On an unusually mild morning in late February, Ami Ayalon sat down for breakfast at the Helmsley Hotel in New York and said something that has been unmentionable in Israeli politics for nearly a decade: The Jewish state should unilaterally leave parts of the West Bank and relocate settlers across the Green Line.
Ayalon, 66 and bald as a rock, has the athletic build you might expect of a former Navy commander-in-chief and head of the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service. For years he was seen as a possible successor to Yitzhak Rabin, the Labor Party leader who was assassinated in 1995. But Ayalon fell short of expectations, losing to Ehud Barak in the 2007 party elections.
Now, with the Israeli left and center in disarray, the peace process stalled, and talk of a preemptive strike against Iran driving the bulk of political discourse, Ayalon and others are trying to play to the center and re-ignite the peace process through a movement called Blue White Future, founded in 2010. In January the group released a paper calling for Israel to reevaluate its aversion to unilateralism, which has been pervasive since former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon decided to pull the Israeli military and settlers out of Gaza in 2005.
“I used to say that fear is probably the most important concept of feeling,” he said amid the clangor of forks and knives. “But at a certain point in time, a level of fear does not let us seize opportunities.”
More than a year after the Arab Spring began, the power dynamics of the Middle East have changed, as public opinion has become much more important in places like Egypt, Jordan, and even Saudi Arabia.
“It will be almost impossible for leaders to come to the people and tell them ‘OK, we are going to join forces with America and Europe,’” Ayalon said, “if they do not show progress on the Israeli-Palestinian question.”
Making progress on that question has proven especially difficult lately. The Palestinian leadership remains weak and divided, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition seems perfectly content with the status quo. When President Barack Obama met with Netanyahu at the White House last week, the lukewarm allies spoke about Iran’s nuclear program and the possibility of a preemptive strike. The two-state solution was lost in the mix.
“The Iranian issue has sucked all the oxygen out of the room,” says David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Ayalon agreed, noting that the political reality has changed. “We went backwards,” he said. “[Mahmoud Abbas] today cannot give us what he thought he could two years ago.” He added that Netanyahu “will not offer what Ehud Olmert offered.” Olmert, a centrist who preceded Netanyahu, came close to forging a peace deal with Abbas in 2008, but was forced out of office due to corruption charges.
This regression has come at a critical time for Israel, not only because of increased tension with Iran, but because, Ayalon says, Israel cannot maintain a Jewish and democratic state while continuing to occupy the West Bank, where Palestinians lack the same basic rights as their Israeli counterparts.
“Until now, everybody who wanted to see some progress believed in direct negotiations,” Ayalon said. “We need a new paradigm.”
The fact that Ayalon and other Blue White Future co-founders have come forward with their plan at all—in an environment where any advocacy of unilateralism has been political suicide—shows just how dismal the state of Israeli-Palestinian relations really are.
In order to move toward a two-state solution based on Israel’s 1967 borders with mutual land swaps, Blue White Future’s plan calls for Israel to start relocating and absorbing about one-fifth of the estimated half a million Jewish settlers from the West Bank into Israel proper, as part of an overarching process of unilateral moves.
The first step would be to offer compensation to those settlers who would return voluntarily, and to stop all new settlement construction on the eastern side of the barrier in the West Bank and in the Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem.
Regardless of money, many settlers will be ideologically opposed to this path, as the dream of a Greater Israel still holds sway. Orni Petruschka, a high-tech entrepreneur and Blue White Future co-founder, admits that close to half of the estimated 120,000 settlers living east of the barrier would likely protest, and a few thousand might take up arms.
Even within Israel proper, there is still considerable wariness about unilateralism—at least among elected officials. Analysts say that the Jewish state’s decision to unilaterally withdraw from Gaza in 2005 was perceived by many to have empowered militants and jeopardized Israeli security, making Israeli cities vulnerable to rocket attacks. Earlier this month, for instance, militants loyal to Islamic Jihad in Gaza fired rockets into Israel, though the damage was largely contained by Israel’s new Iron Dome missile-defense system.
“Gaza really drove the nail in the coffin of unilateralism,” says James Phillips, a Middle East analyst at the Heritage Foundation. “It ... exposed the degree to which there were very optimistic assumptions behind the withdrawal that made the situation even worse.”
There is a similar degree of skepticism from Palestinians, who see red flags in Blue White Future’s call for increased building on the western side of the fence, and for a continued military presence in the east until the settlers leave. The barrier remains a source of considerable anger; by removing the settlements in the east but allowing those west of it to grow, are to some observers merely part of an Israeli attempt to define borders in their favor.
“Unilateralism has never worked,” said Dr. Hanan Ashrawi, a Palestinian activist and legislator. “The only good thing I see about this is perhaps it’s an indicator some people in Israel finally see the dangers of settlements. But whether they are east or west of the wall, the settlements—and the wall—are illegal.”
Others say Blue White Future’s plan is a good one in theory, but has little practical chance of gaining momentum.
“Many settlers are there for economic reasons,” said Daniel Levy, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, “but I don’t think it’s a proposition that’s going to tip the balance of how the Knesset may look next time around.”
And because a similar plan to offer settlers money to return to Israel proper never made it out of cabinet meetings in Olmert’s centrist government, the chances of it happening under Netanyahu's are “absolutely zero,” Levy said.
Despite continued skepticism, Ayalon and Petruschka say there are clear positives to their strategy. Based on time they’ve spent analyzing surveys and talking to settlers, they estimate that more than 20 percent of those living east of the fence would voluntarily return. And if the Israeli public were to pass a referendum, which Ayalon and Petruschka believe is possible, the country might avoid the type of violence that occurred after the Gaza pullout, which was not subject to a public vote.
Ayalon and Petruschka say that the image of tens of thousands of Israelis moving out of the West Bank—if done in a way that doesn’t imply that the barrier will define the future of borders—could be a potent symbol.
Thus far, Blue White Future has attracted a motley left-center coalition of former military officials, veteran negotiators, and former politicians, including Dalia Rabin, daughter of the late Israeli prime minister. And while Israeli politicians may be wary, recent polling suggests substantial public support for Blue White Future’s goals. A December poll conducted by the Hebrew University and the Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace found that 58 percent of Israelis and 50 percent of Palestinians support a two-state solution based on the parameters laid out by former President Bill Clinton. The Clinton plan called for, among other things, a divided Jerusalem and an Israeli withdrawal from most of the West Bank. In 2003 only 47% of Israelis and 39% of Palestinians supported this proposal.
Ultimately, however, the success of Blue White Future’s campaign may depend on what happens after the U.S. presidential elections in November. Right now, it’s widely believed that the peace process is on hold, in part due to that contest. Where it will stand afterwards is anyone’s guess.
Ayalon is guessing—or perhaps hoping—that in the end, all but the most militant settlers will agree to come back.
“The settlers were sent by all our governments,” he said. “In a way they won this battle for us. Many of them of course do not accept our ideas, [and] it will be very painful. But if they will have to choose whether to stay part of the Jewish people or to fight for the land, they will prefer to be part of the Jewish people.”