Big Ideas

It's Time to Think Creatively About Getting Settlers on the Side of Peace

10.18.13 3:15 PM ET

Putting the evacuation of settlements at the top of the priority list as part of an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal is a tactical, if not a strategic, mistake.

There is no doubt, of course, that the continued building of settlements is a serious obstacle to any progress with the peace process. Geographically, the policy continues to bite into what is supposed to be the State of Palestine. Palestinians are required to negotiate over division of the land while Israelis continue to carve it out. This is an unfair and impossible situation for the Palestinians.

Some courses of action are clear: Israel should halt all construction in the West Bank. At the very least, it needs to halt construction of new settlements and halt the expansion of existing settlements’ borders. However, the issue of what to do about existing settlers does not have as clear a solution.

The same speakers often make conflicting statements on this issue. At the last U.N. General Assembly, we heard President Mahmoud Abbas re-stating his claim:

The objective of the negotiations is to secure a lasting peace accord that leads immediately to the establishment of the independence of a fully sovereign State of Palestine, with East Jerusalem as its capital, on all of the Palestinian lands occupied in 1967, so that it may live in peace and security alongside the State of Israel [and resolve] of the plight of Palestine refugees…

Note that there is no mention of removal of settlements. In most cases, making Palestine “Juden Rein” has not been the demand of the Palestinian Authority. While the settlers are an obvious problem and source of tension, expulsion is not part of the PA platform.

The settlers themselves must also be considered. Some among them are indeed dangerous and see themselves as above the law. Though they represent a small minority, they are loud, violent, and messianic. As negotiations (hopefully) proceed, this minority will become increasingly intent on throwing a wrench into the gears of the talks; as the past shows us, the consequences could be disastrous. This must be avoided at all costs, and it is the responsibility of the Israeli government and the Israeli internal security agency—the Shabak—to prevent any disruption. There is very little that supporters of peace can do except for calling upon the Israeli government to continue and to intensify its war on Jewish terrorists in the same way that it does with Palestinian ones.

So what about demanding evacuation of settlements themselves? Can this be, and should it be, a demand coming from a progressive Jewish peace lobby? In J Street’s new “The 2 Campaign,” the petition advocates for the evacuation of “…one in five settlers.” That is an estimated 125,000 settlers, some 30,000 homes—15 times the withdrawal (if not to say uprooting) from Gush Katif. Though the Zionist left relishes opportunities to criticize and punish settlers, can we really be aloof about the uprooting of 125,000 people? These are citizens who were put there by past Israeli governments, both on the right and the left.

The bottom line is that it is actually not Israel’s job to call for this. It is something that the Palestinians could, and perhaps should, demand around the negotiation table. That is where it should be resolved.

On the strategic level, there is a much greater question: do we think that a two-state solution—which prevents Jewish access to some of the holiest sites (Hebron, Shilo, Beit El, Joseph’s tomb etc.) and which prevents Palestinian access to all the places from which they were deported or fled—is one that will provide us with a sustainable solution to the conflict? This is a very important question, one that is sadly not receiving enough attention. If we think, in fact, that it will not provide this solution, then the issue of removing settlements must be revisited. There is, potentially, an interesting deal to be made.

There is no doubt that two nation states must exist. Israel and Palestine will live side by side, with the capitals of Israel and Palestine formed from the respective Jewish and Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem. We will find the right formula for the holy basin. The stumbling blocks are not security, but rather the refugees and—you guessed it—the settlers.

Here, allow me to resort to playing with some numbers. The most important issue for the Jews is a stable “eternal” Jewish majority in Israel. In the above deal, 340,000 East Jerusalem Palestinians would cease to be potential Israeli citizens and would become Palestinian citizens. To resolve the right of return, Israel could accept, say, 200,000 Palestinian refugees into Israel proper. The number represents the actual number of the original refugees of 1948 who are still alive. The number must be absolute, i.e. if an original refugee does not want to return, the right would be given to someone else by the Palestinian Authority. Any other return of a Palestinian would be to Palestine alone. In return for this, Jewish settlers living deep within the West Bank (roughly 125,000 people) could remain in their homes as residents of Palestine and citizens of Israel. In such a scenario, settlement blocks would be annexed to Israel and 1:1 land swaps would compensate the Palestinians. Thus, we turn the de facto situation into a de jure one, and ensure freedom of movement.

This brings us to the critical task of lobbying and advocacy for peace among Israelis. A two-state solution with freedom of movement, which does not require uprooting of settlers, enables those of us in the peace camp to reach out to the Right and to build a new peace coalition. Even within the religious right, there is a growing understanding that they have completely ignored the edict from Psalms 34, bakesh shalom ve’radfehu (ask for peace and pursue it). The right and the settlers are not a monolithic group. Getting more of them on the side of peace should be our goal. Removing the immediate threat of uprooting could do just that. We cannot simply try again and again a strategy that has failed and expect it miraculously to work. Creativity and innovation are urgently needed. Herein lies the paradigm shift to a just and sustainable peace and an integration of Israel into the region.