For decades, I’ve been writing about the danger Israel’s occupation of the West Bank — and before that, Gaza — poses to the existence of a democratic State of Israel.
It’s not a position that makes you popular with a vocal minority of American Jews, and perhaps a majority of the Jewish establishment. One of the most frequent critiques I get is that I am a naive non-combatant writing from the safety of the United States who knows nothing about Israeli security, the realities of the Middle East or the true nature of the Palestinians.
So, fine, let’s say I plead no contest to all those charges. But suppose I could find someone who served at the highest ranks of Israel’s army or intelligence services and who holds the same positions on the issues that I do? Would that convince the critics?
Now, what if I could find 270 of them?
Commanders for Israel’s Security (CIS) is a group of former combat commanders, generals and intelligence officials who have undertaken a campaign in Israel to end the occupation.
“We believe in separation as opposed to annexation,” Gen. (Res.) Giora Inbar, a CIS leader, told me. “We understand security comes by agreement, not by fighting.”
Inbar visited the Jewish Journal offices early last month as part of a speaking tour sponsored by Israel Policy Forum. He is, at 64, tall and trim, with close-cropped gray hair and a gravelly close-your-eyes-and-it’s-Yitzhak-Rabin voice. Inbar and other members of the group, including Amnon Reshef, a hero of the Yom Kippur War, will be back in Los Angeles next weekend, as well.
Like Rabin, they harbor few illusions about whether Hamas loves Jews or whether ISIS doesn’t have its sights set on Ramallah, much less Amman. As the former head of the Israel Defense Forces’ liaison unit in southern Lebanon, Inbar worked with intelligence-gathering units that likely knew more about what was going on in Syria than Bashar Assad.
“We are combat commanders,” Inbar explained. “Each of us at a point in his career understood the limits of power. We believe the two-state solution is the only solution that guarantees the security of Israel.”
When Israel conquered the West Bank and Gaza in the Six-Day War, 50 years ago this June, it assumed control of the millions of Palestinians who live there, without granting them full democratic rights. Unless it withdraws, the country soon will find itself having to choose between being an apartheid state or a binational state of Jews and Arabs — something the generals and most analysts see as a recipe for a Syria-like disaster.
Commanders for Israel’s Security is dealing with an issue that so far the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has refused to face, or, in some cases, has made worse. The CIS idea is very simple, and emblematic of the fighting ethos of the Israel Defense Forces: Seize the initiative.
“We refuse to condition our response on their initiative,” Inbar said. “We are not going to let anyone use the claim of ‘no partner’ as an excuse. No partner? OK, we are strong enough to initiate.”
For CIS, that means a simple three-point plan.
First, Israel can complete the security fence running between the country and the territories, and enforce strict security along the fence. Netanyahu, bowing to a right wing that doesn’t want to acknowledge Israel’s lack of sovereignty over the West Bank, has resisted finishing the fence — a lapse that risks Israeli lives.
Second, say the commanders, work with Palestinians to improve their infrastructure and economy. In Hamas-controlled Gaza, that could mean allowing plans for a seaport to go forward.
“Help them build their economy and lifestyle, so they have something to lose,” Inbar said.
Finally, engage the Palestinians and Israel’s regional neighbors in talks along the lines of the Arab Peace Plan, which Israel has long rejected or ignored.
The peace talks can come last, Inbar said, and whether they bear fruit or not, Israel’s initial two steps will ensure it a safe and secure democratic state.
“The idea is to bridge the stagnation and status quo that now exists with a permanent status agreement in the future,” the general explained.
In Israel, military yichus, or pedigree, matters. When CIS launched a controversial public relations campaign earlier this year that warned Israelis of a one-state inevitability, opinion polls showed that 7 percent of Israelis who didn’t think there was a chance of a two-state solution changed their mind — overnight.
But there is much more work to be done.
I interviewed Inbar the same week members of Netanyahu’s coalition sought to pass a bill that would extend Israeli sovereignty to the Jerusalem-area settlement of Ma’ale Adumim.
“It’s a disaster,” Inbar told me. “It really violates the territorial contiguity of the Palestinians.”
Netanyahu delayed a vote on the bill to avoid a confrontation with the Trump administration, but proponents have vowed to reintroduce it.
Meanwhile, sources in Israel have told me Commanders for Israel have held at least two private meetings with Netanyahu himself.
As Israel celebrates its 69th birthday, these former generals may be just the gift it needs.
Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. Email
him at [email protected] You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter @foodaism