President Donald Trump’s negotiating team may unveil its “deal of the century” peace plan for Israel and the Palestinians soon after Israel’s April 9 elections.
Gershon Hacohen, a recently retired Israeli major general and former commander of Israel’s war colleges, now serves as a senior researcher at Bar Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Affairs, where he writes prolifically on the military significance of Israel’s relations with the Palestinians.
Hacohen is considered one of Israel’s most brilliant strategists. He is also something of a voice in the wilderness among his fellow generals, who almost unanimously identify with the left side of the political and ideological spectrum.
In light of the various media reports that have surfaced over the past year about the contours of the Trump plan, Hacohen has deep reservations about the plausibility of the American efforts.
This week, Hacohen published a major study in Hebrew, which received frontpage coverage in the Hebrew media in Israel. In it, Hacohen analyzed the military implications for Israel of a possible Israeli withdrawal from Judea and Samaria – otherwise known as the West Bank – in any deal with the Palestinians.
In his report, titled, “A Withdrawal from Area C of Judea and Samaria is an Existential Threat,” Hacohen argued that Israel cannot afford to withdraw from any territory in Judea and Samaria.
Breitbart News spoke with Hacohen to discuss his paper and what its implications are for the Trump administration as it prepares to unveil its peace plan.
Breitbart News: How do you relate to the news that the Trump administration intends to release its peace plan after the election?
Hacohen: We still don’t know what’s in the plan. I hope it is based on an understanding that we have to abandon the Clinton Parameters. They render Israel indefensible.
[In December 2000, just weeks before leaving the Oval Office, then-President Bill Clinton presented what he referred to as the “Clinton Parameters” for peace between Israel and the Palestinians. The Clinton Parameters called for an Israeli withdrawal from 98 percent of Judea and Samaria, along with 100 percent of Gaza, and the division of Jerusalem between Israel and the Palestinians with Israel surrendering sovereignty over the Temple Mount to the Palestinians. They called for Israel to swap sovereign territory with the Palestinians for the residual land in Judea and Samaria that it did not surrender. And they called for the Palestinians to establish a fully sovereign state on the lands that Israel transferred to their control. All U.S. peace plans since 2000 have been based on the Clinton Parameters.]
Hacohen: The Clinton Parameters constitute an existential threat to Israel. They are a complete repudiation of then-Prime Minister and Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s principles for peace with the Palestinians. I believe that Rabin’s four principles are the only rational basis for peace with the Palestinians. They are the only principles that will ensure that the Palestinians cannot pose an existential threat to Israel.
Rabin set out his parameters in his speech to the Knesset a month before he was assassinated on November 4, 1995. In that speech, Rabin presented the Interim Peace Accord with the Palestinians for ratification and set out his vision for what a permanent accord would look like.
Breitbart: What were the four principles?
Hacohen: Rabin’s first principle was that Israel must remain a Jewish state with an 80 percent Jewish majority. He began ensuring that in July 1994, when Israel withdrew from most of the Gaza Strip and set up the Palestinian Authority as an autonomous government responsible for the Palestinians. The interim agreement, which he presented to the Knesset a month before he was murdered, ensured the completion of that mission. By extending Palestinian self-rule to the Palestinian population centers in Judea and Samaria in January 1996, the deal placed more than 90 percent of Palestinians under Palestinian governance.
Ahmed Tibi, [one of PLO chief Yasser Arafat’s advisors and the time and a member of Knesset today] said then, “The occupation is over.” And he was right.
Since Israel withdrew its military forces and civilian population from the Gaza Strip in 2005, Gaza has been the de facto Palestinian state. And in Judea and Samaria, the Palestinians have maintained their autonomous governance for 23 years.
Breitbart: The world, and even Israel’s left, continues to insist that the occupation hasn’t ended.
Hacohen: True, but they are wrong. Israel ended the occupation in 1996. It does not control the lives or the governance of the Palestinians. The Palestinians control their own lives and their own governance.
Breitbart: What were the rest of Rabin’s parameters?
