Commentary Magazine


Israel After Disengagement

It was necessary, it would seem, for the disengagement from Gaza to take place for the strategy behind it to be revealed as unworkable.

That strategy was based on two assumptions that have guided the Likud government of Ariel Sharon, both clearly held by him yet only partially articulated for reasons of political expediency. The first is that Palestinian and Israeli positions are too far apart, and the Palestinian leadership too weak and untrustworthy, for successful negotiations between the two sides to take place in the foreseeable future. The second is that, in the absence of a negotiated agreement, Israel cannot afford, either politically or demographically, to remain forever in the greater part of the territories now controlled by it.

Sharon's operative conclusion from these assumptions was that Israel would have to act unilaterally, withdrawing its army and settlements from most of the territories to borders determined by itself, with no formal quid pro quo from either the Palestinians or the international community. On the one hand, this would relieve it of the moral and physical burden of millions of Palestinians who, even if technically under the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority, were unable to live their lives freely with Israeli settlements and military forces on every side of them. On the other hand, it would enable Israel to retain, behind physical barriers now under construction, many of the Jewish settlements established beyond the 1967 ceasefire lines, including all the major “settlement blocs.” Such a course of action, it was deemed, would also greatly reduce Palestinian terror, while the new borders, even if not winning international recognition, might gain tacit acceptance from the United States and other countries.

The disengagement from Gaza in August was the first stage in the implementation of this plan. The next stage, even if Sharon and his advisers refused to speak about it openly, was obviously meant to involve a much larger evacuation of settlements from the West Bank, the mountainous region north and south of Jerusalem that was held by Jordan until the 1967 war.

Gaza, then, was a test case. The preliminary results of the test are now in, and they are negative. They show that what was possible with 8,000 settlers in the Gaza Strip will not be possible with the estimated 60,000 settlers who, out of some 250,000 currently living in the West Bank, will end up on the other side of the security fence once it is completed.

This is not a cause for rejoicing. On the contrary, it leaves one deeply perturbed. As readers of COMMENTARY know, I supported the disengagement from Gaza because I thought its logic was correct. I did not believe the Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiations that broke down for the last time in early 2001 could be renewed with any hope of success, and I agreed that the greatest dangers facing Israel in the years to come were neither Palestinian terror nor Arab military might but international de-legitimization and the erosion and ultimate disappearance of the country's Jewish majority. Unilateral withdrawal seemed the best—indeed the only practical—way of dealing with these problems. I take no pleasure in having changed my mind.

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The disengagement from Gaza has been widely praised, both in Israel and around the world, as a resounding success. Why, then, do I perversely insist on viewing it as a failure?

In itself, indeed, it was no failure. Despite its many difficult moments, the evacuation of the Gaza Strip settlements went as well as anyone had hoped it might and far better than many people had feared. There was little violence, no serious injuries, and such sparse physical resistance on the part of the settlers and their supporters that the army, which had originally budgeted nearly a month for removing them, finished the job in a week. Dire predictions of civil anarchy and widespread military insubordination proved false. The country held together and weathered the storm handily.

The failure rather consisted in not having understood that even a “successful” disengagement from Gaza would be inconceivable elsewhere if multiplied by a factor of seven or eight.

One might dwell on a few simple statistics. An estimated 42,000 policemen and soldiers took part in the evacuation of the 8,000 Gaza settlers, with another 13,000 held in reserve—that is, at least a third of Israel's police force and the equivalent of four or five army divisions. If proportionally the same number of men in uniform had to evacuate 60,000 equally uncooperative settlers from the West Bank, close to 400,000 of them would be needed. This would require Israel to mobilize all of its military reserves and to assign every policeman and soldier at its disposal to the task.

What would be the cost of evacuating 60,000 settlers? The total expense of the disengagement from Gaza, from paying compensation to the evacuees to chartering the buses that took them away, may approach $2 billion. Taking a conservative figure of $1.5 billion and multiplying it by seven, we arrive at $10.5 billion—one-sixth of Israel's national budget. Such an expenditure, even if spread, say, over a period of three years, would increase the government's annual deficit from a tolerable 3 percent to a hyper-inflationary 10 percent.

