The strategic importance of Judea and Samaria: Interview with YORAM ETTINGER

Among the most knowledgeable analysts of the Arab-Israeli conflict, Yoram Ettinger belongs to the tough school of the realists, those scholars and political thinkers who never deflect from looking at things as they are and not as they would like them to be. Reality is out there and often it is hard to face, but nothing is worse then projecting false assumptions and fancy schemes on it, for reality will always reject them harshly. Ex ambassador Ettinger, (formerly the Minister for Congressional Affairs to Israel’s Embassy in Washington DC) doesn’t suffer from this attitude as anyone who reads him on the The Ettinger Report know very well.

L’Informale has met him in Jerusalem.

Ambassador Ettinger, in an article you published in Israel Hayom on July 17th you wrote, “Political correctness has subordinated Middle East reality and long term national security to the achievement of the Holy Grail of peaceful coexistence between Jews and Arabs west of the Jordan River”. Isn’t this distinction, between reality as it is and reality as one would like it to be an essential one in relation to the Arab-Israeli conflict?

Short term convenience, on the one hand, and long term interest or long term national security, on the other hand, is a historical divide among human beings irrespective of Israel and the Arab-Israeli conflict. It has also affected and undermined the attitude towards the Arab-Israeli conflict, and as a result it has only added more fuel to the Arab-Israeli fire then reducing or extinguishing it. One of the evidences of this is that since 1948 there has been a litany of attempts by Western policy makers mostly Americans but also Europeans to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict, to solve the Palestinian issue, but none of these attempts have succeeded. The only two successful attempts so far, those which have resulted in the peace treaties between Israel and Egypt and Israel and Jordan, have been results of Israeli initiatives directly negotiating with the Arabs, not through Western intermediaries. When it comes to the Palestinian issue and the Arab-Israeli conflict, the focus has to be not so much on enhancing the fortunes of Israelis or Arabs, but on long term Western interest. The question should be, irrespective of Israeli interest, irrespective of Palestinian interest, would a Palestinian state be advancing or undermining Western interests at large? In my opinion anyone who examines the issue along such lines would come to the conclusion that resorting to political correctness, namely creating a Palestinian state west of the Jordan River would only undermine Western interests.

Recently UNESCO has inscribed the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron as a Palestinian site. Previously it had produced another document in which the Temple Mount, the most sacred site for Jews, is to be called in Arabic, Al Haram al Sharif, the Noble Sanctuary. In the past, Yasser Arafat used to deny the existence of the temple in Jerusalem. Isn’t what UNESCO is doing a clear cultural war waged by the Arabs and Muslim countries, who hold the majority inside the organization, against Israel in order to uproot Jewish history from the Middle East?

It is an another attempt to recreate the Middle-East in accordance with the Arab design and in accordance with a highly oversimplified European approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict. The European assumption is that it is possible to solve the conflict by giving in to Arab demands. This type of approach, first of all ignores reality, and the reality is that the foundations of Jewish history, of Jewish religion, of Jewish nationalism and happens to be in the mountain regions of Judea and Samaria which commonly is referred to as the West Bank. The centerpiece of Judaism is not Tel Aviv, is not Haifa or anywhere along the costal plane, it is in the mountains of Judea and Samaria. Obviously this complicates the issue, but the challenge is to face up to reality and not to recreate reality. The challenge is to subordinate our views to reality rather than to twist around reality to match our simplistic views of the Middle East. When it comes to conceding to the Arabs, whether it is UNESCO or UNRWA or the UN in general, whether it is any European government, one needs to learn from historical precedents. Any time one appeases a rogue regime, be it an Arab regime, an Iranian regime or a North Korean one, any time you appease a rogue regime you wet its appetite. It is like a person attacked by a shark in the ocean who assumes that the shark will take only one bite and then will turn away. While it takes short terms inconvenience to defy rogue regimes, it certainly serves long terms interests of Western governments.

This brings us back to the option of a Palestinian state west of the Jordan, the favorite of Western governments.

