Fresh Thinking

How the West Bank Settlements Can Bring About Peace

David Biale outlines an original solution for peace in the Middle East.

Marco Longari / AFP / Getty Images

President Obama's recent speech in Jerusalem laid out a convincing case of why peace between the Israelis and Palestinians is necessary, just, and possible. But the speech contained scant reference to an issue that all sides acknowledge is the major stumbling block to a real agreement: The status of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. It is therefore time for some fresh thinking on the issue of settlements, and I have a proposal: Allow the settlements to remain, but at a price that will promote a peace settlement.

For the last two decades, it was assumed that a settlement would result in the dismantling of most of the more isolated settlements and the retention of a number of large settlement blocs, perhaps with land swaps to compensate the Palestinian state. However, with the ascendant power of the settlers and their supporters in Israel’s present governing coalition, it seems increasingly unlikely that the parties can arrive at this resolution.

The following proposal recognizes one of the central claims of the settlers: That Jews should have the right to live anywhere in the historic Land of Israel. But it simultaneously recognizes the claim of Palestinians and the Israeli peace movement that the settlement project of successive Israeli governments since the 1970s is both legally dubious and founded on the injustices of military occupation. Finally, it addresses the Palestinian demand for “the right of return” of refugees while simultaneously protecting Israel’s Jewish majority.

How is it possible to resolve all these contradictory claims? Here’s how: Through a peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians that would allow all settlers currently in the West Bank to remain (and would even allow other Jews to move there), while offsetting them with Palestinian refugees who would be allowed to settle in Israel.

Jews living in West Bank settlements would continue to be Israeli citizens (they would vote in elections, serve in the army and so forth). After an agreed upon period, Palestinian law would apply everywhere in the State of Palestine. There is nothing particularly remarkable here since many countries treat their expatriates as full citizens. For example, U.S. citizens living abroad can vote by absentee ballot but are subject to the laws of the countries in which they live.

But—and here is the price of the settlements—for every settler who remains in—or moves to—the West Bank, a Palestinian refugee would be allowed to settle in pre-1967 Israel, thus partially satisfying the Palestinian claim to a “right of return.” Based on statistics from 2012 of the number of settlers in the West Bank, some 350,000 Palestinians would immigrate to Israel proper, whether from the West Bank or the Palestinian diaspora. Each side would be responsible for providing police protection for the “settlers” within their respective territories. Since each country would have a sizable group of non-citizens within its borders, each would be motivated to provide this protection, if only to make sure that its own citizens living across the border would also be protected.

Naturally, it would be in the interest of each side to reduce as much as possible these expatriate populations, so each would be motivated to offer generous financial incentives for its citizens living “abroad” to repatriate themselves. Beyond the actions of governments, Jewish settlers and Palestinian refugees would have their own nationalistic reasons to relocate within their respective states because doing so would reduce the number of the other living in one’s own state. This incentive is based on the current hostility of substantial majorities on each side to living in true multiethnic, multireligious states. However, in the long run, if such a peace agreement is successful, today’s desire to maintain ethnic hegemony may wane.

There are, of course, many potential land mines lying in wait. The thorny problem of Jerusalem would require some kind of similar legerdemain, possible designating certain Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem as part of Israel and others as settlements. The equally thorny problem of Hamas-ruled Gaza would also require a solution, although one might hope that significant movement toward a real agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority would paint Hamas into a corner, ultimately leading it to moremoderate policies and acceptance of peaceful coexistence with Israel.

It may be that the Israeli settlement project has doomed the two-state solution, at least as it has been conceived for the last two decades. But if Israelis and Palestinians can, on the one hand, simultaneously accept the settlements while creating incentives for their removal, and at the same time affirm the Palestinian refugees right of return while creating incentives for them to settle in the State of Palestine, then the settlements may turn out not to be an impediment to peace—but its catalyst.