One way forward for the West Bank
by max socol
In the bowels of ED Kain’s most recent Israel prophecy, there’s a (pleasantly civil) debate swirling around the security implications of a West Bank withdrawal. As I mentioned there, it reminded me of speaking to Akiva Eldar, the Ha’aretz reporter and author whose anti-settlement politicking has made him a national star, of a sort.
I very much like Eldar and enjoyed his talk. He delivers a persuasive and excellent presentation on just how destructive settlements are — so good, in fact, that I dug out my old docket pad, where I scribbled the notes I took (just below, appropriately, notes from my interview with the party leader of National Union, the radical right-wing settlers’ party that wants to force Palestinians out of the West Bank.) Here they are, for those who are interested:
Israeli demographic makeup, when one includes the occupied territories (West Bank and Gaza) is today 55% Jewish, 45% Arab. By 2020, these numbers will be 52.5% Jewish, 47.5% Arab.
Excluding the occupied territories, demographic makeup today is 80% Jewish, 20% Arab. In 2020, it will be 77.2% Jewish, 22.3% Arab.
Between 1987 and 2005, 6.5 billion USD were spent on security in the occupied territories. Since 1967, the beginning of the settlement project, settlements have received 10 billion USD more in taxpayer money than communities within the ’67 borders.
- This disparity comes despite the fact that settlers make up only 4.5% of the Jewish population of Israel, and 2.2% of the total population of the West Bank.
Eldar took this moment to point out that settlements are not only unsustainable from a political/military perspective. They are also a financial boondoggle that has sapped national resources for decades – not something that supporters of Israel ought to be defending. He wrapped up with a Palestinian joke that’s sure to ruffle some feathers, though if anyone could get away with it, it’s an old sabra like Eldar.
The Israeli Prime Minister is visiting the President of the US. The President excitedly shows him legislation that he’s about to pass which will make Israel the 51st US state. Suddenly, he notices this distraught look on the PM’s face. “What’s the matter?” the President asks. “I thought you’d be happy! Aren’t you excited?”
“How could I be, sir?” the PM answers. “If you sign this legislation, we’ll only have two senators!”
So much for Eldar. Why I actually brought him up was that I intended to talk about an element that seems to be missing from Kain’s assessment. He is, as near as I can tell, (he has yet to confirm it for me in the comments section) an advocate for a unilateral withdrawal from West Bank, in imitation of what Ariel Sharon did in Gaza. I was once of this opinion, as well, having read something similar in the appendix to Tom Friedman’s From Beirut to Jerusalem.
Eldar, virulent settler-hater that he is, is not. He also hates the Gaza withdrawal, which is something that can be hard for Palestinian advocates living outside of Israel to understand on first look. So here, in a nutshell, is Eldar’s problem:
Sharon withdrew the entirety of Israel’s presence from Gaza suddenly, and unilaterally — meaning without negotiation or discussion with the Palestinian leadership. In hindsight, we can predict the results. The Palestinian Authority and its ramshackle security infrastructure were neither ready nor able to operate with the sudden absence of the IDF. This is part of a broader truth that left-leaning analysts are loathe to admit: the PA did and does depend on the IDF to a large extent for its security, and the security of its polity. This is a situation that is very, very slowly changing in the West Bank, as the US has instituted a limited training program for the PA’s paramilitary, such as it is. However, the troops themselves are wholly untested, and still very much under the IDF and the US’s control. (By way of illustration, they are required to stand down after dark at the request of the IDF, which conducts nighttime abduction operations in numerous towns and villages.)
The PA under Fatah lasted in Gaza a little less than two years before it was overthrown by Hamas, after its refusal to recognize the results of the Palestinian election. Their head of Gaza security, Mohammed Dahlan, was supposed to be an unstoppable strong-man. He fled to Egypt before fighting had really even begun, where I believe he remains.
This was the moment that ultimately discredited the Israeli left in the eyes of its constituency. Even though Kadima is a centrist party, withdrawal (“disengagement” as it’s called here) has always been understood politically as a left-wing agenda item, just as the Iraq war will be owned by Republicans despite its continuation under a Democratic president. The collapse of Gaza is seen as the ultimate proof that leaving Palestinians to their own devices will produce nothing but violence and unrest on Israel’s border. It has come to represent a repudiation of some of the left’s most basic assumptions about the way forward for Israelis and Palestinians.