This assumption is based on the idea that by appeasing the Palestinians, by according them sovereignty west of the Jordan river, that will supposedly lower the flames of the Middle East. The opposite is actually true. Should there be a Palestinian state in the mountains of Judea and Samaria, that would provide tailwind to the current attempts to topple the Hashemite regime east of the Jordan river. Going back to the signing of the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty, I was told by the then chairman of the joint chief of staff of the IDF , General Dan Shomron, that he was approached by his colleagues from Jordan who pleaded him not to go all the way to establish a Palestinian state west of the river, because that would devastate the Hashemite regime east of the river. As a matter of fact, General Yaalon, who was at that time Chief of Military Intelligence, was also approached by his Jordanian colleagues who asked if Israel was aware that what had been signed by the Palestinians in the morning was going to be violated in the evening. This was based on the Hashemite experience with the Palestinians east of the river. The bottom line is that the Hashemite are the lesser of the evil in the Middle East. The Hashemite regime is a necessary element in order to reduce regional insanity. Once the Hashemites are gone, a fate that would be accelerated by a Palestinian regime west of the Jordan, then any substitute would add much more fuel to the fire of the Middle East and it is not going to remain inside Jordan. It will cause a ripple effect into Saudi Arabia, into the Arabian Peninsula which is not very powerful militarily. Namely a Palestinian state could trigger a ripple effect that could devastate Western interests which are consistent with the current pro-Western Arab regimes in the Arabian Peninsula and Jordan. Iranian control of those regimes, or Russian or Chinese control of them would devastate Western economy and the stability of the oil market in the world and certainly would exacerbate the issue of Middle-Eastern terrorism with consequences throughout Europe, North and Latin America. A Palestinian state would mean Russian naval or air or land base in it, and possibly an Iranian military base which would upset dramatically the current balance of power in the Mediterranean, already the soft belly of Europe. It will also mean the devastation of the remains of Christian centers in Judea and Samaria. Bethlehem and Bet Jalla used to be Christian majorities centers until the 1993 Oslo Agreements. Since then they dwindled down to very tiny minorities, less then 20% minorities in Bethlehem and the same percentage in Bet Jalla. A Palestinian state could eliminate completely the Christian presence from Bethlehem and other Christian centers in Judea and Samaria.

In 1993, Shimon Peres, Yitzhak Rabin and Yossi Beilin brought back to the center of the stage a then disgraced Arafat (after his endorsement of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait). The result of this decision were the Oslo Agreements and the full legitimization of the PLO as an interlocutor. The consequences were the Second bloody Intifada. Would you like to comment on this?

There is a precedent and it is the recognition of the PLO by the USA. That happened in December of 1988 when President Reagan was already on his way out. At that time the PLO was the number one Arab terrorist organization training around for international terrorists from Europe, Latin America, Africa and Asia. The second stage of providing tailwind to Arab terrorism and in that way to global terrorism came about in 1993 when, as you mention, the PLO was snatched from almost oblivion at a time when in was confined to Tunisia and to some terror camps in Yemen, Libya and Lebanon and transformed into a legitimate organization. This was again a submission to wishful thinking, submission to the temptation of achieving short terms convenience and ignoring the complexity of reality, ignoring completely the severe consequences as far medium range and long range national security. The number one victim of the legitimization of PLO in 1988 and then in 1993 has not been Israel or the Jews. The number one victims have been Arabs.

This is something that Bassem Eid has recently emphasized in an interview we had, he stated very clearly, as he always does, how much the Palestinians have suffered and are suffering under the authority of the Palestinian Authority of Mahmoud Abbas.

I wish to tell you an episode regarding this. A few years ago I was introduced to a very respected Arab businessman here in the area of Jerusalem. The first thing he told me was that Arabs in the area would never forgive the Jewish state for their current state of affairs. I thought he was talking about the so called “occupation” and I asked him if he didn’t think that the so called “occupation” was better than Jordanian, Syrian or Egyptian occupation, and his response was amazing, “Who is talking about occupation? I am talking about the fact that you Jews brought upon us the plague of PLO terrorism. They were in Tunisia, far away from us and you brought them here and basically made them our rulers, and since then our fortunes have been going down the hill”.

Did he made specific complaints?

Just a few indicative examples. Under Jordanian control there was no income tax. What the Jordanians expected from the Palestinian-Arabs was to be loyal to the Hashemite crown. Under Israel they had to hire accountants and auditors and once a year deal with Israel’s income taxes authorities and pay taxes. When the PLO came in they had to face an unpredictable reality. Thugs were coming to this businessman house and demanded two hundred thousand shekels, or whatever they wanted. If you asked for a justification for this request they told you that you had the choice of be accused of being a Zionist collaborator or paying what they asked. If you happened to be married to a good looking wife or be the father of a good looking daughter in her late teens, once in a while you were approached by a Palestinian Authority top official who fancied your wife or your daughter. Once again you had the choice, either you tolerated the fact that they abused your wife or child or you faced the possibility of being accused to be a collaborator and executed at the center of the town. Let alone the corruption. There is a reason why Mahmoud Abbas has the nickname of Mr. 20%. Everyone in the Palestinian Authority is aware of the fact that an international businessman who wants to explore business opportunities with the Palestinian Authority must first of all meet with Abbas and then, when he leaves, will be asked to send 20% of the amount of the planned deal to one of the stashed account of Abbas around the world. Arafat started this practice and Abbas continued it. Arabs throughout the Middle East know very well about this reality, and this is the reason why they are showering the Palestinians with much talk but absolutely without any significant walk.

