The Bennet - Biden Summit: A Defining Moment

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.

What a Single Match can do

Recent events have converged to disabuse two illusions about Israeli security: the idea that we can insulate one Palestinian arena from others, and the fallacy of the status quo. Can our leadership make the necessary policy change?

By Matan Vilnai | Channel 12 (Israel)

Recent events were unique in triggering multiple challenges on different fronts. Our security forces – whether caught off guard and forced to adapt on short notice or not – proved, once again, their ability to respond intelligently, decisively and with utmost professionalism.

Developments in Jerusalem, particularly regarding Temple Mount, proved highly challenging for the Police. So did the outbreak of Arab-Jewish violence in Israeli cities which necessitated the involvement of the Shin Bet (Israel's Internal Security Agency). Escalation in the south, and the effort to prevent outbreaks of violence in the West Bank, tested the abilities of both the IDF and the Shin Bet. Concurrently, all of Israel’s civilian institutions – local authorities, Home Front Command, fire and police departments, and the country’s health services – joined forces in treating the physically and emotionally wounded, and assisting those who suffered loss of property in communities around the country.

It would be premature to relegate these events to the past and too early to draw all conclusions. We can, however, point to one major conclusion – and not for the first time: the State of Israel does not have strategies in place for dealing with each of these fronts and certainly no comprehensive approach that takes into account their interconnectivity.

Suffice it to examine two policy assumptions that have proven completely erroneous. The first is that Israel can successfully disconnect and insulate the West Bank from the Gaza Strip, both of them from East Jerusalem, and all three form developments within Israeli society. Recent events demonstrated how easily a match lit in any of those fronts might ignite a conflagration across them all. They also exposed our failures in dealing with each of them.

Take the Gaza Strip, for example. After four major rounds of fighting punctuated by smaller scale hostilities – all within a decade – the government is still fixated on its “more of the same” policy, while refusing to consider alternatives. It insists that the only substitute for the present policy is an illusory ‘final blow’ to ‘finish off the Hamas,’ something that has been justifiably rejected for fear it would trap the IDF in a Gazan quagmire, with no exit strategy. All this points to either a fixed mindset or a desire to preserve Hamas rule due to concealed motives. Needless to say, the residents of the Gaza envelope [the Israeli towns that surround the Strip] pay the price for the government’s ‘more of the same’ policy, designed to enshrine separating the West Bank from Gaza. Large-scale escalation exacts a price from the rest of Israel as well.

A corollary of this erroneous assumption, and something incomprehensible in its own right, has been the government’s investment in stabilizing Hamas rule while undermining that of the Palestinian Authority (PA). Without the PA the IDF would have to manage – and Israelis to finance – the lives of millions of Palestinians. Moreover, routinely the Shin Bet and the IDF credit PA security forces with preventing terror attacks and saving Israeli lives. The fact that security coordination serves the PA’s own interests in no way detracts from its importance to Israel.

All this closely relates to the noted separation fallacy. Against the background of violence on the Temple Mount, in Sheikh Jarrah, from Gaza and within Israel’s cities, we once again learn that Palestinian security personnel face increasing street and peer pressure to abandon their posts and join the protesters, possibly with their weapons. The fact that we have witnessed this before, when Israel installed metal detectors on the Temple Mount, did trigger alarm bells within the Israeli security establishment. It did not cause the government to change course and internalize a basic fact: the ability of a Palestinian policeman to endure accusations by family, friends and neighbors that he is a traitor and collaborator is limited. Absent a political horizon, and when our government fails to stop Jewish extremists’ provocations against Muslim religious equities and symbols of Palestinian identity, it should come as no surprise that average Palestinians do not view the PA as serving their national aspirations, but rather as an outsourced arm that perpetuates the occupation.

Not everything is up to us. Israel does not determine the quality of Palestinian leadership. But we can refute the arguments of their opponents (Hamas and others): that the PA has no legitimacy, that it cannot improve the quality of everyday life for its constituents, and that it collaborates with Israel that is at best insincere and probably outright hostile to a negotiated two-state outcome. We can strengthen the moderates, not the extremists; those who fight terror, not the terrorists.

