Letter: Halting the dangerous process of creeping annexation

October 19, 2020
From: Maj. Gen. (Ret.) Matan Vilnai
To: Cabinet and Knesset Members
Re:  Halting the dangerous process of creeping annexation

Last week the government and the Knesset approved normalization agreements with the UAE.  An additional agreement was signed on Sunday (18) with the Kingdom of Bahrain.  These developments hold out the promise of enhanced security, stability and prosperity for Israel and its relations with the Gulf States.  Above all, however, they offer the possibility to change direction in our relationship with the Palestinians.

While negotiating these agreements, Israel undertook to freeze plans for unilateral annexation in the West Bank. Annexation is a dangerous step that could accelerate the decline of the Palestinian Authority, something the security establishment has warned against and which I wrote to you about last week.  Indeed, annexation could lead to the collapse of the PA, requiring us to deploy the IDF in populated areas of the territories, and obliging us to manage (and finance) the lives of millions of their Palestinian residents.

Even before the ink had dried on the Knesset’s decision, we witnessed an uptick in the process of creeping annexation, as evidenced by laws that would facilitate annexation in practice though not in name, as well as in a decision to proceed with extensive housing construction in the territories. These steps have a single goal in mind:  to rule out the possibility of separation from the Palestinians.

These measures are bound to further complicate any possibility of separating from the Palestinians,  thereby bringing us closer to a single state between the Jordan and the sea, a state that is nether Jewish nor democratic in the spirit of Israel’s Declaration of Independence.  Their immediate danger, however, is to the recently signed agreements and to hopes for normalization with additional countries.  Annexation violates Israel’s explicit commitments to refrain from annexation (at least for now).  This is not the way to begin a new era of normalization in the Middle East.  Nations that value their credibility cannot behave in this manner.

In light of recent strategic developments as well as expected progress with additional countries in the region, Israel’s leaders must live up to their commitments without equivocating.  They must exploit the full potential of these agreements, enlisting other countries in the region in the effort to change course in our relations with the Palestinians and proceed towards separation en route to an eventual two-state solution.

On behalf of the hundreds of members of Commanders for Israel’s Security, I call upon you to halt the dangerous process of creeping annexation and exploit the potential of regional agreements to strengthen the governance of the Palestinian Authority, while promoting a secure and careful process of separation from the Palestinians.

Maj. Gen (Ret.) Matan Vilnai
Chair
Commanders for Israel’s Security


Letter: Leveraging regional transformations to changing course with the Palestinians

September 29, 2020

Dear Knesset Members;

Re: Leveraging regional transformations to changing course with the Palestinians

On Tuesday, Sept 15, we followed with appreciation the White House signing ceremony of Israel’s normalization agreements with the UAE and Bahrain. These agreements reflect the depth of regional transformations and the opportunities therein to enhance Israel’s national security.

The concurrent removal from the agenda of plans to unilaterally annex West Bank territory indicates a correct prioritization of Israel’s national security requirements. Certainly, the potential contribution of regional cooperation to meeting cross-border challenges trumps any rationale for annexation. Annexation contributes nothing to security; rather, it harms our security and threatens our regional and international standing, our economy and national well-being.

This regional initiative holds the promise of advancing Israel’s objectives in the Palestinian context as well.

Separating from the Palestinians and an eventual two-state solution, which are essential for our ability to maintain a solid Jewish majority in a democratic and secure Israel, are also shared objectives of most players on the regional and international scenes.

The signed normalization agreements, like possible future ones, can serve either as a bypass of our conflict with the Palestinians or as a bridge for its resolution. To an important extent, the decision is ours. Israel must decide whether it continues the slide toward a bi-national state and the ensuing end of the Zionist enterprise, or does it wish to mobilize regional states to help in changing direction: from managing and perpetuating the conflict to solving it.

Whether those who argue that conditions are not ripe for an ultimate settlement are right or wrong, it will be a mistake to stick with managing the conflict, which is based on the illusion of a status quo. This strategy leads to only one outcome: one state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, which is neither Jewish, nor democratic, conflicted from within, and thus not secure.

Given the new regional opportunities, the government of Israel must act to change direction regarding the Palestinians: from a continuous slide toward one state, to advancing calculated steps of secure separation leading to a two-state outcome, all in a regional context.

Shana tova, ktiva vachatima tova;

Maj. Gen. (Ret.) Matan Vilnai
Chair
Commanders for Israel’s Security (CIS)


Letter: Halting the dangerous process of creeping annexation

October 19, 2020
From: Maj. Gen. (Ret.) Matan Vilnai
To: Cabinet and Knesset Members
Re:  Halting the dangerous process of creeping annexation

Last week the government and the Knesset approved normalization agreements with the UAE.  An additional agreement was signed on Sunday (18) with the Kingdom of Bahrain.  These developments hold out the promise of enhanced security, stability and prosperity for Israel and its relations with the Gulf States.  Above all, however, they offer the possibility to change direction in our relationship with the Palestinians.

