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A Separate Peace

How to fix the Middle East—without talks.

It is more than likely that the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) will reach a dead end. If not on the issue of settlements then on other matters. It’s not in the details, it’s in the big picture: Benjamin Netanyahu will not go as far as his predecessor, Ehud Olmert, and the Palestinians have already rejected Olmert’s generous deal. So it is probably a good idea to start thinking about Plan B.

To do this, we Israelis must first set our priorities straight: The more urgent goal is not peace; it is partition. That’s because the alternative to partition would be the end of Zionism. If the land is not divided into two states, there will be one state with an Arab majority. This is also not in the interest of Palestinians, since this one state is not likely to be a healthy binational democracy. It is more likely to be a country beset by chronic civil war.

But partition without peace now seems difficult from Israel’s perspective. It has been tried in Gaza, and Israelis mostly (though not necessarily rightly) remember the move as a failure: The forced evacuation of some 7,000 settlers from their homes in August 2005 went down in the national memory as traumatic, and what Israel received in return was a Hamas takeover and a constant barrage of rockets on its southern towns. So the evacuation of more than ten times that number of settlers from the West Bank—at least 70,000 settlers live in the territory that would become Palestine under any viable partition plan—seems unlikely. Israeli public opinion will not stomach a large-scale, forced evacuation for anything less than a full peace deal. Which would seem to mean that there is no alternative to the negotiations.

Yet this view assumes that the Gaza way is the only way. And that is not necessarily the case. A pullout from the West Bank can—indeed must—be very different. Here is how it might look.

The first step would mimic the Gaza disengagement. There is a relatively wide consensus among Israeli supporters of partition—unilateral or by peace accord—that we first need another “evacuation-compensation bill,” like the one enacted by Ariel Sharon’s administration. Many of the settlers are not fanatical religious ideologues, but people who were encouraged to live in the West Bank because of government subsidies. If this policy is reversed, and the state were instead to offer subsidies and alternative housing in exchange for settlers’ homes in the West Bank, many will come back to Israel proper.

The next step would diverge from the Gaza strategy considerably. It has to do with the legal status of the settlers. The whole foundation of settlement rests on a cluster of legal patches, sometimes collectively referred to in Hebrew as Tzavie Hazika (probably best translated as the Linkage Ordinances)—a series of orders issued by the military, along with some Knesset legislation, designed to apply Israeli law to Jewish settlers. Rights, political and social, are tied in Israel to residence, not just citizenship. Israelis cannot vote from abroad, and the whole net of social, civil, and often commercial services is dependent on residence within Israel’s borders. This originally posed a problem for settlers because they live outside Israel, where the official sovereign is not Israel’s parliament but the military. The Linkage Ordinances, however, established that Jews residing in the territories would be treated like residents of Israel. This created a colonial-like situation in the West Bank where, unlike in Israel proper, Jews have rights and services that Arabs do not.

A unilateral pullout would need to do away with the Ordinances. This in itself is not an entirely new idea. It once was discussed inside Sharon’s government as a possible Plan B for the Gaza evacuation. Sharon instructed the army that under no circumstances would it shoot at Jewish settlers, not even shoot back. If they picked up arms, he said, the Israel Defense Forces would simply withdraw. In such a case, some of his advisers suggested, the Linkage Ordinances could nevertheless be voided as planned on the day of the scheduled evacuation.

In the end, of course, there was no need for a Plan B, because the settlers complied and left their homes peacefully. But if this time the Ordinances were voided ahead of any evacuation, the picture would change substantially. All services that depend on the Ordinances—commercial water, electricity supply, medical care, telecommunications, public transportation, law enforcement—could be gradually transferred to the military. This would create an intermediate stage before the pullout, which will make clear that the state means business and also give the settlers an idea of what life without the benefit of Israeli residence rights would mean.

Upon withdrawal—and I would argue for a withdrawal from almost all of the West Bank, while retaining the possibility of land swaps and other adjustments during future negotiations—those who wished to stay in the evacuated areas would be allowed to do so. It is a safe guess that very few would. Mostly these would belong to the extreme messianic core, a group distinct from the majority of religious settlers. Such radicals may prefer the land to the state and value geography over citizenship. A partition plan can and should accommodate these preferences and let them choose Palestine over Israel if they so wish. Israel has a large Arab minority, and there is no reason to insist that Palestine be cleansed of Jews entirely.

In practice, however, staying under Palestinian rule is likely to be unsafe, and though we can hope Palestine will become a liberal democracy, accepting of minorities, we can by no means be sure this will happen. So Israel should make clear that it will not tolerate any violence against Jews in the West Bank and would reserve the right to invade Palestinian territory and use whatever means necessary to evacuate those in danger. This is how Israel has behaved in other instances: It not only has a Law of Return, it has also actively evacuated Jewish communities that were at risk and sought shelter in Israel.

If Israel chooses this strategy, its West Bank policies would no longer be held hostage by the whims of a small group of settlers. The very difficult decision to evacuate people from their homes would be transformed from a public to a private one: It would be up to the settlers, each of them individually, to decide whether to return to Israel or stay put.

But policy toward the settlers is not the only way in which this pullout should differ from the case of Gaza. It should also seek to avoid the Gaza results—a Hamas takeover and a barrage of rockets. This time around, the withdrawal should be coordinated with the PA, increasing the odds that power will be transferred in an orderly fashion and that Hamas can be kept at bay in the West Bank. The PA would doubtlessly cooperate, as Hamas poses a greater danger to Fatah than it does to Israel. Moreover, the PA is not the only party with which Israel should coordinate. Absent a full peace deal, any pullout should be backed by an international agreement with third parties. The United Nations, the United States, the European Union, hopefully Russia, and even some of the Arab League members are all relevant. Few countries would object to the ending of the occupation, and some would likely be willing to help shoulder the burden, including security guarantees.

Interestingly, some pragmatists on the Palestinian side have also reached the conclusion that unilateralism is a viable alternative to a peace accord. Palestinian Prime Minster Salam Fayyad has promised to unilaterally declare Palestinian statehood in 2011. Perhaps Fayyad, too, thinks that a two-state condition should first be established de facto: that issues now burdened with huge symbolic weight—dividing Jerusalem, giving up the so-called right of return, and much else—would be treated in a more practical way once the conflict is reduced from a controversy over full and final justice to a border dispute between two sovereign states. And he may well be right. Such a unilateral move by the Palestinians would complement, rather than contradict, a unilateral Israeli withdrawal.

We generally assume that those willing to negotiate are moderate, while those who wish to create facts on the ground unilaterally are warmongers. But in this long, complicated, and festering conflict, the opposite may be true. Because it may well be that peace would be easier after, not before, partition into two states.

Gadi Taub is an assistant professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and author of The Settlers. This article ran in the November 11, 2010, issue of the magazine.

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