And where would 60,000 West Bank settlers be put, pending the construction of new homes for them? Two thousand hotel rooms had to be rented on a long-term basis to house Gaza evacuees with nowhere to stay. A sevenfold number of 14,000 rooms would amount to a third of Israel's total hotel capacity.

Needless to say, these are crude projections. Yet they do give an idea of what a Gaza-style disengagement from the West Bank might entail. Moreover, they would have to be continually revised upward, since the Jewish population of the West Bank is currently increasing at a rapid rate.

In addition, and this is crucial, a West Bank disengagement would be far more confrontational than was the case in Gaza. The Gaza settlers were, for the most part, ideological moderates living in a remote area of little strategic or Jewish historical importance that could be physically sealed off without difficulty—in spite of which, thousands of diehard protesters managed to join them and to cause most of the trouble once the evacuation began. The West Bank, the biblical heartland of Judea and Samaria that geographically dominates Israel's central coastal plain, is a short drive from Jerusalem and not much farther from Tel Aviv. Many of the settlements that stand to be evacuated there have ideologically hardcore populations that could not be prevented from being massively reinforced from outside. Nor would the leaders of the settler movement, who acted as a force for restraint in Gaza, be that again. This time, faced with what would be for them a catastrophe of far greater magnitude, they would pull out all the stops. In such a situation, the chaos that failed to materialize in August could very well come to pass.

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“But all this,” I will be told, “is based on a misguided premise. You are supposing that a West Bank disengagement would have to be carried out in one fell swoop, as in Gaza. If, however, it were to take place gradually, each phase involving a smaller number of settlers, it might be perfectly manageable.”

Logistically, this might be so. Psychologically and politically, though, it would not be. This brings us to the next point.

In the past months, Israel has undergone a severe trauma. One aspect of it, the shock of the disengagement to the settler movement and its principal source of support, the country's half-million strong modern-Orthodox or “national religious” community, was on public display well in advance of August. Although this community's painful reckoning with its punctured illusions has only just begun, it has come as a surprise to no one.

Less predictable were the reactions in other quarters. Sitting in front of their televisions, which provided non-stop, around-the-clock coverage of the evacuation until the last settler had boarded the last bus, many pro-disengagement Israelis had strong visceral responses. Twenty percent, according to the polls, found themselves more anti-settler than before. But 30 percent moved in the other direction.

Some among this latter group, it can be assumed, were experiencing no more than ordinary human sympathy. Even if you are convinced of its necessity, it is hard to watch people being evicted from their homes without feeling for them. But for other Israelis, it was more than that. As they watched the settlers marching to the waiting buses with their children and Torah scrolls in their arms, they had a deeply disturbing sense of déjà vu. Although they were aware that what they were viewing was in part a media event, staged for their benefit, they could not help associating it with other scenes from Jewish history.

To be sure, the evacuation of the Gaza settlers was no medieval expulsion. If many of them had been turned into temporarily homeless refugees by a Jewish government, that was principally because they themselves had refused until the last moment to negotiate the terms of their relocation. Still, the fact remained that they were being forced from their homes because they were Jews whom a non-Jewish population, justifiably or not, refused to tolerate in its midst. Otherwise, why could not those who wished to remain have done so under Palestinian rule?

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Nor was that all. As the TV images shifted from houses being emptied to houses being demolished, the bulldozers and backhoes pulverizing in minutes what had taken long years to build, there were viewers who felt a shiver of concern for their own future.

Zionism, after all, was always a movement of construction. It was indeed the only great revolutionary movement of modern times that did not set out deliberately to destroy anything—not a foreign occupation, not an ancien régime, not an oppressive ruling class. It wanted only to build a home for the Jewish people, and from the outset it built wherever it could. “We will clothe you in cement and concrete,/We will spread a rug of gardens at your feet”: many Israelis still know by heart lines like these, addressed to the land of Israel by the poet Natan Alterman, that were once sung as anthems of Zionist pioneering.