His second premise what that Jerusalem must remain united under sole Israeli sovereignty. Rabin envisioned Jerusalem as being a much larger municipal area. In his view, it should incorporate the major settlements of Givat Zeev and Maale Adumim in its municipal boundaries. Rabin understood that there is no military or practical way of dividing the city. There is no “no-man’s land” in Jerusalem that would serve as a natural boundary. Arabs and Jews live together. They cannot be separated and any attempt to do so would produce a military and civilian catastrophe.
Rabin’s third premise was that Israel needs to control the Jordan Valley – broadly construed – in perpetuity. As he saw it, the Jordan Valley includes all the land along Israel’s eastern frontier with Jordan, and stretches to the eastern settlement band along the Samarian mountain ridge in the north, and the Judean hills in the south.
Finally, Rabin said that the Palestinian entity that would be formed in a final peace deal would be less than a state. It wouldn’t control the electromagnetic spectrum. It wouldn’t control the airspace. It wouldn’t have an army.
Breitbart News: Rabin’s premises seem to have been forgotten by history.
Hacohen: “Rabin’s premises were discarded five years after he was killed. [In July 2000, then-Prime Minister] Ehud Barak ignored all of them during the Camp David peace summit. Barak conceded Israeli control over the Jordan Valley. Barak’s peace offer to Arafat divided Jerusalem. It included no security arrangements. He gave the Palestinians an entirely sovereign state. And he introduced the concept of “land swaps” wherein Israel would give the Palestinians land in sovereign Israel in exchange for retaining Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem built after 1967 and major settlements in Judea and Samaria. The idea was crazy. Israel has no territory to swap.
Breitbart: So the Clinton parameters were just an extension of Barak’s offer.
Hacohen: That’s right. They were essentially an expanded version of what Barak offered and Arafat rejected at Camp David, and then in later negotiations. Arafat also rejected the Clinton parameters. If Trump’s plan doesn’t get away from the Clinton Parameters, and the assumptions that inform them, it’s a non-starter. They are just too dangerous.
Breitbart: Why are the Clinton parameters so dangerous? Most of the generals in the IDF argue that Israel can walk away from Judea and Samaria and divide Jerusalem and survive.
Hacohen: One reason, which [former Israeli ambassador to the UN and president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs] Dore Gold explained a decade ago, is that the Clinton parameters deny Israel defensible borders, in breach of UN Security Council resolution 242.
[In the aftermath of the 1967 Six Day War, the UN Security Council passed resolution 242 which set out the basis for an eventual Arab-Israeli peace. Resolution 242 called for the Arabs to recognize Israel’s right to exist in “defensible borders.” Shortly thereafter, the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff presented then-President Lyndon Johnson with a memosummarizing what such borders entailed. According the their memo, to survive, Israel needed to maintain control over much of the Sinai Peninsula, Gaza, Judea and Samaria, and the Golan Heights. Without that territory, Israel lacked the strategic depth to defend itself from future invasions.]
Hacohen: The other generals ignore the significance of the joint doctrine our enemies Hamas and Hezbollah have adopted for fighting Israel. Rabin’s belief was that peace with the Palestinians would permit Israel to transfer its main military effort to fighting Hezbollah in the north. Thanks to the joint war doctrine that Hezbollah has crafted with Hamas since Israel withdrew from Gaza, Israel cannot easily neutralize the Palestinians in Gaza in order to free itself to fight Hezbollah in the north. If Israel withdraws from Judea and Samaria, we will face a unified enemy on three fronts. And that will be a disaster.
Breitbart: But the other generals claim that Israel is strong enough to manage this threat, and it is safe to withdraw from Judea and Samaria. What are they not seeing?
Hacohen: They think that we are much stronger than our enemies, but when a thousand Lilliputians tied Gulliver down, he was tied down. There are a thousand connections between Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon. If we leave Judea and Samaria, it will be incorporated into their war doctrine. And if we have three fronts, it will be a disaster. It is a threat that Israel won’t be able to surmount because it won’t be able to free the forces to fight Hezbollah in the north as its main effort.