The second governing error is the illusion of the status quo. It involves two false assumptions.  First, that we can undermine the S tatus Q uo regarding Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif – the world’s most sensitive site – with impunity. Like all his predecessors since 1967, Netanyahu defined the Status Quo clearly: “Muslims pray on the Temple Mount; non-Muslims visit the Temple Mount.” This commitment, however, has been inexorably whittled down, including by Jewish extremists, who are convinced that provocative demonstrations of Israeli sovereignty on the site are worth risking the outbreak of ethnic strife. Lately, Israeli authorities have held these extremists in check, but not before they triggered a major crisis.

The second false assumption within the illusion of a status quo is far broader. It was manifest in the backdrop to the last outbreak of violence on all four fronts. It can be best summarized by a mindset whereby ‘when things are calm – why bother', but ‘once violence breaks out – one doesn’t capitulate under duress.’

The example of the West Bank is telling: here, what is referred to as status quo is actually a trend of ongoing de facto annexation. It was creeping; it is galloping now. It comprises a range of measures – legislation, construction, evictions and much more. Ostensibly disconnected, cumulatively they have brought about fundamental changes on the ground.

Taken in isolation, each of these measures has its story and might even seem justified. Viewed comprehensively, they make separation between Israelis and Palestinians, and keeping the door open to an eventual two-state solution, much more difficult.

The recent four-front crisis provided us with a taste of what one, bi-national state looks like. All who are committed to Israel’s future as the strong democratic home of the Jewish people must jettison the illusions of a status quo, that what happens on one front has no effect on others, and that Israel can continue its failed policies. Time for a major change in strategy, and over 300 CIS members, all retired senior security officials, will have the government's back when it does.

The writer, Major General (Ret.) Vilnai, was the IDF Deputy Chief of Staff, Deputy Minister of Defense, member of several cabinets and Ambassador to China. He is Chairman of Commanders for Israel’s Security (CIS)

Dear Candidates: Why are you Silent about Annexation?

After 20 years of creeping annexation, Israel is approaching the point of no return.  What was previously illegal is being whitewashed through hasty, retroactive legislation. The 2021 elections are a time of decision: time to save Israel’s democracy, Jewish majority.

By Matan Vilnai | 31.12.2020 | Ynet

The start of a new election season is high time to demand that people standing for office state their position on the one issue that is missing from the agenda but will decide this country’s fate: what will they do to prevent the collapse of Israel’s Jewish majority and democracy, when we annex the territories?

Before we allow annexation to seal our fate, we must demand of those seeking office to explain how they see our relationship with three million Palestinians on the West Bank and another two million in the Gaza Strip, who, like us, are not going anywhere.

Naturally, our attention is focused on COVID19. However, once free from the dread of the pandemic, we will realize that the existential threat to the Zionist vision is still here: integrating millions of Palestinians either by choice -- as we press ahead with annexation, or by default -- with the collapse of the Palestinian Authority and its security forces (who are credited by our security agencies with saving Israeli lives and maintained stability), obliging the IDF to fill the ensuing security and governance vacuum.

De-facto annexation, which has been proceeding for decades, approaches the point of no return. What had been creeping has recently accelerated. What was anecdotal has turned comprehensive. What was declared illegal by successive governments is being whitewashed through hasty, retroactive legislation. What previously happened in broad daylight is now taking place below the radar of public scrutiny.

Whether those (like myself) who believe that conditions are not ripe for a comprehensive agreement with the Palestinians are correct, or whether they are wrong, Israel cannot leave its fate in the hands of the messianic-annexationist minority that exploits public apathy, political instability, the transition between US administrations or any other circumstance to create a reality whereby it will be impossible to separate ourselves from millions of Palestinians.

A separation process, designed to lead to an eventual two state solution, is not risks-free. A responsible government, however, can and must make it happen based on four foundations: Israel’s strength, greater than that of all adversaries, allows us to take calculated risks; regional opportunities afford us the assistance of potent and influential Arab countries; a new US administration, which seems willing and able to assist in the process, including by mobilizing others and their resources; and the future of the Zionist enterprise, which requires that we implement this national strategy.