While negotiating these agreements, Israel undertook to freeze plans for unilateral annexation in the West Bank. Annexation is a dangerous step that could accelerate the decline of the Palestinian Authority, something the security establishment has warned against and which I wrote to you about last week.  Indeed, annexation could lead to the collapse of the PA, requiring us to deploy the IDF in populated areas of the territories, and obliging us to manage (and finance) the lives of millions of their Palestinian residents.

Even before the ink had dried on the Knesset’s decision, we witnessed an uptick in the process of creeping annexation, as evidenced by laws that would facilitate annexation in practice though not in name, as well as in a decision to proceed with extensive housing construction in the territories. These steps have a single goal in mind:  to rule out the possibility of separation from the Palestinians.

These measures are bound to further complicate any possibility of separating from the Palestinians,  thereby bringing us closer to a single state between the Jordan and the sea, a state that is nether Jewish nor democratic in the spirit of Israel’s Declaration of Independence.  Their immediate danger, however, is to the recently signed agreements and to hopes for normalization with additional countries.  Annexation violates Israel’s explicit commitments to refrain from annexation (at least for now).  This is not the way to begin a new era of normalization in the Middle East.  Nations that value their credibility cannot behave in this manner.

In light of recent strategic developments as well as expected progress with additional countries in the region, Israel’s leaders must live up to their commitments without equivocating.  They must exploit the full potential of these agreements, enlisting other countries in the region in the effort to change course in our relations with the Palestinians and proceed towards separation en route to an eventual two-state solution.

On behalf of the hundreds of members of Commanders for Israel’s Security, I call upon you to halt the dangerous process of creeping annexation and exploit the potential of regional agreements to strengthen the governance of the Palestinian Authority, while promoting a secure and careful process of separation from the Palestinians.

Maj. Gen (Ret.) Matan Vilnai
Chair
Commanders for Israel’s Security


Palestinians demonstrate for the 20th anniversary of closing Al-Shuhada' St. in Hebron

Next Stage: The Palestinians

The article was originally published in Ma’ariv, in Hebrew.

Israel’s normalization agreement with the UAE is an important diplomatic achievement we should all welcome.  With each passing day, however, it becomes increasingly clear that is not a case of “peace in exchange for peace,” as the spin would have it.  On the contrary:  not only did we shelve plans for annexation – something that we should have done in any event – but we also made the problematic concession of creating confusion about our firm opposition to the sale of F-35 fighter jets to any country in the region.

Normalization and cooperation with other states in the region are of vital interest to the State of Israel.  These alone, however, cannot free us from the stranglehold of the conflict with the Palestinians.  The test of leadership, then, is to exploit the potential generated by the establishment of relations with the Emirates, enlisting them in Israel’s efforts to separate from the Palestinians.

As noted, Israel has already reaped an important bonus from the normalization agreement by its contribution to taking unilateral annexation of West Bank territory off the agenda (at least for the time being).   This, however, will not suffice to reverse the continued slide towards a binational state – and the resultant dissolution of the Zionist enterprise.  Israel’s objective, therefore, must be a prudent and clear-sighted process of separation leading to a two-state solution.

Commanders for Israel's Security (CIS) has already published a roadmap to such separation. Presently, that detailed plan is being updated in light of developments since its publication two years ago. Though dubbed Security First 2000, the forthcoming updated plan stands on three pillars:  security, economic and political.  Taken together they offer a practical approach to reduce friction between Israelis and Palestinians, improve the lives of Palestinians, remove impediments to Palestinian economic development and governance, as well as strengthen moderate elements and weaken extremists.  All of these are key to bolstering security and stability while facilitating separation and improving prospects of future negotiations.

Even though the plan calls on Israel to take a host of independent steps in the service of those objectives, it differs from the 2005 unilateral Gaza disengagement in two key respects:  First, it involves no redeploying the IDF, which will continue to control the area until robust security arrangements are in place as part of a future agreement.  Neither does it call for the forced evacuation of settlers or settlements before an agreement is effectuated.

To illustrate, a key element in the plan’s security pillar is completing the security barrier by closing the huge gaps while enforcing a strict border regime, along its entire length. By so doing, the phenomena of tens of thousands of illegal infiltrators – from amongst whom most terror perpetrators have arrived – will end. Along with resolute enforcement of law and order in Palestinian villages and neighborhoods in East Jerusalem – presently enjoying neither Israeli nor Palestinian law and order presence, will enhance the security of both local residents as well all Israelis residing west of the fence -- whether in settlement blocs or within Israel proper.