One cannot understand the post-1967 settlement movement in the occupied territories without realizing that, long before it became an Israeli policy, it was an Israeli instinct. From the arrival of the first Zionist pioneers in Palestine in 1882, Zionism had one grand obsession: to find available land and put Jews on it. That this land might be arid, or swampy, or surrounded by hostile Arab villages was no deterrent. Zionism took what it could get, often paying absurdly high prices for it, and did what Jewish determination could do with it. Israel arose in 1948 along the lines that it did only because this determination was great.

It was this same instinct that caused the Labor government of Golda Meir to found Gush Katif, the main Jewish settlement bloc in the Gaza Strip, on uninhabited sand dunes in the region's southwest corner in the early 1970's. There was nothing particularly rational or equitable about this. The Gaza Strip was already then an impoverished area, crowded with Palestinian refugees, that needed whatever land reserves it had. A Jewish enclave at one far end of it, separated from Israel proper by the Palestinian city of Rafah, was pointless. It came into existence not, as was once said of the British Empire, in a fit of absent-mindedness, but in a fit of habitual creation.

Nevertheless, it is one thing to say that the Gaza settlements should never have been built and quite another to raze them to the ground. (How much better it might have been had they not been razed, and had some of the Palestinians living in Gaza's hovels been given the benefit of them. But both sides, for reasons of their own, were bent on their demolition.) When a great historical movement begins to destroy what it has built, a frisson may seize the observer. Watching this happen was like watching a river turn around and run backward. It felt instinctively wrong. It caused the political commentator Ari Shavit, comparing the televised evacuation to a movie, to write in the pages of the Hebrew daily Ha'aretz:

What was this movie about? About reversibility. From a bulldozer you came and to a bulldozer you shall return. . . . What made the disengagement a formative Israeli movie was the fact that even at its conclusion, the type of reversibility it describes remains unclear. Was it that of Gush Katif, of Judea and Samaria, or of all of Israel?

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How many Israelis agreed that the events of August were emotionally searing? A very large number. In a post-evacuation survey published by Camille Fuchs of Tel Aviv University, 61 percent chose the phrase “hurting and pained” as best describing their country in disengagement's aftermath.

How many changed their minds about supporting a second-stage disengagement in the West Bank? Perhaps more than 10 percent. A survey conducted in late August by the veteran pollster Mina Zemach reported 54 percent prepared to evacuate more settlements in Judea and Samaria—down from 63 percent in July. Another, later poll by Fuchs showed 48 percent in favor and 42 percent opposed.

Of course, these are still majorities. Yet they are precarious ones. Although no one knows what will have become of these figures a year or two from now, it would be difficult to conceive of any Israeli government undertaking a major evacuation of West Bank settlements with so slim a margin of public support.

Indeed, if Israeli politicians have learned anything from the bitter experience of the 1993 Oslo agreement, it is not to make fateful decisions for an almost evenly split country. Ariel Sharon was able to evacuate Gaza without shattering Israel too deeply because he went into it with two-thirds of the country behind him—enough to convince anti-disengagement Israelis that the popular will was against them. Had he done so with the support of only a skimpy majority, the repercussions would have been far greater.

To this must be added a political corollary: a clear national consensus in favor of the surrender of territory can be forged in Israel only when the mainstream Right, or a large part of it, joins the Left in backing it. This happened in 1979-82, when Menachem Begin kept most of his Likud party in line while negotiating and implementing a withdrawal from Sinai, and it is what happened again now, too, despite a far more serious rebellion in Likud's ranks. But any attempt to evacuate areas of the West Bank without significant support in Likud is a sure prescription for a disastrously ruptured society such as Israel was between the signing of the Oslo agreement and the 1995 assassination of Yitzhak Rabin.

Yet the chances of mobilizing even a part of Likud on behalf of a Gaza-style disengagement in the West Bank are, in the coming years, nil. The party is still smarting from Sharon's rebuff of it when, in May 2004, he ignored its anti-disengagement vote in an internal referendum, and there is a strong likelihood that before the next national elections are held—an event that may come as early as the winter or spring of 2006—it will have replaced him as its leader with Benjamin Netanyahu. Having come out strongly against the withdrawal from Gaza at the last moment while resigning from Sharon's cabinet, Netanyahu is not about to endorse a magnified West Bank version of it. And even if Sharon were to retain control of the Likud and win reelection at the head of it, he would certainly not provoke it into a second insurrection more furious than the first.