Commanders for Israel’s Security [CIS], the organization I am proud to chair, has submitted to the government and made available to the public its “Security First”, a detailed plan for separation. The plan specifies security, civil-economic, and diplomatic measures in pursuit of the following principles: civilian separation and a reduction in friction between Israelis and Palestinians; enhancing the governance of the Palestinian Authority and the capacity of its security forces; improving quality of life in the territories; maintaining Israeli security responsibility for the West Bank until robust security arrangements are put in place as part of a future agreement; all while maintaining, and improving conditions for an eventual negotiated two-state agreement. Candidates for office should be asked for their reaction to this plan and our next government should consider embracing it.

As a democrat, I will accept the decision of the majority if it votes in favor of annexation. As a Zionist who devoted much of my adult life to defending our country – mostly in uniform and on battle fields, but also in a suit, on the political and diplomatic arena -- I will do everything I can to prevent such a calamitous decision and the ensuing tragedy of a binational state.

I believe in the fundamental wisdom of the Israeli public, and in the age-old survival instinct of the Jewish People. Both, as well as careful surveys of current trends in Israeli society, lead me to the conviction that placing this existential decision at the heart of the election campaign is essential in order to end the bizarre disconnect between majority position on this issue and its voting patterns. Once on the agenda, two results can be expected: an unequivocal decision against annexation, and the formation of a stable government that can pursue a cautious policy of separation from the Palestinians.

The outbreak of the COVID19 pandemic was beyond our control. A decision to strengthen the State of Israel as the democratic home of the Jewish People by blocking all annexation measures is in our hands.

Maj. Gen. (Ret.) Matan Vilani is Chairman of Commanders for Israel’s Security (CIS). He is a former Deputy Chief of Staff of the IDF, cabinet minister and ambassador to China.

Letter: Creeping Annexation Expedited

December 21, 2020

TO:  Members of Knesset, Cabinet
FM:  Maj. Gen. (Ret.) Matan Vilnai

Re:  Creeping annexation expedited

Last Wednesday 60 MKs voted in favor of the “fabric of life” law, a bill to regulate illegal settlements in the process of formalizing their status.  The bill passed its preliminary reading in the Knesset. We are following this legislation closely, concerned that the bill will only accelerate a covert process of annexation, thereby jeopardizing the very future of the Zionist enterprise.

The law is part of an ongoing effort to change the terminology regarding illegal settlements, using phrases like “unregulated” or, more recently, “young” settlements.  Different titles do not change the fact that they were established outside of any national planning process that would have taken into consideration the various implications of establishing these settlements - security implications above all.

This bill is intended to conceal these irregularities by enshrining them in law.  The very need to pass this legislation with such urgency, while instructing government authorities in charge of West Bank planning to complete the process within two years, reflects awareness of how serious the problem is.

To be sure, we do not oppose annexation as part of an agreement with the Palestinians.  Likewise, we believe that settlers are entitled to essential services, but not if it drags Israel into the tragedy of a one-state reality.

The failure to recognize the need to separate from three million Palestinians is but an additional example of the irresponsible management of our national security.  It will ultimately damage the fabric of life for all Israel’s citizens.  The authors of this bill, and those MK’s who voted for it in the preliminary reading, either ignored this fundamental truth or have consciously decided to drag us all into the calamity of sharing a single country with millions of Palestinians.

The proposed law guarantees increased friction with the Palestinian population. It encourages popular Palestinian support for a binational state and further undermines the stability of the Palestinian Authority and its security coordination with our forces. It reduces the likelihood of future peace negotiations and threatens to undercut the potential of recently signed normalization agreements as well as the prospects for future ones.

A new regional system is in the making. This sensitive and highly important process underscores the need to take the initiative and change direction in our relations with the Palestinians.  We can only achieve this by means of carefully considered moves that promote separation while assuring our national security.  The law in question will do precisely the opposite.

On behalf of the over three hundred CIS members, I call upon you to stop this legislation, which endangers prospects for separating from the Palestinians. 

