the world,
meaningfully upgrading the Palestinian economy and the Palestinians’ financial
situation. Israel would separate from the Palestinians politically but connect
to them economically, giving the Palestinians more freedom and prosperity.
Taken together, these steps would fundamentally
transform the weak, fragmented Palestinian territories into a polity that is
independent, contiguous, and open to the world. In effect, this process would
change the direction of political traffic. Recent years have seen a creeping
annexation in the territories. These eight policies would propel Israel in the
opposite direction—creeping separation.
This would not be a full divorce. There would be no
formal agreement, no evacuation of settlements, and no division of Jerusalem.
These policies would not produce a two-state solution, but they would
effectively create a two-state reality. The purpose of these small and
cumulative steps is not to end the conflict but to change its nature; to
transform it from a conflict between a state and its subjects into one between a
state and its neighbors. This process would guarantee Israel’s vital interests
and dramatically improve day-to-day life for all, without heightening the
security risks for Israel.
In 2005, Israel disengaged from the Gaza Strip, a
unilateral move that failed to meet our two criteria. As a result of the
disengagement, Israel gained a large demographic bump, but it is paying the
price with its security, and Israelis in the country’s south continue to
suffer. Would a return to unilateralism not simply mean a return to the failure
of past unilateral experiments?
it comes to Palestinian terrorism, Israel’s security is based on its forces’
ability to foil the formation of terror cells in the West Bank on a daily basis.
Their great success stems from Israel’s wide-reaching intelligence network in
Palestinian towns and villages. To guarantee the effectiveness of this
intelligence, Israel needs free military access to every part of the Palestinian
autonomous areas. This is not the situation in Gaza. Israel pulled its army out
of Gaza and consequently wrapped up most of its intelligence network there. The
IDF’s ability to stop terror attacks from the Gaza Strip is therefore
extremely limited. This mistake must not be replicated in the context of
unilateral moves in the West Bank. Further to the eight steps that will
dramatically shrink the occupation of the Palestinians, here are the five
principles that will guarantee Israelis’ continued security:
IDF will continue to conduct pursuits and arrests in all parts of the
Palestinian autonomous area.
will retain a permanent military force in the Jordan Valley.
airspace will remain under full Israeli control.
electromagnetic field will remain under full Israeli control.
In its withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, Israel conceded
three of these five points. The Shin Bet lost its free and unrestricted access
to the Palestinian population, the IDF lost its freedom to maneuver through the
towns in Gaza, and the withdrawal from the Philadelphi corridor—the border
with the Sinai—opened the Strip up to smugglers and allowed the territory to
militarize. These mistakes must not be repeated. These five principles will
preserve the Israeli army’s ability to keep Israeli citizens safe.
This “eight plus five” plan—eight steps to shrink
the occupation, and five principles to guarantee Israel’s continued
security—does not cover everything that can and must be done. I believe these
steps will succeed, and that other interesting steps can be proposed and
explored. Others might believe that these steps and principles would be
ineffective or impossible. But this is the debate Israelis should be having, not
about grand redemptive projects. This approach is an invitation to Israelis, to
Jews in the diaspora, and to all well-intentioned members of the international
community to rejoin the political conversation and replace their apathy with
pragmatism. It is precisely those who have stopped believing in redemptive
solutions, on the left and the right, who have the most to contribute to an
intelligent discussion about small, measured, and cumulative steps.
This plan owes a great intellectual debt to ideas
devised by the Israeli military and to studies and plans drawn up by Israeli
civilian leaders, including Naftali Bennett’s Tranquilization Plan, Security
First by Commanders for Israel’s Security, and the INSS’s comprehensive Political-Security
Framework for the Israeli-Palestinian Arena, written by Amos Yadlin,
Udi Dekel, and Kim Lavi.
there is a clear, principled difference between the plan to shrink the
occupation and the others listed here. Bennett’s approach aims to strengthen
Palestinian autonomy as part of a broader annexation plan, ultimately declaring
all of Area C sovereign Israeli territory. The plans by Commanders for
Israel’s Security and the INSS contain important ideas, some of them mentioned
above, including the economic and infrastructural development of the Palestinian
autonomous polity—but their declared aim is to create the conditions for a
political agreement that will solve the conflict once and for all. The plan
outlined here is neither a first step toward annexation nor a first step toward
a withdrawal. Its objective is neither to annex the territories nor to reach a
But once this journey is underway and the conflict is
reorganized as a clash between neighbors rather than between rulers and
subjects, things might begin to look a little different. Israelis cannot know
what they will see when they get there. History is dynamic and surprising, and
so is the Middle East. We can assume that new opportunities will arise. With a
plan to shrink the conflict and neutralize immediate existential threats, Israel
will be placed in a prime position to spot opportunities around the corner, and
take advantage of them.