By Maj. Gen. (Ret.) Matan Vilnai

With the prime minister’s office and the White House busy preparing for the upcoming summit, some fear events in Afghanistan will be a major distraction.  They will not.  As the late President Lyndon Johnson is said to have quipped (phrased here more gently), a President of the US must be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. The President is obviously preoccupied with handling the fallout from the Afghanistan withdrawal, but he has a dedicated team entrusted with preparing him for his meeting with the Israeli Prime Minister.

As Dr. Eyal Hulata, PM Bennet’s National Security Advisor, and Shimrit Meir, Political Advisor to the PM, discovered during their preparatory meetings in Washington, as CIA director William (Bill) Burnes demonstrated during his recent visit to Jerusalem, and as has emerged from more recent communications between the two capitals, even the most serious preoccupation will not nullify other concerns. Not only does the administration plan to bring up China, its primary global issue of concern, not only will it make sure that there are no misunderstandings regarding Iran, but it will seriously address the Palestinian issue as well, its relatively lower position on America’s list of priorities notwithstanding.

Though it may not top President Biden’s to do list, the Palestinian issue is vital to Israel’s national security, and Bennet’s visit is a perfect opportunity to forge understandings with the U.S. on this matter. This opportunity arises from the fact that the President – a supporter of the two state solution, and the Prime Minster – an opponent, both know the idea is not feasible at the present time.  Numerous factors may explain this lack of feasibility. They include the weakness of the Palestinian leadership, the separation between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, the rivalry between the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Hamas, or the fact that Israel’s leadership is divided on the matter. Whatever the reason, Bennet can rest assured that his host will neither demand nor expect him to present or pursue solutions to issues such as borders, refugees, Jerusalem or the robust security arrangements, without which there can be no final status agreement. Certainly not now.

The parity mechanism established to enable the co-habitation of conflicting ideological blocs which comprise Israel’s diverse governing coalition guarantees that neither side can force its will on the other.  Consequently, neither a two state solution nor far reaching annexation – whether along the lines of the Netanyahu/Trump formula or that favored by Bennet and Shaked – can be implemented.

Yet, the multi-dimensional crisis Israel experienced this past May – in Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip and inside Israel’s cities, and its further impact on the West Bank — all served as a wakeup call to Americans, and to many Israelis as well. Washington realized that such instability will make demands on its involvement that it cannot afford, given weighty domestic and international priorities.  In Israel, May’s events demonstrated how illusory the status quo in the territories is.

As a result, both Washington and Jerusalem are focused on the ‘in-between’: the range of options that lie between annexation and agreement. Hence the American interest in two ideas voiced in Jerusalem: “shrinking the conflict” and “strengthening the PA”. And hence the opportunity.

At a time when both governments share the same interim objective – stability, and both realize that stability is anything but inertia, the Prime Minister would do well to show up in Washington with a convincing plan to achieve long term stability and to preserve — and improve — conditions for a future agreement, whether it leads to “autonomy on steroids,” as Bennet would have it, or two states, as Biden would prefer.

Bennet’s policy so far, in the territories and with regard to Jordan and Egypt, indicates an intention to foster stability by initiating two important departures from past policies: ending provocations and taking positive steps, all based on a sober assessment of Israel’s national interest, even before addressing American expectations. This is a good start. But the test will be in continuity, determination, consistency, and primarily in enriching the menu of actions ‘on the ground’. When it comes to ending provocations, preventing them on Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif and in East Jerusalem neighborhoods including Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan, will not be sufficient. For example, settler violence against Palestinians must be dealt with forcefully and Illegal settlements cannot be tolerated.

Likewise, the challenges of “shrinking the conflict” and “strengthening the PA” require measures that go far beyond supplying Palestinians with COVID-19 vaccines or adding permits to work in Israel for those vetted by the Israel Security Agency, important though they certainly are. A limited number of permits for Palestinian construction in Area C is another step in the right direction. It will not, however, suffice to strengthen the PA or the motivation of its security forces to sustain and deepen coordination with ours.

Commanders for Israel’s Security has long issued plans to minimize the conflict while enhancing Israeli security, all before the parties are ready to negotiate a two-state solution. Our Security First plan recommends a series of measures – in the security, political and civil-economic spheres – which, taken together, can serve to dramatically improve conditions on the ground. In our complementary An Alternative Strategy towards Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, we recommend policies that avoid both the repeatedly failed, “more of the same” approach to Gaza and the dangerous option of reoccupying the Strip.

For four reasons, our recommendations may stand a better chance of being acted upon. First, the current government seems far less firmly wedded to old ideas and open to new ones.  A related second is that the current governing coalition includes many who have long shared our approach. Third, since the signing of the normalization agreements, regional players whose cooperation is vital to the implementation of our recommendations, have shown themselves increasingly willing to engage.  Fourth, many in government, Knesset and security establishment who are responsible for policy formulation and execution, have embraced quite a few of the ideas we presented, even though they are yet to accept the organizing concepts that turns them into a comprehensive, coherent strategy.

The Prime Minister would do well to instruct his team to give our proposals a serious consideration before formulating his response to President Biden’s possible message and pointed question:  “I pledge to you close coordination on all aspects of the Iran challenge. I also promise not to surprise you with diplomatic initiatives that affect Israel’s security and well-being. And I will reaffirm my commitment to Israel’s security by approving your request for an additional billion dollars in military aid, above and beyond our annual assistance of some four billion dollars. I ask only one thing: How will you help me to ensure stability on the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and to avoid closing the door on a future agreement?”

Matan Vilnai is a former deputy IDF chief of staff, a minister in several cabinets and ambassador to China.  He chairs Commanders for Israel’s Security.