The Real Risk of 'Another 20 Gazas'

07/15/2014 10:35 am ET Updated Sep 14, 2014

There's a meme out there, reinforced every time rockets launch from Gaza, that any Palestinian state will fast become a missile base against Israel. All we can say for certain, is that in the absence of a Palestinian state, Gaza remains a missile base against Israel, and no bombings or cease-fire will erase that potential. Rockets from Gaza are an excuse to avoid a Palestinian state, when they should be a reason to pursue it and to empower its Palestinian supporters.

Without a lasting peace, there will always be some provocation and a weak Palestinian leadership lacking credibility -- how can a humiliated and powerless leadership ever have credibility? Israel will use the opportunity to clean house and teach lessons, and what happens in the West Bank will soon touch off violence in Gaza, or vice-versa.

Israel's strategic assumption is that every 2-3 years, Hamas somehow forgets about Israel's deterrent force, obligating Israel to go back in and teach Hamas a new lesson. If a lasting political and diplomatic deal could be reached, presumably Hamas would either have to adapt to the new rules of a real Palestinian state or face obscurity and elimination. The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and its leading Fatah faction were sworn to Israel's destruction, and today they partner with Israel to keep the peace across the West Bank.

Gaza itself is held up as the proof of what a Palestinian state would become. Yet, Israel withdrew from Gaza unilaterally, making only the most rudimentary arrangements with the Palestinian Authority (PA) on its way out. The parting gift was an open election in the West Bank and Gaza, at a moment when Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah was at low popularity. The result was that rejectionist Hamas won the election.

A bilateral -- really, multilateral -- process can transition Gaza and the West Bank to independence responsibly, with economic and political stability. I say "transition" because this cannot and should not happen overnight.

With the security barrier and long-term closures of the West Bank, and the effective embargo of Gaza, Palestinians seem increasingly foreign and different to Israelis. But Palestinians are among the most democratically minded and cosmopolitan populations in the region. If genuine democracy has any chance in the Arab world, it should be with the Palestinians.

If Israelis are worried about Palestinians launching rockets against them from a few kilometers away, then the imaginary "status quo" is guaranteed to keep them up at night.

When Palestinian leaders make some conciliatory statement toward Israel, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu usually challenges them to repeat it in Arabic, to their own people. Last month, after three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped, Palestinian Authority President Abbas addressed the Foreign Ministers' Council of the Organization for Islamic Cooperation, and told his audience -- which included Arab foreign ministers -- "We don't want to go back to chaos and destruction, as did in the second [Palestinian] uprising... these youths are human beings." Naturally, he said it in Arabic, and at some political cost back home.

Last Friday, Netanyahu used a press conference -- in Hebrew -- to walk back his support for a two-state solution, and to validate those using the fallout of a unilateral withdrawal to warn against a negotiated solution. In response to questions about Israel's response to rocket attacks from Gaza, he said: "I think the Israeli people understand now what I always say: that there cannot be a situation, under any agreement, in which we relinquish security control of the territory west of the River Jordan."

Having repeatedly called on Palestinians -- in English -- to accept a two-state solution, Netanyahu now argues against it, in Hebrew. Until recently, it had been presumed that -- under any final status agreement -- Israel would eventually cede its military presence to a U.S. or international force. The question had been whether Israel would remain for five years or 10. Now, Netanyahu suggests that only a permanent Israeli presence will suffice. Between settlement growth and Israeli military stewardship, there's no way Palestinians will agree to or implement an independent and sovereign state.

Even with all that's transpired in recent weeks, the Palestinian Authority's security forces continue to cooperate fully with their Israeli counterparts. This is why, with no publicity, last week the Israeli government transferred to the PA $136 million in tax revenues collected on its behalf for the month of June. Netanyahu needs the PA to stay in business, but he needs it to remain weak enough so it cannot stand on its own feet, and so there's no risk that Israel will permanently give up all but the major settlement blocs in the West Bank.

If Netanyahu had wanted, over the past five years, he could have found ways to bolster Abbas. Instead, he has negotiated ceasefires and prisoner exchanges with Hamas -- with no involvement by Abbas. Every tranche of prisoners released by Israel, as part of the recent round of talks with the PA, was accompanied by an announcement of new settlement construction -- framing Abbas as a fool or a traitor to his people, or as both.

Elections are supposed to take place early next year in the West Bank and/or Gaza, and Hamas has been trailing Fatah in both places. If Netanyahu wanted, he could give Abbas some deliverables and some honor, enough to suggest to Palestinians that the path of peace is better at gaining Israel's attention than the path of rockets and suicide bombings. If Hamas wins enough votes this next time, Netanyahu won't have to face a popular Palestinian leader who's ready to make a deal.

Netanyahu warned last week against the West Bank becoming "another 20 Gazas." Rather than seeing Gaza as a cautionary tale against any future West Bank state, Israelis should consider the opposite: Gaza today is what the West Bank could look like in five or 10 years, without a Palestinian state. Can Israel afford such an outcome within spitting distance of 500,000 settlers? And the number is growing. Not only is Netanyahu no longer offering a solution, he's not even addressing the question.