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

Letter: The Palestinian Arena and the Normalization Agreements

December 14, 2020

TO:  Members of Knesset, Cabinet
FM:  Maj. Gen. (Ret.) Matan Vilnai
Re:  The Palestinian Arena and the Normalization Agreements

Last weekend we were informed of the normalization agreement with Morocco and the establishment of diplomatic relations with Bhutan.  This growing trend towards normalization, in our region and elsewhere, has the potential to significantly enhance Israel’s regional and international standing, and thus to strengthen our national security in the broader sense of the term.

Expanding normalization also brings with it multiple opportunities, including integration in regional security structures, coordination in the face of common threats, as well as considerable economic benefits.  However, to maximize advantages from these developments, to expand them to additional states and to facilitate the emergence of a new regional system, it is vital that we remove, to the greatest extent possible, the encumbrance of Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians.

To do this we must stop the slide towards a single state reality between the Jordan and the sea. This alarming development has accelerated to an unprecedented degree in recent days due to legislative initiatives that bring about annexation in all but name.  Instead, we must block these measures and change direction in promoting security-based civilian separation on the West Bank.

Such an Israeli initiative would enable us to fully exploit the opportunities presented by those regional developments and, above all, would foster a process of separation from the Palestinians that would enhance security and stability between the Jordan and the sea.  At the end of the day, only separation into two states will prevent the disaster of a single state that is neither Jewish nor democratic nor reflects the spirit of Israel’s Declaration of Independence.

It goes without saying that every initiative entails risk.  However, Israel’s strength enables, regional opportunities justify, and the need to separate from the Palestinians requires -- that we take the initiative now.  We must act promptly to ensure our vital national interests: a calm security environment, reduced friction between the two peoples, enhanced governance capacity for the Palestinian Authority and security cooperation between the PA and Israeli forces, while preserving the conditions that will allow for a comprehensive, two-state separation in the future.

The early phases of the important process of forming a new regional system makes it ever more urgent to move away from the illusion of managing the conflict with the Palestinians towards a cautious, security-based process of managing its solution.  In both contexts, the dangers inherent in irresponsible moves towards “stealth annexation” are clear.

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

Letter: Stopping bill requiring a plebiscite on withdrawal of settlements

December 7, 2020

To:  Members of Knesset, Cabinet
Fm: Maj. Gen. (Ret.) Matan Vilnai
Re:  Stopping bill requiring a plebiscite on withdrawal of settlements

According to reports earlier this week, legislation is afoot that would mandate a referendum to approve the withdrawal of any settlement from the West Bank.  The law is intended to formalize the status of dozens of settlements established, outside any national planning process, in densely populated Palestinian areas.  If passed, it will legitimize irresponsible and illegal settlement activity, mortgage Israel’s future as the national home of the Jewish People, and tie the hands of any future government that attempts to secure the Zionist vision and guarantee a solid Jewish majority in our democracy by separating from the Palestinians.

The proposed law could also undermine Israel’s security and other national interests, in the following three ways:

First, making the withdrawal of settlements located outside sovereign Israeli territory legally equivalent to the forfeiture of sovereign Israeli territory is tantamount to annexation, in everything but name.   Such a law would prevent separation from the Palestinians, whether provisional and civilian in nature or permanent, as part of a future agreement.  Separation is vital in order to reduce friction between Israelis and Palestinians in the short run, and to defend Israel’s Jewish majority in the long run.  The proposed law, thus, has strategic significance.   By impeding steps towards separation, it would contribute to the establishment of a one state reality between the Jordan River and the sea.  Such a state would be neither Jewish nor democratic, nor would it operate in accordance with the values of Israel’s Declaration of Independence.

Second, the law could undermine stability in the territories.  Every Israeli step -- whether declaratory or practical in nature -- that reflects opposition to a future two-state agreement, further erodes the legitimacy and effectiveness of the Palestinian Authority, and of its cooperation with Israel’s security forces.  Thus, the proposed legislation could endanger Israel and its citizens by accelerating the decline and possible breakup of the PA itself.  The Palestinian Authority might be dismantled by a decision of the Palestinian leadership or, more likely, due to the loss of its ability to govern.  Either way, Israeli security officials have repeatedly warned against such a development which would draw Israel into the military and governance vacuum created by the PA’s decline.