Eldar maintains that Sharon saw all of this coming. That, contrary to popular perception, Sharon was not an enemy of the settler movement, but its greatest friend. He read the writing on the wall: the settlement project could not continue unimpeded in both Gaza and the West Bank — not even the Israeli polity would allow such a thing. So Sharon gave up the smaller territory to save the larger; he made use of history to vindicate a policy that otherwise appeared terminally flawed under even the barest scrutiny.
The fact that Gaza is not the West Bank matters about as much to Israelis as whether or not Sharon really did act knowingly — which is to say it doesn’t matter to them in the least. They have their object lesson. If anyone reading doubts this, allow me to refer you to Israel’s most recent election, where Labor — the left-wing party that founded the country, and supplied most of its prime ministers — came in a distant forth, a death-knell far more decisive than anything the Republicans have pulled off in the US this cycle.
Is it wise, then, to ask for more of the same in the West Bank? Today, Fatah maintains control over that territory, yet the political circumstances are similar to Gaza. There is an existent, if quiet, Hamas minority in the West Bank, well acquainted with its armed wing. Moreover, PA President Mahmoud Abbas has extended his term in office essentially by decree, and he is seen by most Palestinians as an illegitimate head-of-state well past his prime. He leads a weak government, reinforced by a weak military, all of whom are perceived as being hopelessly in bed with the Israelis.
And indeed they are. The Israeli security apparatus, a combination of undercover agents posing as Palestinians and rigorous internal checkpoints manned by armed soldiers, keep a de facto peace in the West Bank. Though perhaps no one can truly say for certain to what extent it is the Israelis who are keeping Abbas and Fatah in power, certainly there is a better than even chance that they are the deciding factor. What will happen to the remnant of Israeli support for a Palestinian state if, in the absence of the IDF, Hamas stages a successful coup in the West Bank? What will happen if they don’t even need a coup?
In such a case the peace process will not just be “stalled,” in the favored diplomat-speak. It will quite certainly be broken, and most likely for good. A new home-base for Hamas, a stones-throw from Jerusalem and Tel-Aviv, will mean the end of the chance for a Palestinian state living in peace alongside Israel — to say nothing on the strain in relations between Israel and Jordan, the latter of which will suddenly have a tremendously increased security burden, both in its treaty obligations to Israel and in its own resistance to Islamic extremism.
This is speculative, of course, but the stakes are quite high, and my instinct is that this is not the time for Israel to take such a chance, even if popular support for it existed. Yet, at the same time, Eldar’s numbers are no lie. The demographic reality in Israel demands a change, and sooner rather than later. So how might Israel somehow thread the needle, preserving the security of itself and Fatah while also beginning to scale back the settlement project?
Today, the best alternative would seem to be an immediate freeze on settlement growth, natural and otherwise. (Families upset that they cannot build another wing onto their illegal homes are invited to take a generous compensation package from the government and move somewhere within Israel’s ’67 borders.) This freeze would be followed, within the next one to two years, with a graduated evacuation of the largest settlements (with the possible exceptions of the absolute largest, such as Ma’ale Adumim, which may simply be “too big to fail”), followed by the mid-range and smaller ones farther east.
What’s important, though, is that the draw-down in settlements would not see a corresponding draw-down in military personnel and checkpoints. This would be a civilian evacuation only. The Palestinians will have to continue the degrading, sometimes harrowing experience of living their lives from ID card to ID card. It is, incredibly, the lesser of available evils.
There are more than enough settlements in the West Bank today to begin their evacuation unilaterally, as Kain suggests, in a good-faith gesture to the Palestinians in the West Bank. (A gesture they have more than earned after the absence of violence there during the Gaza war.) As evacuations continue, negotiations may be restarted in earnest over an eventual evacuation of the Israeli military presence, a process which would likely have to take place over the course of many years.
It is widely understood that, under Netanyahu’s leadership, we are unlikely to even see this much of a gesture for the next few years. But Israel’s coalition governments are often very fragile, and Bibi’s seams are already showing. If Obama truly puts pressure on Netanyahu to begin a settlement freeze and dismantlement, the Israeli Prime Minister will have no choice but to disappoint the nationalist wing of his government, and make an overture to the PA. Should that happen, there’s a reasonable chance he will lose his coalition, opening the door for Tzipi Livni’s Kadima to start to make some progress on the issue.
There is still hope to turn the settlement fiasco around, and with time to spare. But those calling for a return to moral leadership in Israel must proceed with caution when they start to make their laundry lists. Not all withdrawals are good withdrawals.