That is why it is senseless to think that a unilateral evacuation of most of the West Bank could be made more manageable by breaking it down into phases. Just suppose that Israel had to go through not one more trauma but seven or eight, each considerably worse than last August's and each preceded by long months of savage political warfare. Perhaps the many commentators and the many spokesmen of governments and international organizations who have lauded the disengagement from Gaza as a first step toward more of the same can picture this. I cannot.

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Contrary to the common perception, then, the settlers did not lose in Gaza. Rather, they won by demonstrating that a repeat performance is out of the question. This was indeed their leadership's central goal from the moment it realized that it lacked the votes in the Knesset to block disengagement's first stage. From then on, the real battle was over Judea and Samaria.

This is a battle that began in 1967. From the outset, the settler movement strove to populate the West Bank with enough Jews to make their removal from it impossible. For many years, it seemingly stood no chance of success. Even at the time of the Oslo agreement in the early 1990's, there were barely 100,000 Jewish residents in Judea and Samaria. The astonishing increase that has taken place since then under the most inauspicious circumstances—Israel's handing over of much of the West Bank to the PLO, twelve subsequent years of Palestinian terror, the growing condemnation of the international community—is above all a tribute to the tenacity and resolve of the settlers themselves.

But it would not appear to be a tribute to their ultimate foresight. For where does Israel go from here? In the eyes of nearly all the world, it is still, after the disengagement from Gaza, an illegitimately occupying power in the West Bank. It is also still burdened with millions of Palestinians whose rate of increase far outstrips that of Israeli Jews. True, without the Gaza Strip, the ratio of Jews to Arabs west of the Jordan River has risen from approximately 53-47 to 61-39. But the Palestinian Arab birthrate, which is higher than that of Israel's own Arab citizens, is capable of eliminating that gap—and with it the existence of Israel as a Jewish state—in a generation.

In thinking about where Israel now goes, one might begin with where it cannot and should not go. First on the list is a capitulation to Palestinian demands for a near-total withdrawal to the 1967 ceasefire lines, plus a real or symbolic “right of return” for the Palestinian refugees, in exchange for a formal peace treaty—the Palestinian position when negotiations broke off in 2001. Given the history of PLO and Palestinian Authority mendacity, and the unlikelihood that a state on 22 percent of historical British-mandate Palestine could satisfy minimal Palestinian aspirations, it would be the height of folly for Israel to surrender all of its 1967 gains, with their military and strategic advantages, in return for a piece of paper worth no more than the 1993 Oslo Declaration of Principles. Such a “peace” might last five years or ten; it would almost certainly break down in the end, overridden by Palestine irredentism and the still simmering refugee issue. Meanwhile, the price Israel would have to pay for it would be the evacuation, not of 60,000 West Bank settlers, but of 150,000 or even more—that is, of the Gaza disengagement multiplied by at least twenty.

Additional “mini-disengagements” should also be ruled out. In the absence of productive peace negotiations, there is every reason to expect continued international pressure on Israel to carry out further unilateral withdrawals in order to “keep the peace process going.” One temptation might be for an Israeli government to try relieving such pressure by minor pullbacks similar to the one executed from four small settlements in the northern West Bank in tandem with the evacuation of the Gaza Strip. The idea has also been floated of coordinating such pullbacks with the establishment of a “provisional” Palestine state with undefined borders that would expand in the future. Yet even if politically feasible, this would be inadvisable for Israel. It would do nothing but buy time while inviting pressure for more retreats whose limits would not be set in advance.

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And time is not in Israel's favor. This is so not just demographically. In recent years, the propaganda push to depict Israel as an apartheid state in which ruling Jews victimize helpless Palestinians has been gaining frightening momentum. Apart from the United States, there is scarcely a Western country in which, despite years of Palestinian terror, anti-Israel sentiment in the media and intellectual life is not dominant and getting stronger.