Third, the proposed legislation would add to other, recent steps towards annexation (including formalizing the status of illegal outposts, euphemistically termed “young settlements”), that undercut the credibility of the prime minister’s commitment to freeze annexation, made as part of the process of normalization with the UAE.   This is no way to begin a new set of strategic, regional relationships. Violating our commitment could undermine the development of our relations with the UAE, and preclude agreements with additional states.

Israel’s legislature must ask itself whether it has solutions to the problems raised by the de facto annexation it plans to legislate.  It must consider whether we have an exit strategy after the IDF has been deployed throughout Palestinian population centers and is obliged to finance and manage the lives of millions of Palestinians.

Therefore, on behalf of the hundreds of members of Commanders for Israel’s Security, I call upon you to halt this dangerous measure, to oppose the bill and thus prevent it from contributing to instability in the territories, damage to Israel’s security, and undermining our country’s credibility in the region and beyond. 

Responsible national leadership must take advantage of the potential offered by regional developments to change the direction of our relations with the Palestinians by strengthening the governance of the Palestinian Authority and promoting a secure and carefully planned separation between the two peoples en route to a future two-state solution.

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

Letter: 73 Years since U.N. Partition Resolution - the future of the Zionist enterprise

Nov. 30, 2020

To: Members of Knesset, Cabinet
Fm: Maj. Gen. (Ret.) Matan Vilnai
Re:  73 Years since U.N. Partition Resolution - the future of the Zionist enterprise

Yesterday marked 73 years since November 29, 1947, the day the UN General Assembly resolved to terminate the British mandate in Palestine, divide the territory and establish a Jewish state alongside an Arab one.  In an act of historic responsibility and practical decision making, the leadership of the Yishuv (the pre-state Jewish community) agreed to partition, knowing that it held out the promise of a Jewish majority in the State of Israel.

Rejectionism on the part of local Arab leaders and those of the surrounding Arab states led to a series of wars, separated by repeated rounds of violence.

Since the heroic victory of the fledgling Jewish community in the War of Independence, Israel has overcome daunting challenges from within and without to become a regional power, stronger than all of its adversaries. This power - military, technological, economic and, despite seemingly interminable discord, social power as well - has been and continues to be the key factor in the remarkable, regional transformation in how Israel is perceived, a transformation which continues to unfold, at a dizzying pace, before our eyes.

Nations we fought on the battlefield have signed peace treaties with us. Others, who incited against us, condemned us and supported our adversaries, have normalized relations or are in the process of doing so. Not only is it wrong to suggest that “the world is against us”, but even the claim that “the Arab World will never accept Israel in its midst” has proven false. The ever expanding recognition of the State of Israel, homeland of the Jewish People, is further testimony to the success of the Zionist enterprise.

Israel’s power and the dramatic regional changes we are witnessing have not changed, and cannot possibly change, the reality of almost three million Palestinians living next to us, on the West Bank, and another two million in the Gaza Strip.  They are not going anywhere.  Extremist ideas and wide eyed fantasies will not make them disappear.

73 years after that fateful United Nations resolution, Israel confronts another fateful decision:  will we merge with those millions of Palestinians, or will we separate from them?

The main threat to the Zionist enterprise does not come from any distant enemy. It derives from the risk of losing a solid Jewish majority in our own land. The choice is ours. We can prevent this from happening or bring it about, either swiftly (through legislation) or gradually (creeping annexation).

Separation from the Palestinians is a Zionist imperative and an Israeli priority. It is the only way to guarantee a solid and sustainable Jewish majority in our democracy for generations to come.

Separation is neither easy nor simple, but it is eminently possible, and carefully implementing it will enhance Israel’s security.  Whether those who argue that circumstances do not currently allow for a two state solution are right, or whether they are wrong, one thing is certain: we must halt the slide towards a one state for two peoples reality.  In fact, we must reverse direction, and - by means of prudent and well-considered measures - bring about civilian separation while maintaining security control over the territories until a final status agreement is reached.

