An Intriguing New Mideast Peace Proposal

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak has an interesting idea.

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The central goal of the founding of Israel was to provide the Jewish people with an opportunity to be in sovereign control of their own destiny. The Israelis understood it was in their interest to agree to the 1948 partition separating a Jewish state from the Arab state, which implicitly required separating the Israeli Jewish population from the 2.5 million Arabs occupying the West Bank. Similarly, without a separation, Israel's strategic and political objectives of being a democracy and a Jewish state would be undermined by the burgeoning Arab birth rate.

The concept of separation has long been a part of Israeli public policy. Remember that when Egyptian President Anwar Sadat offered peace in exchange for the Sinai, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, a hard-line politician, handed the Sinai back to Egypt and evacuated some 2,500 Israelis from Sinai settlements. He recognized that the ostensible right of Jews to settle anywhere in the land of Israel was subordinate to the greater objective of Jewish sovereignty in a state. Similarly, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his colleagues concluded that holding on to Gaza was a fundamental threat to a Jewish state.

Getting out of most of the West Bank was not an ideological retreat from Zionism. In fact, it was a means of gaining democratic statehood for the goal of secular Zionism, which was to establish a Jewish democratic state rather than control of the whole of the Holy Land.

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The real problem had been Palestinian terrorism in the form of dozens of suicide bombings. This is what forced the Israelis to build and complete their security fence in 2003. This is what caused Israel's security service Shin Bet and the Israeli Defense Forces in the West Bank to focus on suppressing terrorism. And that is why the IDF would have to stay in some part of the West Bank for a period of time even after the settlers leave.

Barak's proposal has the virtue of focusing Israel's concentration on the major settlement blocs while discountenancing further settlements elsewhere, particularly if they are embedded in an overall Palestinian population. The goal is a secular Zionism as a means to democratic statehood.

There is ample precedent. As prime minister, Ehud Barak offered the Palestinians through Yasser Arafat 94 percent of the West Bank. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert a decade later proposed 93.6 percent of the land, topped off by a one-to-one land swap for the remainder. Settlements do not rule out an eventual Palestinian state. Yet the Obama administration made that harder to achieve when it put settlements at the center of U.S. policy for the first time. In 2009, the president called for a complete construction freeze in the West Bank and East Jerusalem as a prerequisite to Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, which simply provoked both sides. The Israelis rejected the freeze and the Palestinians took a total settlement freeze as a prerequisite to negotiation: How could they ask for less than Washington had asked?

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Now, even more critically, the Palestinians have linked with the radical Hamas, so they no longer present a single negotiating position. They now have duplicate prime ministers, security services, foreign patrons, and visions of where Palestine is going. Without one authority and one negotiation, it is almost impossible to have a productive dialogue on any issue. Abbas has not helped by asserting that there would be no peace unless the Jews were "evacuated from Jerusalem, our holy city and the eternal capital of our state." He must know it is a black lie utterly unhelpful to the process when he says Israel's "purpose is to achieve its black goals: destroying Al Aqsa Mosque, building the 'alleged Temple,' taking over the Muslim and Christian holy sites, and destroying Jerusalem's institutions in order to empty it, uproot its residents, and continue its occupation and Judaization."