This is especially the case in Europe, whose large and feared Muslim populations have also helped tip the balance of public opinion against the Jewish state. But even in America, Israel's image has steadily eroded, as evidenced by the recent disinvestment campaigns of large liberal church groups. Although fortunately there is still a long way to go, it is no longer unimaginable that Israel may one day come to be so widely regarded as a latter-day South Africa that public pressure will encourage Western governments, in any case anxious to cozy up to Arab and Muslim nations, to treat it as one.

From the South African analogy, moreover, has flowed an idea that is increasingly voiced even though it is the most absurd of all. If a resemblance to apartheid South Africa is the problem, this line of reasoning goes, then let a resemblance to post-apartheid South Africa be the solution. Turn Israel/Palestine into a single, one-man, one-vote country, and let justice and harmony reign.

How much justice and harmony now reign in South Africa is a debatable question. What is not debatable, however, is that there is no meaningful parallel between apartheid South Africa and present-day Israel/Palestine. On the eve of apartheid's dismantling, South African blacks outnumbered whites by five-to-one; it was thus a foregone conclusion on both sides that, in agreeing to a single, democratically run state, whites were ceding political control to blacks with no chance of regaining it or of ever again being a dominant force in their country. Their only hope was to continue living there as a legally protected minority with enough economic power to defend their interests. On their ability to retain this power, and the black majority's willingness to let them do so, rests their still far from certain future.

By contrast, a one-man, one-vote Israel/Palestine would be a country in which two more or less numerically equal populations, divided not only by culture, language, religion, history, transnational allegiances, economic and social interests, and territorial disputes, but by a hundred years of bitter enmity, would be required to administer between them a single polity, its institutions, and its military. Can any rational person suppose for a moment that such a country would not soon fly apart at the seams, with far worse bloodshed than it has known in the past? One has to be either naïvely utopian or unscrupulously Machiavellian to promote such a scheme. Yet the longer the status quo continues, the more backing it will win, rendering all the more intolerable a military presence, originally conceived of as temporary, that, almost four decades after the 1967 war, has become ruinous for everyone.

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Still bordering on the seemingly utopian is a solution that, although it has been proposed by different people in different places (including by me in the pages of COMMENTARY1 ), has never gained wide currency. Although it has a great deal of poetic justice on its side, it is doubtful whether it has as much reality.

This solution would be for Israel to offer the Palestinians a confederation of two independent, side-by-side states bound to each other by mutual commitments, among them the agreement of each to allow the other's citizens—perhaps up to an agreed-on population cap—to reside within its borders. These borders, open to the free passage of people and goods in both directions, would run along the 1967 Israel-Jordan ceasefire lines. Jewish settlers could remain in a demilitarized state of Palestine as Israeli citizens; Palestinian citizens could have a similar status in Israel. Israeli troops would be withdrawn from all of the Palestinian state except for the sparsely populated Jordan Valley, where they would be allowed to retain permanent bases.

Such a confederation, which would preserve Israel/Palestine as a single geographical unit while dividing it into two closely linked sovereignties, would have genuine advantages for both sides—as well as offering some bitter pills to swallow and some even greater dangers.

For the Palestinians, it would mean getting the state and the borders they have been insisting on, with the added bonus that the remaining 78 percent of British-mandate Palestine, though under Israeli rule, would be open to them to visit, work in, and live in. Besides giving them all the benefits of participation in the Israeli economy, this would go a long way toward satisfying their demand for the “right of return” of the 1948 refugees. In exchange, however, they would have to accept the permanent presence of settlers and of the Israeli army on land from which they have sworn to eject both.

For Israel, a confederative solution would permit the settlers, or those so choosing, to remain where they are and maintain the Jewish people's historic connection with Judea and Samaria while giving the West Bank's Arabs their freedom. It would also, by retaining the Jordan River as Israel's defense line, provide a high degree of security against any future military threat from the east.

