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How to Deflate the Settlements as an Issue

Settlers shouldn’t get to decide the future of the country and the fate of its two peoples
Professor Alexander Yakobson is a Research Fellow of the Kogod Research Center at the Shalom Hartman Institute and Associate Professor of Ancient History at the Hebrew University and a scholar of democracy, popular politics, public opinion and elections in the ancient world. Prof. Yakobson holds a Master’s Degree and a Doctorate in ancient history from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and previously taught at the University of Haifa. In 1999, he published Elections and Electioneering

It is widely assumed that every new house built for settlers in the West Bank is another nail in the coffin of the two-state solution. The settlers and their supporters are naturally happy to encourage this impression. The political price that Israel is paying for this internationally is huge. People look at the map of settlements and say to us: You can’t be serious when you claim – as Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu does – that you support a two-state solution.
The expansion of settlements goes far beyond any settlement blocs near the Green Line that might conceivably become part of Israel under a negotiated deal, and the number of settlers there is far higher than on previous occasions when Israel evacuated settlements in Sinai and in Gaza. Many believe that we are fast approaching – if we have not already passed – the point of no return, when the two-state solution becomes infeasible. Some are driven by this assessment to consider the one-state option; others are only too happy to do so precisely because it is obvious that this “one state” will not be Israel.
But all this is based on the assumption that expanding settlements is tantamount, on Israel’s part, to eating up the areas where the building is taking place and removing them from the territory of the future Palestinian state. That, of course, is the intention behind the settlement drive. But why should supporters of the two-state solution go along with the settlers’ intentions? Let us assume that they are now too numerous to be removed; does this fact also give them the right to determine forever the political status of the areas where they live? By what title can they lay claim to this, the mother of all unprecedented privileges? And if we are talking about real peace, why can’t there be a Jewish minority in a Palestinian state? The future peace treaty will draw a border between two independent states – Israel and Palestine. The treaty should recognize the right of those Jews who will find themselves on the Palestinian side of the border to continue living there – not under some extraterritorial regime, but as a minority under Palestinian sovereignty.
Nobody will have to be dragged from their homes, and nobody will be able to prevent the IDF from withdrawing to Israel’s recognized boundaries. Many of the people in question will, no doubt, choose to move to Israel – but this will be their choice.
Will such a solution be acceptable to the Palestinians? There have been indications that it may be, provided that Palestinian sovereignty is ensured. Palestinian representatives have repeatedly said that no settlers will be allowed to remain in the future Palestinian state. But under the scenario suggested here, these people will no longer be “settlers.” The Palestinians will face no demographic problem in their state – the overwhelming Arab majority there is guaranteed. Most settlers will, under territorial swaps that can realistically be envisaged, find themselves in Israel. There is no telling how many Jews would choose to remain under Palestinian sovereignty. This would depend on the atmosphere that prevails when the peace treaty is signed, which is difficult to predict today.
The problem of land grab presented by the settlements results not from houses where people live, which cover only a minuscule part of the West Bank, but from the wide municipal boundaries assigned to the settlements by Israel, and from the “security perimeters” around them. Under Palestinian sovereignty, these matters will naturally be up to the Palestinian authorities.
Moreover, the dwelling places in question will no longer be purely Jewish.
The infrastructure for the settlements built by Israel, including roads, will present a significant economic boon to the Palestinian state.
Will Jews be able to live under Palestinian sovereignty? It is true that precedents for Jews living under Arab sovereignty, in the decades since Israel’s independence, are not encouraging: No Jewish community has been able to survive anywhere in the Arab world. The Zionist state, which is accused of being intrinsically predisposed to ethnic cleansing, is the only place in the Middle East where Jews and Arabs live together in considerable numbers.
Of course, what happened to Jews in Arab countries was influenced by the conflict. But what happened to Arabs in this country was also influenced by the conflict, which after all, raged here, and not in Baghdad or Alexandria.
But apart from the fact that Israel will be close by and its borders open to any Jew, we are talking about peace. The Palestinian government, under the scenario discussed here, will be one that will have signed a peace treaty with Israel, exposing itself to the inevitable charges of betrayal by Palestinian extremists (above all, on the issue of the right of return). It will be vitally interested in turning the Palestinian state into a success story, and, hence, in preventing attacks against its Jewish inhabitants. Of course, there is no foolproof guarantee against acts of terrorism.
Nor is there a guarantee against acts of terrorism and violence by Jewish extremists. But the greatest danger of Jewish terrorism against Palestinians, in an aggravated version of the notorious “price tag” attacks, is probably presented by the scenario of a wide-scale forcible removal of settlers.
The option suggested here raises various questions that would have to be sorted out. But it seems to be the only way, at this point, of deflating the issue of settlements and turning it into simply one of the issues to be resolved, rather than being, as it is widely perceived today, a threatening shadow over the chance of ever achieving a solution that realizes the right of both peoples to national independence.
Today’s settlers may in the end be able to go on living in Judea and Samaria – there is no reason why they shouldn’t, but they should not get to decide, at their sole discretion, the future of the country and the fate of its two peoples.
Posted originally on the Jerusalem Post

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