On behalf of the hundreds of members of CIS, I call upon you to adopt separation as a cardinal principle of Israeli policy.  We further call upon you to take proactive measures to effectuate separation, while halting the dangerous process of creeping annexation. This is essential in order to guarantee the continued existence of our Jewish and democratic state that lives up to the principles of Israel’s Declaration of Independence.

Of the two options:  separating from the Palestinians and merging with them - only the first is a Jewish and Zionist choice.

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

Letter: Rash decisions due to extremists’ pressure

November 23, 2020

To:  Knesset and Cabinet members
Fm: Maj. Gen. (Ret.) Matan Vilnai
Re: Rash decisions due to extremists’ pressure

Media reports last weekend described pressure by extremist elements on the government to quickly formalize the legal status of 70 settlements in the heart of the West Bank.

The need to address their status is itself a result of the faulty decision process that led to their establishment in the first place.  That process was devoid of an overall strategy that should have prioritized national interests. As was the case with the establishment of these settlements, a hasty decision to formalize their status today could have irreversible implications for national security.

When taken together with other recent measures, including approval of thousands of new housing units, the issuance of construction tenders and related legislative initiatives, this reckless measure constitutes annexation, for all intents and purposes.   While the legal status of some of these settlements does merit consideration, others are mere enclaves in the heart of densely populated Palestinian territory.   If the steps now under consideration are approved, they would limit the freedom of a future Israeli government to separate from the Palestinians, whether in a limited or comprehensive fashion.

Elected officials must be extremely cautious when making fateful decisions of this nature. They must not allow pressure from individuals or groups of an extremist bent to disrupt the careful and considered process of decision making.

As experience has repeatedly demonstrated, decisions on matters of strategic importance must be based on effective staff work by the relevant and authorized government agencies.   Moreover, when such decisions impact on the security, identity and future of Israeli society, they must be accompanied by an open, public discussion.

Finally, we must be cognizant of the impact such decisions could have on Israel’s relations with other countries, both regionally and beyond.  This includes states with which we have just begun to normalize relations, such as the UAE, whom we promised to freeze annexation. It also includes the position of the incoming administration in Washington on these issues, relations with which are a central pillar of Israel’s national security.

On behalf of the hundreds CIS members, I call upon you to block this rash decision, resist pressure from extremist elements and demand a thorough, professional evaluation of all measures involving West Bank settlements.  Government decisions in this area must take into consideration their impact on national security and Israel’s identity as a Jewish and democratic state, as they must preserve the conditions necessary for a considered and secure separation from the Palestinians en route to an eventual two-state solution.

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

Letter: An Alternative Strategy for the Gaza Strip

November 16, 2020
To:      Members of Knesset, Cabinet
From: Maj. Gen. (Ret.) Matan Vilnai
Re:      An Alternative Strategy for the Gaza Strip

The rockets fired earlier this week and the tunnel that was discovered in early November were reminders that that status quo on the border with the Gaza Strip is misleading.  Rounds of fighting, battle days, rocket attacks, disturbances on the fence and incendiary balloons all illustrate that bringing about a change in prevailing conditions is a fundamental Israeli interest.  Doing this will require that we shift from a reactive to a proactive approach, which must start with a clear articulation of the strategic goal to be achieved.

It is here where there seems to be a broad consensus: Our goal is a stable and long term cease fire.

Repeated rounds of fighting over the years, interspersed by periods of instability, have long since demonstrated that we cannot achieve this goal by military means alone.  The deterrence we possess due to the imbalance of power between the sides can only bring about a temporary lull.  A decisive military victory, meanwhile, is not the answer either, since it would trap us in the quagmire of reestablishing our rule over Gaza and its two million civilians, with no exit strategy.

Israel needs a comprehensive plan of action that will enable us to take full advantage of the opportunities offered by our new normalization agreements as well as the change in administration in Washington, in order to assemble a broad coalition and its resources, thus make it happen.

