Last week another chapter of Israeli-Palestinian “peace talks” began. It hasn’t gone very far yet, and it still could all break down. But for those who see a sovereign Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza as an intolerable security threat to Israel, it’s enough to induce unease.
Imagine cutting two chunks out of New Jersey, adding up to almost one-fourth of its land mass, and setting up a deeply hostile statelet in them with a population nurtured in hatred for generations. Rocket firings, sniper fire, and terror incursions are some of the problems that spring to mind. Not to mention—particularly since this “New Jersey” is in the Middle East—alliances with enemy countries, which could include inviting such countries’ armies into its territory. Collusions involving sabotage or even WMD attacks are not at all far-fetched.
True, there has always been talk of the Palestinian state being “demilitarized.” But with current, purportedly moderate Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas having said he wouldn’t tolerate the presence of a single Jew—civilian or soldier—in his state, that would leave only (presumably Jew-free) international forces to monitor the supposed demilitarization.
Israel, however, has had a long and negative history with international “peacekeepers.” The latest egregious example is the complete failure of the enlarged UNIFIL force in southern Lebanon to prevent Hezbollah from rearming itself with tens of thousands of missiles since the 2006 war.
This time, however, it’s not shallow, malleable leaders like former prime minister Ehud Olmert or former foreign minister Tzipi Livni who are engaging in the Palestinian-state talk, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with his far greater intellectual depth. One astute Israeli commentator, Israel Harel, claims Netanyahu has undergone the “conversion” and really believes in what he’s saying. It still seems more likely that Netanyahu is playing a carefully calibrated game aimed at managing the ongoing pressure from Washington. Even if so, his words further legitimize the notion of such a state and sow discomfort.
In other words, the specter of the Palestinian state may still be far off, but it’s hauntingly there at the fringes now. And in such a situation, one can only be profoundly grateful that about 300,000 Israelis now live in “settlements”—towns, villages, communities—in Judea and Samaria (the West Bank). Their presence simply makes it more difficult, perhaps even impossible, for the Palestinian state to arise. They are a natural bulwark against such a development.
In the 2005 disengagement Israel removed about 10,000 settlers from Gaza and northern Samaria. The Israeli government promised at the time that their lives would be rebuilt elsewhere in Israel, their enterprises quickly restored. As the whole country now acknowledges, this resettlement endeavor has failed miserably and many of these people have been reduced to ongoing distress.
Even if Israel were to retain the larger settlement blocs close to the 1967 borders, the number of settlers who would have to be evacuated from the West Bank—making room for the Jew-free Palestinian state—would be in the neighborhood of 100,000 or higher. Israel with its notoriously slow, difficult bureaucracy has failed at resettling 10,000 people. If one wonders how it would succeed at resettling 100,000, it is indeed a good question.
In addition to the staggering economic costs entailed, many of the settlers to be removed would belong to the more ideological element for whom living in the biblical heartland is a religious or historical calling, and would fight hard against their expulsion. In other words, a horrendous trauma of civil conflict, including violent conflict, for the people of Israel. Even some of the less ideological among the intended evacuees would likely assess that, given the experience of the Gaza settlers before them, their chances of seeing their lives rebuilt would be poor, and could well join the resisters out of sheer self-preservation.
The Palestinians now living in the semi-sovereign or highly autonomous entities of (respectively) Gaza and the West Bank number about three million (less or more depending on conflicting estimates) compared to over 300 million Arabs enjoying full sovereignty in 22 Arab states. The notion that the Gaza and West Bank Arabs’ lack of full sovereignty is an urgent international problem is not rooted in rationality but, rather, in Arab power and Western cravenness before it.
This is all the more so considering two facts. First, with all of the sovereign Arab states being dictatorships (or, at best, fragile, struggling democracies) that in any case grant only limited rights, there is no reason to expect that the Palestinian state would be different—particularly given the track record of Hamas-run Gaza and the Palestinian Authority so far. Second, a state that is Palestinian in many regards—Jordan—already exists.
With Israel’s ten-month settlement freeze due to expire on September 26 and Netanyahu having avowed several times that building in the settlements will resume at that time, it is to be hoped that it will resume at a good pace. The more Jews live in Judea and Samaria, the lower the chances of an unnecessary and dangerous Palestinian state taking shape, and the greater the chances of a true compromise someday where all groups’ rights and attachments are respected.