The economic pillar spells out measures that remove obstacles to Palestinian economic development and job creation.  One such measure is expanding substantially the number of security-vetted Palestinians working in Israel thus compensate the Palestinian economy for the lost income from the illegals no longer able to infiltrate.

The Security First 2020 plan contains a detailed list of recommendations within each of the three pillars – security, economic and diplomatic – that are specifically applicable to East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza.

The COVID 19 pandemic, hardly under control among Israelis as among Palestinians, accentuates the long recognized importance of strengthening the governance of the Palestinian Authority and of public confidence in it. The recent use of incendiary balloons by Gaza terrorist elements – the fourth round in the last twelve months -- is a reminder of the importance of going beyond short-term measures in mitigate tensions and enhancing stability there. The health of the Israeli public – in the broadest sense of the term – demands that we reduce motivation on the Palestinian side to undermine stability, while increasing support for moderate elements. Security First 2000 suggests a comprehensive strategy to change all that as well.

Ensuring calm, preventing repeated breakdowns in the Gaza cease-fire, avoiding a humanitarian crisis, strengthening moderate forces – above all the Palestinian authority – and paving the road for a future two-state agreement, all require resources and judicious use of policy.  By addressing Palestinian economic and governance needs, coupled with publicly declaring a firm commitment to separation from and a future negotiated agreement with the Palestinians (as suggested in the diplomatic pillar), Israel might be able to more effectively persuade donor states, from the region and beyond, to renew their investments in Palestinian infrastructure, economy and institution. The recent diplomatic breakthrough with the UAE offers an opportunity to persuade its leaders to join – or possibly lead -- this critical mission.

Finally, the political pillar of Security First 2000 calls for reviving Palestinian hopes for a negotiated statehood and rehabilitating Israel’s credibility in this area. The goal of the annexation plan was to extinguish any possibility of progress towards a two state solution. The fact that the scheme could not proceed even under a pro-settlements administration in Washington, and that the very author of the annexation initiative dropped it in favor of relations with an important state in the Arab Gulf, demonstrate that there is no alternative to the two state solution.

The road ahead is long and daunting, but careful steps towards separation from the Palestinians will serve pave the way to an agreement.  For this reason, alongside military and economic measures, Israel should make three, public commitments: first, to pursue a two state solution without compromising on security arrangements.  Second, to reciprocate the UAE bold move and encourage others to follow suit, declare that, subject to necessary clarifications, Israel considers the Arab peace Initiative as a framework for future negotiations.  Third, to refrain from unilateral action that contradict the two commitments above.

An agreement with the Palestinians is still far off and the Israeli government has yet to adopt the plan advocated by CIS (or any other diplomatic initiative on the Palestinian front for that matter).  There is, thus, no cause for euphoria.  Still, the agreement with the Emirates and the shelving of a unilateral annexation offer both an opportunity and a glimmer of hope for the future of our small corner of the earth, and for the region as a whole.


Letter: The Israel-UAE Agreement - An Opportunity to be Pursued Carefully

August 24, 2020
To: Member of Knesset, Cabinet an Deputy Ministers
From: Maj. Gen. (Ret.) Matan Vilnai
Re:  The Israel-UAE Agreement - An Opportunity to be Pursued Carefully

The prime minister deserves praise on two accounts:  for making the most of a regional opportunity that offers Israel considerable strategic advantages - military, political and economic; and for using the occasion to take unilateral annexation off the agenda.  Unilateral annexation is a dangerous move under any circumstances. It could have thwarted the important progress that was ultimately made with the Emirates.

As a cautionary note, we should point out that the agreement with the UAE has still not been signed, and is apparently yet to be finalized.  On the one hand, this does not detract from the magnitude of the achievement.  On the other hand, in hammering out its details, it is vital to ensure that the wording be clear and unequivocal so as to forestall misunderstandings with unforeseen consequences.  This is especially true with regard to four issues, about which statements by the three parties to the process indicate divergent approaches.

First, is the arrangement in question a “peace agreement,” as stated by the prime minister, a “normalization agreement,” in the words of several Emirati spokespeople, or a “road map to normalization” as Crown Prince Sheikh Muhammed Ben Zaid has stated?

Second, during the discussions, did “Israel agree to a two-state solution, including...a map,” as President Trump’s son in law and advisor, Jared Kushner, declared?

Third - and here lies most of the potential for misunderstanding - was annexation taken “off the table,” as President Trump stated, “suspended,” in the words of the prime minister, or has the normalization process “closed the gate” on annexation, as UAE Ambassador to Washington, Yousef Al Otaiba wrote in a recent op ed piece for Yediot?

Fourth, but no less important, are the other parties clear about Israel’s resolute objection to any erosion in America’s unequivocal commitment to maintaining Israel’s qualitative military edge (QME), and do they understand that this objection extends to advanced weapons systems that in the relevant theatre for our defense, Israel must have exclusive access to?