From what you say it is quite clear that the Arab attitude towards Mahmoud Abbas and that of Western countries is a very different one. Arabs know exactly who he is while Europeans and Americans have a different picture of him. In Europe we love to glamourize rascals and terrorists as freedom fighters. Arafat was usually received as a star in European capitals around the world.

While Mahmoud Abbas is welcomed with a red carpet when he lands in Rome, London, Paris, Washington, or even in Jerusalem, he is welcomed by a shabby rug when he goes to any Arab capital. The difference is that Arabs are familiar with the track record of Mahmoud Abbas going back to the Fifties, when he, along with Arafat and other leaders of Fatah and the PLO, currently the Palestinian Authority, were members of the Palestinian cell of the Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo. There they were involved in subversion and terrorism and had to run away from Egypt during the term of president Nasser. Then Syria opened its doors to Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas and their allies, but by 1966 the Palestinian there felt strong enough to introduce also subversion and terrorism and had to run away again. So it was the turn of Jordan, where King Hussein opened his doors to them and Jordan was employed for a numbers of years between 1968 and 1970 as the major anti-Israel platform of terrorism. By 1970 the Palestinians felt strong enough to try and topple down the Hashemite regime. Their plan triggered a civil war inside Jordan and as usual Mahmoud Abbas, Arafat and their allies had to flee. They fled to Lebanon for a number of years and there they plundered and raped southern Lebanon until, by 1975, they again felt strong enough to try and topple the central regime in Beirut. Their action forced the central regime to call upon the Syrian military to come upon their rescue. That was the beginning of the Syrian military occupation of Lebanon.

An impressive record.

It is not ended. The latest inter-Arab treachery by Mahmoud Abbas and his fellow Palestinians took place in August 1990 when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. Kuwait throughout the years had been the most hospitable Arab country to Arafat and their Palestinian allies. Kuwait absorbed some three hundred thousand Palestinians and enabled them to rise to top position, but in August 1990, when Saddam Hussein invaded the country three Palestinian battalions stationed in Iraq partook in the invasion. Palestinian intelligence inside Kuwait facilitated the invasion and that was the reason why the Kuwaiti leadership expelled almost three hundred thousand Palestinians from the country. Until today at Arab League conferences gatherings, participants show their disdain for Palestinians by stepping out of the hall when Mahmoud Abbas gets up to talk. The Arab Gulf States do not forget nor forgive. This shows clearly the difference between Arab attitude and European and Western attitude towards the Palestinian Authority and Mahmoud Abbas. And this is evident by the fact that all Arab oil producing countries combined provide less financial assistance to the Palestinian Authority than what it receives from the United States.

The British Mandate for Palestine of 1922 and ratified by the League of Nations in conferred to the Jews the right to settle in Palestine anywhere between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. However, after the Six Days War, due to the formidable propaganda apparatus set up by the Arabs and the Russians the word “occupation” and the phrase “occupied territories” became the mainstream way to describe as illegal Israeli presence in those same territories that the British Mandate gave to the Jews. Isn’t this a resounding contradiction?

It is not only a resounding contradiction, we are talking here about the centrality of international law. Once the world decides that previous legal decisions by the international community are not in power anymore because they complicate reality, because they force us to do away with conventional wisdom and they seem to complicate the so called peace process, why should anyone sign on to new agreements? As a matter of fact, in 1945 when the UN was established, Article 80 of the UN did introduce the previous international treaties which accorded the Jewish state the whole area west of the Jordan River. In 1967, when Resolution 242 was approved by the UN it stated clearly that Israel isn’t called for a full withdrawal from the territories captured during the Six Days War. There were weeks of debates about the final formulation because the Arabs aided by the Soviets wanted to introduce the clause, “withdrawal from all the territories” and luckily, by the end of the day, it was realized that if there was going to be a full withdrawal why even bother to negotiate in first instance? If you satisfy the aggressor, whose aggression actually triggered the war how should you expect peace to last in the region? Since Resolution 242, Israel already gave up the whole of Sinai. The whole of Sinai is roughly 90% of all land controlled by Israel since the 1967 war and the question is whether this size of land doesn’t satisfy the requirement of withdrawal from territories Let me add this. In the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty of Camp David of 1979 signed by the USA, Egypt and Israel, there is a reference to a Palestinian “administrative” autonomy. Israel agreed to give away the whole Sinai back to Egypt in return for such a peace treaty. Once the world decides that administrative autonomy should be overlooked and instead of it there should be a sovereign state, can Israel ask to take back the whole of Sinai? Obviously you cannot roll back territorial concessions while you can roll back any verbal commitment you made. The signal to Israel may be not to sign anymore international commitments, because any such commitments involve an Israeli territorial concession in return for an Arab rhetorical concession which is very easy to roll back. The conclusion is that international commitments are binding, whether they seem to be complicating the reality or not, they are binding, and if they are, Israel has a title over the whole area west of the Jordan River.

