Mitt Romney has put the Middle East back into the election debate on foreign policy, which is where it deserves to be. His speech at the Virginia Military Institute last week was more considered than the off-the-cuff remarks at the notorious 47 percent dinner where he saw "no way" for there to be a peace settlement with the Palestinians. This time he promised to "recommit America to the goal of a democratic, prosperous Palestinian state living side-by-side in peace and security with the Jewish state of Israel." But how to get there?
In fact, an intriguing new proposal has been floated by Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, the former prime minister. The leadership of Israel has long understood that it is in its supreme interest to promote a peace process with the Palestinians, and Barak has pushed the objective one step further. He agrees with Romney that there is a low probability that a permanent status arrangement can be reached in a negotiation with the Palestinians and that even an interim agreement is dubious. If that proves so, Barak proposes withdrawal from the West Bank and at the same time recognizing the Israeli settlements there as an integral part of Israel. As he put it, "If there is no partner, we have to converge to within settlement blocs, to remove dozens of settlements, and to allow residents who do not want to leave their homes to consider remaining there as residents of the Palestinian Authority."
The settlement blocs, housing 80 to 90 percent of the 320,000 people, are mostly located near the frontiers of Israel proper. These people, now behind settlement fences, would stay within Israel, and the Palestinian entity would begin on the other side of the fence. The Israelis are determined that their citizens can live in a democratic state where the Jews are the majority and have the Palestinians live in a state with an Arab-Muslim majority. In other words, two states for two people.
Barak understands that fundamental differences would remain to be negotiated. There are the issues of Jerusalem, the right of return of Palestinian refugees who have fled to the West Bank—and cast-iron security arrangements would be vital. Israel would have to maintain a military presence in the Jordan Valley and the Samarian hilltops overlooking Israel's Ben-Gurion airport.
The contrast with both Hamas and Fatah is stark. They believe there should be Muslim control over all of Palestine with no Jewish state and no partition. Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian leader, has publicly rejected the solution of two states for two people, for he doesn't believe there is such a thing as a Jewish state.
What hope is there for the Barak plan? There are serious practical objections in Israel. Many feel that the Palestinians will lose an incentive to reach a true peace. Even the most liberal cabinet ministers, such as Dan Meridor, believe that taking the army out of the West Bank without an agreement is dangerous. "We did it once in Gaza," he said, "we saw the results."
Gaza has made the idea of a unilateral pullout widely scorned in Israel. No wonder. Within two years of Israel's 2005 withdrawal, the Palestinian Authority there was overrun by Hamas militants, who then used Gaza as a launching pad for thousands of rocket attacks on southern Israel. A million Israelis had to go into bomb shelters. Israel was remarkably restrained. It warned Hamas time and again and finally in 2008 and 2009 made a three-week military incursion into Gaza (of course reaping criticism from all those who had said and done nothing about the terror attacks). Drawing unilateral demarcation lines in the West Bank would put all of Israel within the range of rockets. That would be intolerable. It would mean immediate war and bloodshed.
Nor would the unilateral plan put an end to Palestinian demands for a full withdrawal from the West Bank and East Jerusalem, not to mention their claim to the right of return by millions of Palestinians displaced by earlier wars. Israel would be conceding precious chips it would need in bargaining with the Palestinians. That is why so many Israelis have been wary.