From the unveiling of President Trump’s peace plan to the recent, momentous developments, discussion of the peace process has been plagued by conflicting statements and interpretations, obscurity and ambiguity. This could easily undermine relations between states.  As is often the case in negotiations, diplomats may be tempted to adopt nebulous formulations that hide underlying disagreements instead of resolving them.  We therefore caution against adopting this approach, particularly with regard to the third and fourth issues listed above.

Precisely because of the precedent setting and strategic significance of the emerging agreement with the UAE, Israel’s negotiating team must ensure that the undertakings of each side are formulated clearly and unambiguously, leaving no room for misunderstanding or charges of bad faith on the part of one side or the other.

Misunderstandings and feelings that one side has violated its commitments could negatively impact both on the development of relations with this important country and on the security of the State of Israel in the wider, regional context (because of the sensitivity of the issue, we stand ready to elaborate in the appropriate forum).

For these reasons, I call upon you to ensure that parliamentary oversight is exercised by means of thoroughgoing discussions of the above points and others, whether in the Knesset’s Security and Foreign Affairs Committee or in its relevant subcommittees, in accordance with the sensitivity of the subject matter under deliberation.

Sincerely,

Maj. Gen. (Res.) Matan Vilnai
Chairman
Commanders for Israel’s Security


Benny Gantz Must Stop the Annexation Catastrophe


The claim that unilateral annexation entails no risk is dead wrong.  Benny Gantz must draw a line in the sand on this issue during coalition negotiations with Netanyahu.

By Matan Vilnai, published in YNET, April 5, 2020

Seldom does anyone stand at an historic crossroads where his choices can decide the very fate of his country. Today, Benny Gantz bears precisely that responsibility.  His coalition talks with Netanyahu will determine whether or not the State of Israel takes the ill-considered and perilous road towards unilateral annexation. Gantz knows the dangers involved.  He opposed the idea before the elections, arguing that any move towards annexation must be coordinated with the international community.

To be sure, the present emergency calls for a high degree of coordination to deal with the corona pandemic and save the Israeli economy from the resultant economic crisis.  But emergency governments come into being for one, and only one purpose – to manage emergencies, not to deliberately create new ones.

A unilateral declaration of sovereignty will not help Israel overcome the corona crisis. In fact, it would make things worse, by dragging us into a long-term military, political and economic imbroglio.  It could jeopardize our relations with neighboring states – and other countries in the region – as well as with the international community, while calling into question the very Jewish and democratic character of the State of Israel.

Those trying to peddle the fabrication that partial annexation carries no price tag are deliberately misleading the public.  Partial annexation will lead to full annexation by triggering a chain reaction over which Israel has no control.  It will start with the collapse of Palestinian security forces on the West Bank when they come to be seen as collaborators in the occupation rather than champions of the Palestinian national interest. The Palestinian Authority itself is likely to follow suit, when its policies come to be seen as a complete failure of leadership and the very idea of cooperation with Israel in pursuit of independence loses all credibility.

Without a functioning Palestinian Authority or security forces, the Hamas will fill the security and governance vacuum, forcing the IDF to reassert authority over Areas A and tighten its control over Areas B [respectively: the urban and rural Palestinian population centers, all surrounded by Israeli controlled Area C], thereby assuming responsibility for the lives of 2.6 million Palestinians.

Supporters of this half-baked idea can wallow in their own delusions about partial annexation, or annexing territory without its residents.  In the end, all these fantasies will shatter against the brick wall of reality, and Israel will be left with responsibility for the population of the territories. At that point we will face a choice between an apartheid regime that rules over civilians without providing them with basic rights or living conditions and financing health and human services for millions of Palestinians at a projected cost of NIS 52 billion per year [the equivalent of four times the annual US security assistance to Israel.].

Gantz can prevent this catastrophe by demanding that as long as the crisis continues, at the very least, the Israeli government will refrain from taking any steps towards unilateral annexation.  After that, Gantz must insist, a thoroughgoing examination of the full implications of the move will serve as a precondition to any decision on the matter.   He would also do well to demand a presentation of government’s exit strategy from the military, economic and diplomatic imbroglio that would be created thereby.

The challenge Gantz faces is not a simple one, but is vital to the future and security of the State of Israel.  Hundreds of members of Commanders for Israel’s Security, among them many of Gantz’s past soldiers and commanders, will have his back as he blocks unilateral annexation

Maj. Gen. (ret.) Matan Vilnai, a former deputy IDF Chief of Staff and former Deputy Minister of Defense, is Chairperson of Commanders for Israel’s Security (CIS).

Article in the Ynet (Hebrew) - click here.