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.
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.
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?
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."
Obviously a unilateral approach is not the best answer. A pullout would best be organized in coordination with the Palestinian Authority. But if the Palestinians remain inert, Israel must concentrate its presence in the major settlement blocs while not allowing new settlements to develop elsewhere. Most Israelis accept that Zionism is better expressed in a Jewish democratic state and not necessarily in the total earth of what is referred to as the Holy Land. Two great leaders, Theodor Herzl, the father of Zionism, and David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, believed in a Jewish democratic state that was dependent on a territory where the Jews are a majority. Partitioning was the original logic of the drive to statehood, and it is still its only recourse.
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