On the other hand, such an arrangement's open borders would provide very little security from Palestinian terror, whose elimination would have to depend on a general state of Palestinian contentment and a strong Palestinian government with the will to suppress violence. Moreover, Israel would be required to surrender sovereignty not only over the “settlement blocs” but over much of Jerusalem, while running the risk of a large influx of poor Palestinians drawn by economic opportunities. Although such migrants would not be eligible for Israeli citizenship, they could, added to the more than 1 million Israeli Arabs holding such citizenship today, create severe tensions and aggravate nationalist animosities. And who is to say that the Jewish settlers in the state of Palestine might not also end up in bitter disputes with their Arab neighbors, who might be compelled to put up with them but not to like them? Could the Jews count on a Palestinian government to protect them?

In short, the success of a confederative solution would depend on the prior existence of the same good will that it is its goal to achieve, thereby repeating the mistake of Oslo all over again. One lesson of the “peace process” was that such circularity does not work in politics any more than in logic. In situations of conflict, open-ended agreements that do not clearly terminate all major sources of friction tend to exacerbate more than to conciliate. A Palestinian-Israeli confederation, while perhaps not as clearly suicidal as a bi-national state, would nevertheless be asking for trouble. And of trouble, Israel has had quite enough.

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Is the impasse, then, total? Not necessarily. But the way out of it depends as much on the United States as it does on Israel.

Thus far, the Bush administration's position on disengagement, the West Bank security fence, and Israel's ultimate borders has been consistently ambiguous. U.S. officials, including President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, have spoken repeatedly of the need for further West Bank withdrawals without specifying what areas these should include. They have defended Israel's right to build the fence while also referring to it as “a problem” whose existence should be “temporary,” a mere “security barrier” rather than a “political barrier.” And although the President has said explicitly that Israel cannot be expected to withdraw to its pre-June 1967 frontier with Jordan, he has declined to state unequivocally that all the major West Bank settlement blocs must remain within Israel.

Thus, in a much-cited letter to Prime Minister Sharon last April, soon after the latter's visit to the Bush ranch in Texas, the President wrote:

As part of a final peace settlement, Israel must have secure and recognized borders, which should emerge from negotiations between the parties in accordance with United Nations Security Council resolutions 242 and 338. In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli population centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final-status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949 [which lasted until June 1967], and all previous efforts to negotiate a two-state solution have reached the same conclusion.

The trouble is that, in every one of the “previous efforts to negotiate,” the Palestine Authority has categorically refused to agree that all these “existing population centers,” which occupy some 10 to 15 percent of the West Bank, should be incorporated into Israel. At most, it has been willing to consider yielding some of them as part of a land swap giving it an equal amount of territory inside Israel—a demand that Israel, which came into possession of the West Bank after being attacked by Jordan in 1967, has quite rightly rejected. This was one of the main issues over which the 2001 talks broke down, and the Palestinian position has if anything hardened since then. For the United States to tell Israel that it should have borders reflecting “new realities on the ground” but also “emerging from negotiations” is thus to deliver a thoroughly contradictory message.

Nor will this contradiction be resolved by changes in Palestinian politics. Even if the much talked-about “democratization” of the Palestinian Authority takes place, the leadership elected will not soften its negotiating positions. On the contrary: the more “democratic” a Palestinian government is, the more uncompromising its leaders will most likely become, since popular sentiment has regularly been even more hardline than that of the Palestinian Authority's top echelons. The strong political influence of Hamas in a democratic Palestinian society would in itself ensure that negotiations with Israel could never get off the ground.

If there is any hope for the two peoples to disentangle themselves in the West Bank before it is tragically too late, therefore, it does not lie in sterile negotiations. It lies in America's resolving the contradiction. This alone would enable the second stage of disengagement to take place.

True, I have argued that a Gaza-style disengagement in the West Bank is impossible. But this style, let us remember, was unilateral. Whatever the balance of its risks and benefits, Israel has received, in return, no concessions, no commitments, and no guarantees from any another government. And indeed, in return for such nothing once again, the Herculean effort that a withdrawal from most of the West Bank would require is impossible. There is simply no way in which an Israeli government could marshal sufficient political support for it.

