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West Bank Front & Center As Israeli Elections Campaign Heats Up

Former army chief of staff Benny Gantz slammed by Israeli Right for suggesting ‘lessons’ from Israel’s 2005 Gaza disengagement should be ‘implemented in other places’

As United States President Donald Trump readies to unveil his Middle East peace plan after the Israeli elections in April, all eyes are once again focused on the West Bank.

A major bone of contention on the Israeli side is whether to cede control of the territory to the Palestinians, which critics hold would compromise Israel’s security. On the other hand, proponents contend incorporating the predominantly Palestinian territory would weaken the Jewish character of the state.

The issue entered the elections discourse this week when former army chief of staff Benny Gantz suggested the “lessons” learned from Israel’s highly contentious 2005 disengagement from the Gaza Strip should be “implemented in other places.”

Right-wing leaders were quick to pounce, slamming Gantz for seeking to uproot Jewish communities from the West Bank in the event of a future peace deal with the Palestinians. Notably, a spokesman for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas praised the remarks, saying “it is encouraging if he succeeds and sticks to this opinion.”

Gantz’s Israel Resilience party is expected to win up to 23 seats in the next parliament, trailing only Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s ruling Likud which is polling at around 30 mandates. However, if Gantz forms an alliance with Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party, polls show the bloc could win up to 35 seats and thus potentially be given the first opportunity to form the next government.

Dr. Martin Sherman, Executive Director of the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies, told The Media Line that Gantz “is basically saying we will go for unilateral concessions in Judea and Samaria [the biblical term for the area encompassing the West Bank] but we will leave the army there. This is totally absurd and myopic.

“If the lessons that Gantz is talking about is that we should reduce or eliminate our civilian presence across the security line and leave only the army there, what you are doing is replicating exactly the conditions we had in south Lebanon.”

Moreover, he explained, were Israel to simply maintain a military presence in the West Bank—in effect, ceding sovereignty claims over the area—then the Palestinians would need only wait for conflict to erupt and domestic and international pressure would increase on Israel to withdraw its troops.

“Israel’s sovereignty over the whole of Judea and Samaria including the high lands which overlook the main runway of Ben Gurion International Airport and greater Tel Aviv—which includes all civilian population centers on the coastal plain as well as major highways—is indispensable strategic territory. You can’t give it up,” Dr. Sherman stressed.

By contrast, Maj.-Gen. (ret.) Nathan Sharony, formerly the IDF’s head of planning, believes that “the settlers have created a myth about the necessity of their contribution to Israel’s defense by virtue of living in the West Bank. But the whole thing is a farce as this not only is unhelpful but harms Israel’s national interests.

“Israel is walking into a one-country two-people trap that will have an Arab majority,” he continued. “The trouble is that there is a lack of understanding of the severity of the problem and quoting the Bible won’t alleviate it.

“Seventy-five percent of Jews that live in the West Bank travel each morning to Israel [proper] in order to work. So essentially we are talking about ‘sleeping communities’ without roots. This is another symptom that shows that all of this is temporary.”

A Population Boom

What is beyond dispute is that these communities are growing. Earlier this week, a group that advocates for settlement of the West Bank reported that the number of Jews living in the region is rapidly increasing, and at a far greater pace than the overall Israeli population.

Baruch Gordon, director of West Bank Jewish Population Stats, claimed that President Trump’s friendlier policies have set the stage for a construction boom in the coming years.

“It’s just simply opened up. There’s no longer this cloud looming over it,” Gordon said, referring to the building of more homes in these Jewish communities.

Notably, past U.S. presidents have repeatedly warned Israel against expanding its presence in the territories, deeming it detrimental to the peace process.

The latest data from Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics reveals that the number of Jews living in the West Bank grew to 449,508 as of January 2019, up 3.3 percent from a year earlier. Israel’s overall population, by comparison, grew 1.9% in 2018.

“Jewish population growth in the West Bank absolutely is correlated to security, as there is a consensus in the defense establishment that Israel must continue holding the highest points in the territory as well as areas along the Jordan River,” Maj.-Gen. (res.) Gershon Hacohen, a former army commander and currently a researcher at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, told The Media Line.

“Israelis have anxiety over losing a Jewish majority and one of former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin’s foremost principles was preserving this. This aim was achieved through the Oslo Accords which granted Palestinians self-rule in their population centers in the West Bank and the whole Gaza Strip.

“This effectively ended the occupation,” Hacohen concluded, “and now the real question is one of security. The fact that Israel is maintaining a civilian population in these essential places is a declaration that we are here to stay. It is not only a power play but a message to the Palestinians that this needs to be understood before peace can be achieved.”

(Charles Bybelezer contributed to this report)