In a seminal article published in 1991, the late Eugen W. Rostow, one of the architects of Resolution 242 wrote, “The Arabs of the West Bank could constitute a population of an autonomous province of Jordan or of Israel depending on the course of the negotiations”. This was written three years before the Oslo Agreements. Isn’t the idea of a future integration of the West Bank Arabs into Jordan a possible more realistic option instead of the two states solution?

The question is how does one defines “realistic”. In my mind the concern should be principally on minimization of potential tectonic eruptions in the region. In order to minimize the volcanic nature of the area it is Israel that should control the mountains of Judea and Samaria. Back in 1970, Syria which was then a formidable military power invaded Jordan, a relatively weak military power. The aim was to expand Soviet-backed Syria to what they called Southern Syria and from there to surge into Saudi Arabia, and deal a severe economic and national security blow to Western interests. The USA could not assist the Jordanians, in face of the Syrian invasion, since they were involved in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Nixon called Golda Meir and asked her to assist the Jordanian attempt to fend off the Syrian invasion. Within 24 hours Israel mobilized the IDF to the joint Israel-Syria-Jordan frontiers, and the Syrian invasion was rolled back into Syria without firing a single shot. If you rewind the tape and go back to 1970 but with Israel squeezed within the nine to fifteen mile sliver along the Mediterranean, dominated by the mountains of Judea and Samaria, there would be no way that Israel could deflect the Syrian invasion into Jordan. In Judea and Samaria Israel has served as a major Western outpost in the Middle East, fending off radical elements, assisting pro-Western elements. Today Israel is a major life insurance agent for Jordan as well as for pro-Western Arab oil producing countries like Saudi Arabia, Bahrein, Abu Dubai, Dubai, etc. These oil producing countries do not conduct diplomatic relations with Israel, but they consider Israel to be a major critical alley in the attempt to counter Islamic terrorism in their own borders and outside of them, in their attempts to stand up to Iran. Europe, unfortunately, is not involved in this attempt in a serious manner. Arabs do not respect Europe, which lost in many respects its will to maybe survive, certainly not to flex a military muscle, and therefore they consider Israel to be a reliable life insurance agent in the region. That’s the reason why today there is a cooperation between these Arab states and Israel. Cooperation in countering terrorism, intelligence and training. If Israel would not control the mountain area of Judea and Samaria it would not be regarded as such an element. Without the mountains of Judea and Samaria Israel would be transformed from a national security producer to a national security consumer totally dependent on the USA, rather than currently extending the strategic arm of the USA.

From what you say it is clear that you consider the control by Israel of the mountains of Judea and Samaria as strategically essential.

Indeed. The Israeli control of the mountains of Judea and Samaria enhances its posture of deterrence. When you reside in a violent neighborhood such as the Middle East, you do not rely only on the local police but on your own posture of deterrence. A viable posture of deterrence minimizes incentives by violent neighbors to attack you. On the other hand having lesser posture of deterrence constitute an incentive for encroachment upon your own livelihood. The same things applies to Israel. When one talks about any Arab entity controlling the mountains of Judea and Samaria which dominate pre 1967 Israel, that would mean Israel losing, not only reducing its posture of deterrence, but losing it and becoming absolutely dependent on the good will of the United States to salvage it on a stormy day. Israel and no other country can afford to be dependent upon outside assistance. Every country, every individual should be self sufficient when it comes to personal and national security.

This brings us back to the extreme volatility of the region.

