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Do Unilateralists Own Israel’s Future?

Israel’s economy minister and leader of the Jewish Home party, Naftali Bennett, has publicly written to Prime Minister Netanyahu advocating that Israel formerly annex key areas of the West Bank so as to bring the 440,000 Israelis who live there fully under Israeli sovereignty. Of course at the moment it is hardly conceivable that the Israeli government would implement these moves—Bennett himself has previously said that there would need to be elections to provide the necessary support in the Knesset—but with some members of Likud theoretically supportive of the plan, this may come to loom increasingly large on Israel’s political agenda.   

The latest debacle that has been the U.S. attempt to bring about a final peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians has convinced many of the need to consider what the other options might be. Following the second intifada, when Prime Minister Ariel Sharon similarly judged there to be no partner for a negotiated peace, Israel began to implement a program of unilateral disengagement. That policy was stopped in its tracks, most immediately by the stroke suffered by Sharon, but also on account of the barrage of rockets that have spewed out of Gaza, the harrowing test case for unilateral disengagement. Since then that approach has been filed away, although it is still occasionally referenced as a last resort by some commentators. In its place, those on the right have begun instead to talk about full or partial unilateral annexation of the West Bank. The most far-reaching incarnation of this strategy is presented by Caroline Glick in her new book The Israeli Solution which not only advocates for fully incorporating all of the West Bank into the Jewish state, but also absorbing all the Palestinians living there. 

In addition, there has been talk about various hybrids of current options. At the time of Sharon’s passing, one such option was suggested by former Israeli ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren: that to avoid the ongoing headache of policing the Palestinians, Israel should still consider a unilateral withdrawal from much of the West Bank. However, Oren also recognized that under such an arrangement Israel would retain most settlements. Another hybrid proposal was recently offered by Hillel Halkin in Mosaic, in what he called his “Two-State-Minus” plan. This proposal advocates creating a Palestinian entity that wouldn’t quite function as an entirely independent state, but that would rather exist in federation with Israel.

Then there have been the suggestions not to push for a final resolution of all disputes, but rather for a semi-negotiated semi-agreement. Nicholas Casey has recently written in the Wall Street Journal about the prospect of scaling back objectives and instead settling for a managing of the situation, as opposed to aiming for a definitive solution. Casey references a proposal by Shlomo Avineri who has suggested that the two sides reach an agreement on those matters that they can, with Israel transferring control of more territory to the Palestinians. Under this scenario the impossibly difficult final-status issues would be put aside and the two parties wouldn’t be obliged to recognize each other. Of course the problem here is that without the Palestinians having recognized either Israel or an end to their grievances, both the campaign of violence and the delegitimization of Israel internationally would likely continue.

There are two obvious problems with almost all of the unilateral proposals. One is security, the other is international opinion. Those plans that call for a near complete withdrawal from the West Bank risk recreating Gaza on a massive scale and on the strategically important high ground overlooking Israel’s population centers and vital infrastructure. Bennett’s plan of annexing Israeli controlled area C of the West Bank may seek to overcome this problem, but in reality it might simply lead to the creation of multiple mini-Gazas throughout the West Bank. And while this proposal may extend Israel’s sovereignty to territory inhabited by hundreds of thousands of Israelis, it is doubtful the international community would recognize this, just as they refuse to recognize the Israeli annexation of eastern Jerusalem or the Golan Heights. Of course unilateral withdrawal doesn’t solve this problem either, with the international community still wedded to the preposterous position that Israel continues to be the occupying power in Gaza.

The proposal that seeks to address both of these problems is Caroline Glick’s one-state solution. Presumably if Israel was to not only annex the territory but also extend full citizenship to all the Palestinians living there, then depending on the Palestinian reaction, international protest might be more manageable. Many object to this plan on demographic grounds. It may in fact be true that there has been significant Palestinian falsification of census data. Yet even if Glick is correct in saying that Jews would maintain a two-thirds majority, there are still serious questions to be asked about how so many Arabs could be assimilated into a Jewish state, and in the event that they all exercised their right to vote would Zionist parties still be able to hold the Knesset? None of these proposals is by any means flawless.

It is probably unwise to make forecasts here, but assuming international pressure was to considerably intensify, and with a negotiated way out unlikely, it is conceivable that something would eventually give and either left or right might implement their version of a unilateral plan.  


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