Israel’s coastal plain doesn’t have the depth to protect the country. Without Judea and Samaria, Israel cannot defend Tel Aviv. My claim is that even in the age of peace we canI’t take the chance because we don’t know what tomorrow will bring.
Breitbart: It seems that none of your fellow generals agree with you. Former Chief of General Staff Lt. General Benny Gantz is running as a peace candidate. And three other former chiefs of staff may join him in his political party. Why don’t they see this?
Hacohen: Part of the issue is the sociological. The leftist paradigm, that Israel can give up everything for peace, is the ruling paradigm. Part of the answer is ignorance of military affairs. They have not studied the wars of the past twenty years. They haven’t studied the war in Ukraine, or Iraq, or Afghanistan. Maybe if they studied them, they’d agree with me.
Part of the answer is that they simply don’t understand that the world has changed since 1967. Some of my colleagues claim that if we withdraw to the pre-Six Day War boundaries and the Palestinians attack us, we can just repeat the Six Day War. That’s like saying that if we all walked to the edge of the Red Sea and asked God to part it again that it would happen. That isn’t strategic analysis. It’s fantasy.
I have closely studied the Hezbollah-Hamas war doctrine. They created armed forces that can negate Israel’s comparative advantages as a hybrid military force. Anyone who understands this threat recognizes that Israel is hard-pressed to respond to this doctrine and force structure when we face it in Gaza and Lebanon.
Israel has no answer to this doctrine if it is also applied to Judea and Samaria. To defeat Hezbollah, Israel needs to stay in Judea and Samaria. Otherwise, in time of war, it will be unable to deploy its main force in the North.
Breitbart: At base, your colleagues believe that the way to reach peace is to separate from the Palestinians.
Hacohen: My colleagues suffer from the same groupthink in relation to the Palestinians, and to our strategic environment more generally, as our predecessors suffered from in the period leading up to the 1973 Yom Kippur War. It was that groupthink that left Israel unprepared for that war.
Regarding separation, [then-U.S. peace negotiator Martin] Indyk [under Clinton] said, “Good fences make good neighbors.” And my fellow generals agreed.
“But that is entirely wrong. The neighbors in question aren’t two ranchers in Texas that go to the same church every Sunday morning. What happened with Gaza is that Israel built a wall to defend itself from Hamas. But instead of protecting Israel, it protected Hamas. It allowed Hamas to build a military organization because the fence protected them from [the] IDF. The fence created a reality according to which every action by the IDF taken beyond the fence is a declaration of war.
In Judea and Samaria we don’t have a binary understanding of space – ours or theirs. We have a hybrid system. Jewish and Arab villagers living side by side is a better arrangement. It enables the IDF to carry out small military operations. Today Israeli forces can operate in Nablus every night. To do that in Gaza, you need a cabinet decision. If we lose the freedom of action in Judea and Samaria, it will be a disaster.
The generals’ second assumption is that if a new threat emerges, the Israeli government will be free to deploy troops to Palestinian territory to defend against it. What we learned from Gaza is that the possibility of entering isn’t easy.
Third, they believe that the IDF’s superiority will bring victory decisively and quickly, just as it did in the 1967 Six Day War. This is false. It’s not the IDF is weaker than the combined forces of its enemies. It is simply that Hamas and Hezbollah have developed a doctrine that plays to their advantages while neutralizing many of Israel’s advantages.
Finally, the generals believe that withdrawing from Judea and Samaria will give Israel the international legitimacy to fight. This is also false. We learned it from all the post-Gaza withdrawal operations – Cast Lead, Protective Edge, all of them.
Rather than receive the support of the international community, we have been vilified as war criminals for defending ourselves in the face of massive missile attacks.
In other words, all of their premises are incorrect.
Breitbart: The news reports of the Trump plan indicate that it expects Israel to withdraw from the vast majority of Judea and Samaria, and divide Jerusalem.
Hacohen: I saw the reports. I also saw that the Trump administration denied them. But they are a source of worry. Because if they are true, they indicate that the Trump team has learned nothing from the past. And if they do go forward with something that looks like what has been reported, then their plan is a non-starter.