Ambassador Oren’s talk of unilateral Israeli withdrawal is neither new nor smart.
The Israeli political Left is perilously anxious. The same people who once sold us Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas as peace partners are now telling us that peace with the Palestinians is probably impossible yet the existing situation is unacceptable. Therefore, they now say, unilateral withdrawal from part or all of the West Bank is Israel’s best/only remaining course of action, and it is urgent.
In the Left’s newfangled political parlance, unilateral withdrawal is being giving a heroic shine. It involves “acting boldly to set Israel’s borders without being hostage to the Palestinians;” “making peace without (Palestinian) partners;” tearing down settlements in the distant reaches of the West Bank in order to “signal” to the world that our government is “serious” about compromise; “showing” America that Israel is not interested in “forever being an occupying power”; and so forth.
In Ambassador Michael Oren’s thinking, unilateral Israeli withdrawal is elevated even further and accorded almost angelic status. “I would supplant the word unilateralism with Zionism,” Oren gushes. “One good definition of Zionism is Jews taking their destiny in their hands… We do not outsource our fundamental destiny to Palestinian decision making.”
Ambassador Oren’s over-the-top salesmanship of Plan B (– unilateral withdrawal as “the Zionist option”!) suggests that he knows that Mahmoud Abbas won’t settle with Israel. “I believe the Palestinians have never indicated a willingness to meet our minimum requirements, which are recognition of Israel’s permanence and legitimacy as a Jewish state and end of claims and end of conflict,” Oren admits.
Alas, the only thing new about Oren’s “Plan B” is the sad adding of his important voice to the emerging, dodgy mindset of unilateralism. Others already are into detailed planning for unilateral Israeli withdrawal from most of Judea and Samaria.
Former IDF Military Intelligence chief Maj. Gen. (res.) Amos Yadlin, who now heads Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), also says that if peace talks with the Palestinians fail – and he assesses that they will – Israel should withdraw unilaterally from 85 percent of the West Bank. This will “advance Israel towards a two-state situation, even if there is no two-state solution,” he and his colleagues wrote in their annual strategic assessment. Such a withdrawal will improve Israel’s demographic and international situation, Yadlin contends, and will supposedly gain Israel “the ability to be firmer on the Iranian subject and get the United States on board.”
Oren similarly argues (without a shred of logical evidence) that unilateral withdrawal would “help take the wind out of the growing BDS movement, particularly in Europe.”
At previous INSS conferences, former defense ministers Ehud Barak and Shaul Mofaz also touted unilateral Israeli action. “We are on borrowed time,” Barak said in June 2012. “We will reach a wall, and we’ll pay the price. If it isn’t possible to reach a permanent agreement with the Palestinians, we must consider an interim arrangement or even a unilateral move.”
Last year, Barak’s former bureau chief, Gilad Sher presented an INSS team report entitled “The Palestinian Issue: Toward a Reality of Two States” which also advocated unilateral Israeli withdrawal. And Sher is co-chairman of an organization called “Blue White Future” which is pushing a “compensation law” that would provide payment to tens of thousands of settlers for leaving their West Bank homes.
I say that Israel should reject such desperate, dangerous and illogical proposals for unilateral withdrawal. Unilateral withdrawal won’t bring security or peace to Israel. It won’t even provide Israel with “diplomatic legitimacy” or breathing room, as its adherents claim. Rather, as the Lebanon and Gaza precedents prove, unilateral Israel withdrawal guarantees continuation of the conflict and even its escalation.
Consider: The Yadlin and Oren plans both speak of unilateral Israeli action to re-draw the map of settlement in Judea and Samaria (i.e., to expel Israelis from their homes). But this would not bring diplomatic quiet. It would only encourage Palestinian maximalism. The Palestinians would (once again) discover that there is no reason to compromise with Israel on any issue (borders, settlements, Jerusalem, refugees, recognition), since Israelis will eventually tear themselves down and out of the West Bank, anyway. All they (the Palestinians) need to do is sit tight, remain intransigent, and demand more.
Thus, it makes no sense to dangle before Mahmoud Abbas the hope that Israel will, out of desperation, unilaterally withdraw.
Furthermore, withdrawal from the heights of Judea and Samaria without real peace and security would be a very risky move. We’re not talking about the relatively isolated and distant Gaza Strip, but the heartland of Israel in close proximity to our two biggest population centers: greater Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Yadlin and Oren respond to this by asserting that even after a unilateral withdrawal the IDF would remain positioned in the West Bank at key strategic junctures and installations.
But this of course turns the whole unilateral withdrawal proposal into rank nonsense. The Palestinians and much of the world would contend that the “occupation” continues (just as they do with regard to Gaza, even today, where Israeli troops just ring the border). And worse yet still, this would turn the West Bank into southern Lebanon.
Everybody remembers, I hope, just how badly Israel’s “security zone” in southern Lebanon worked out. Our forces there had no legitimacy whatsoever, brought us sustained international opprobrium, and suffered heavy casualties. That’s exactly what would befall the rump Israeli troop presence in the West Bank once our civilian settlements were unilaterally torn down and out of the area.
Prime Minister Netanyahu should ignore his former ambassador’s new/old ideas for unilateral Israeli withdrawal. He should resist the temptation to buy fleeting international approval (and perhaps purchase short-term domestic political gain) by sacrificing the country’s long-term strategic needs and most fundamental diplomatic principles. Instead, Israel should sit tight and wait out the Palestinians until they crawl back to the real peace negotiating table with mature leaders and realistic expectations.
In the meantime, Israel needs perseverance, not impatience, from its diplomats.