An Israeli decision to bring about a change in the Gaza situation by nonviolent means could help persuade Egypt, Jordan, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia (all parties to the Arab quartet) along with the United States and the Donor Community, to join forces in this endeavor. This powerful coalition would have the potential to overcome resistance from both Hamas and Fatah.

Israel is thus called upon to initiate, and to invite the coalition to help implement a coordinated, three legged strategy, that includes:

  • A security element:  Formalizing and stabilizing the cease-fire with the Gaza Strip, including armament limitations and cessation of tunnel digging, all coupled with on-site Egyptian manned verification and compliance mechanism.
  • A political element:  Facilitating the return of the Palestinian Authority to Gaza, first by removing the Israel veto over such a move and then by gradually restoring its control over the Strip, with the assistance of the Arab quartet.
  • An economic-civilian element:  A far-reaching rehabilitation and development program, with the help of the Donor Community, led by the US.

Regional changes offer a unique opportunity to try and bring about real change.  There is, of course, no guarantee that this strategy will reach a successful conclusion.

If it succeeds, however, it will make an important contribution to the quality of life of Israelis living in the Gaza envelope and beyond.

It is important to point out that Israel will benefit even if the plan does not succeed.  The credit for the sincere effort to bring about a non-violent solution will serve us well in the region and beyond, if it later turns out that the use of force is unavoidable.

Commanders for Israel’s Security has developed a detailed plan based on the above principles. We would be happy to present it to the appropriate forums, of Knesset members and senior government staff.

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

Letter: The New US Administration - An Opportunity for an Israeli Initiative

To: Knesset and Cabinet Members
From: Maj. Gen. (Ret.) Matan Vilnai
Re: The New US Administration – an opportunity for an Israeli Initiative

In just over two months Joe Biden will be sworn in as the 46th president of the United States.   All Israelis hope he will be successful in confronting the monumental challenges he faces, both domestic and external.  After all, a strong United States is crucial to global and regional stability, and is a key factor in Israel’s national security equation.

Israel’s relationship with the US - in the security, political and other fields - deepened considerably under the Trump administration as exemplified by breakthroughs to normalization with several countries in the region, along with preparations for establishing relations with additional ones.

As he has repeatedly and consistently demonstrated throughout his 40-year career in public service, President-elect Biden is a true friend of Israel, sincerely committed to our security and wellbeing.  He was vice president when the Obama administration committed to provide Israel with unprecedented levels of military aid for a decade beyond its tenure, with the than VP playing a role in negotiating that MOU. We have no doubt that the strategic alliance between Israel and the US will only grow stronger under his presidency.

The combination of this reaffirmation of the sustainability of our strategic alliance with the US and new regional opportunities requires - and constitutes a most suitable foundation for -- an Israeli change of course.  Instead of reacting to developments, we now have the need and opportunity to initiate meaningful change.

How the Palestinian issue is resolved will effect Israel’s future.  Its impact will be felt on our national security as on our very identity as a nation state.  It is vital, therefore, that we take full advantage of current circumstances and the potential they offer to move from managing the conflict to managing a solution.

This will require us to take the initiative, combining military, political and economic measures, to promote separation from the Palestinians, ultimately leading to a negotiated two-state agreement.

A credible Israeli initiative will help persuade countries in the region, as well as the U.S. administration, to help us make this happen.

Taking the initiative will halt Israel’s slide towards a unitary state for Israelis and Palestinians, one that is neither Jewish nor democratic.  It will also set in motion a gradual and controlled process of separation from the Palestinians.  During the course of this process, Israel will continue to maintain security control over the territories until alternative security arrangements, acceptable to Israel’s political and military leadership, can be agreed upon and implemented.

In the final analysis, we cannot escape the reality and aspirations of three million Palestinians in the West Bank and two million more in Gaza. However, we can and must ensure a strong and sustainable Jewish majority for generations to come by leading a process of separation en route to a two-state reality.

On behalf of the hundreds of members of Commanders for Israel’s Security, I call upon you to take advantage of regional developments, as well as the just reaffirmed durability of the security alliance with the United States, to promote Israel’s supreme national interest:  guaranteeing the future of the Zionist enterprise by carefully separating from the Palestinians.

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