But this need not be the case if the withdrawal were in return for something. If that something were substantial enough, a clear national consensus in favor of a second-stage West Bank disengagement could in all likelihood be mobilized despite the turmoil caused by the first stage. The political struggle would still be titanic, and the evacuation itself, whether single- or multi-phased, of colossal difficulty. But it could be done; most Israelis would be willing to pay the price.

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What would they be paying for? For a presidential declaration from Washington that said something like this:

Although the government of the United States continues to believe that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would best be resolved through negotiations as called for in the Road Map, and has every hope that this will one day prove possible, there is no prospect of its happening at the present moment. In the meantime, since Israel is prepared to withdraw all of its settlers and armed forces from close to 90 percent of the West Bank to the security fence it has built, the United States will regard this withdrawal, once completed, as constituting full compliance with United Nations Security Council resolution 242, and will recognize the new line as Israel's border with the Palestinian Authority.

Such a declaration, of course, could not come out of the blue. It would have to be preceded by private negotiations between Israel and the United States over just where the still uncompleted parts of the security fence should run. But as long as Israel received all of its settlement blocs and had its interests guaranteed in Jerusalem, it could be expected to take American concerns into consideration.

Were the United States publicly behind such a move, Israelis, knowing that they would at last have a recognized eastern frontier along militarily tolerable, demographically viable, morally acceptable lines that are also relatively safe from terror would, I believe, vote decisively—although many with a heavy heart—for leaving the rest of Judea and Samaria.

Can the United States afford to make such a change in its policy? The Palestinians would initially react with fury; the Arab world would squawk; the Europeans would grumble about a perfidious sell-out to the “Jewish lobby”—but all this would pass. Some countries would come around and endorse the American declaration in principle. And once Israel's evacuation of the West Bank actually took place, one can imagine that the real reaction—in Europe, in the Arab countries and elsewhere around the world, and among the Palestinians themselves—would be of relief. Finally, the Israeli occupation would be over.

Such a step, moreover, would be in true compliance with Security Council resolution 242, over whose exact wording the United States led so hard a fight at the time. That resolution, adopted soon after the 1967 war, speaks of “the withdrawal of Israel's armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict,” not of withdrawal from “the territories”; that is to say, the withdrawal it calls for is not total. At the end of the 1967 war, Israel held nearly 30,000 square miles of militarily occupied territory in the Sinai Peninsula, the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights. After pulling back to the West Bank security fence, it will have evacuated 97 percent of this area. How much closer to both the spirit and the letter of 242 can it get?

It is true that the Palestinians may find it difficult to build a viable state in the tiny territory of Gaza plus nine-tenths of the West Bank. But they would have found it difficult to build a viable state in Gaza plus ten-tenths of the West Bank, too. In all likelihood, sooner or later, state or no state, they will do the obvious thing and join up once again with Jordan, between which and the West Bank there will no longer be a barrier once the Israeli withdrawal takes place. Jordan's land area is fifteen times the West Bank's; it is more than three times Israel's. But this is a matter that can be left to the Palestinians and the Jordanians.

As for Palestinian irredentism, it will continue to exist. Perhaps organizations like Hamas will occasionally lob rounds of rockets or mortar shells over the security fence, to which Israel will have to respond, just as it does to Hizballah attacks from Lebanon. Nor will an Israeli withdrawal to the fence put a total end to terrorism, either, although it should be able to contain it effectively. Much will depend on the degree of civil unity or strife within Palestinian society itself, and on how long this society takes to normalize and prosper economically. A long time will pass before a Palestinian or Palestinian-Jordanian government will recognize Israel's new frontier. All this, however, will be infinitely preferable to the present state of affairs—and to any of the other alternatives on offer.

For years, the United States has urged Israel to make bold and courageous decisions in order to help solve its conflict with the Palestinians. Here is a chance for America to make such a decision itself.

September 7, 2005

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Footnotes

1 “Why the Settlements Should Stay,” June 2002.

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About the Author

Hillel Halkin is a columnist for the New York Sun and a veteran contributor to COMMENTARY. Portions of the present essay were delivered at Northwestern University in March as the Klutznick Lecture in Jewish Civilization.




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