Yes. While Jordan today is definitely a viable ally of Israel in the context of the intolerant, unpredictable, violent, tectonic Middle East, it is Jordan of today. By definition, Middle East regimes are provisional, as we saw with Mubarak in Egypt, as we see with Syria and as we saw with Saddam Hussein in Iraq. When it comes to such a landscape, we know for sure that there will be some regime change in countries surrounding Israel. Jordan, which is a positive element today, could very well become a negative and very adversarial enemy tomorrow, and therefore going back to your previous question, entrusting the mountains of Judea and Samaria to currently friendly Jordan would be an example of subordinating long term reality to short terms convenience. The critical importance of Judea and Samaria does not only rely on the fact that this region is at the core of the Jewish identity, religiously, historically, culturally, nationally, but on the fact that today Judea and Samaria are a strategical crucial element as they dominate the road between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Jerusalem is basically an enclave surrounded by an Arab area if we go back to the pre 1967 reality when a short strip connected Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and the only road then from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem was dominated by Jordan. Moreover, the mountains of Judea and Samaria surround Jerusalem and dominate the only viable international airport of Israel, Ben Gurion. The mountains basically dominate the Tel Aviv area, they dominate the sliver along the Mediterranean which means that the mountain ridges of Judea and Samaria dominate something like 80% of the population and infrastructures of Israel Anyone who dominates those mountains could determine the fate of Israel. A responsible country does not allow its own fate to be controlled by outsiders. In order to control it ourselves, we need to control Judea and Samaria. The West should support an Israeli control of the mountains of Judea and Samaria because that would extend the strategic hand of the West into the Middle East, that would assure the survival of pro-Western regimes that today are threatened by Iran, by Islamic jihad, by the reality in Iraq, by the reality in Syria, which tomorrow could also characterize the reality of Jordan.

We have been hearing for years now that the presence of so called “settlers” in the region of Judea and Samaria, not more than 450,000 people, is one of the main reasons, if not the main reason, of regional instability and that in order to reach peace a wise decision would be to uproot them from there.

This is another example of an attempt to oversimplify reality in order to reach short terms convenience and to hell with long term realities. First and foremost the Arab-Israeli conflict did not start with the 1967 renewal of Jewish presence in Judea and Samaria. The Palestinian-Arab wave of terrorism during the 1920s, 1930s and the 1940s was before there was a Jewish state and certainly way before 1967. The first Arab war against Israel, which attempted to do away with the young Jewish state which was established in 1948, took place nineteen years before the first Jewish community was reestablished in Judea and Samaria. The Fatah organization which is headed by Mahmoud Abbas and was headed before by Arafat, was established in 1959 and the main strategic goal of Fatah was the liberation of Palestine. Eight years before the first Jewish settlement was established in Judea and Samaria. The PLO, headed by Arafat and then by Mahmoud Abbas, was established in 1964, and once again its main strategic goal was the liberation of Palestine, three years before the 1967 war. One should note that according to the Oslo Accord of 1993 it is the PLO which is the source of authority of the Palestinian Authority. Mahmoud Abbas is first and foremost the head of the PLO and therefore he is the chairman of the Palestinian Authority. Certainly, when it comes to the origin of the Arab-Israeli conflict, to the origin of Palestinian terrorism, it has absolutely nothing to do with Jewish settlements. When it comes to Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria, we are talking about Jews renewing their presence in the cradle of their history, which is doing justice to human history and, at the same time, doing justice to people who return to where their history and memory is embedded. There is also an issue of Western morality involved, as far as the difference between Jewish settlements and Arab settlements. Inside pre-67 Israel we have 1,8 million Arabs living side by side with 6,8 million Jews. No Israeli government has ever voiced an interest to uproot the Arab settlers in the pre-67 Israel as a prerequisite for normalization or for peace. It would be highly immoral. The question is, why do 1,8 million Arabs settlers inside pre-1967 Israel constitute a justifiable and moral reality, but 450,000 Jews in Judea and Samaria are an obstacle to peace? Moreover we hear about the supposed demand to freeze Jewish construction in Judea and Samaria in order to facilitate peace. I have not heard anyone saying that we must freeze Arab construction in Judea and Samaria in order to facilitate peace. If we do not freeze Arab construction but only Jewish construction don’t we prejudge the outcome of negotiation? And if we prejudge the outcome of negotiation why even bother to negotiate? No sane Israeli would ever expect Arabs inside Israel to freeze their constructions while Jews are free to build. Arabs are free to build legally and Jews are free to build legally and the same thing should apply to Judea and Samaria.

It seems obvious from what you say that you don’t think that stopping construction in Judea and Samaria will change in any way the political landscape. Is this so?

For Israel to succumb to Arab pressure to refrain from construction in the area would amount to appeasement. In the Middle East, such a gesture by Israel is construed only in one way – a reflection of weakness. Once you reflect weakness you invite not only further pressure but further violence, which further undermines stability and the pursuit of peace.

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