In politics, like in most things, the optimal solution probably lies somewhere in the middle. This truism has been weighing on me ever since I watched Daniel Gordis and Peter Beinart debate a couple of weeks ago. In the course of the debate, two points stood out to me; taken together they appear to lead in one direction.
Early in the debate, Daniel Gordis pointed out that it is a mistake to speak about the settlements as if they were one unit. Some settlements are very large, and some are very small; some are on the outskirts of demographically Jewish cities and some are in the middle of demographically Arab cities. Although one may believe that all of these places—or none of them—should be given to the Palestinians in a settlement, it must be admitted that each type poses different challenges. Gordis argued that stopping settlement growth altogether, with no nuance and no exceptions, would signal to the Palestinians that they can receive their maximum land request without the need to make any concessions. This would only encourage the radical Palestinian opposition to make more extreme demands and concede nothing.
Peter Beinart argued strongly that no matter what one thinks of the honorable or dishonorable intentions of the Palestinian leadership or the need for an indefinite army presence in the West Bank, it makes no sense for the Israeli government to continue to support settlement growth and encourage its citizens to move to an area which will have to be given up if there is to be a two-state solution at any point in the future. Assuming one believes in a two-state solution, as Prime Minister Netanyahu has claimed to, how can settlement expansion be understood as anything other than effectively undermining this position? Why invest in settlement growth if one believes these same settlements will need to be dismantled in the (hopefully) near future? Beinart believes that it is the disingenuous claim of belief in a two-state solution while simultaneously building up the settlements that is undermining Israel’s credibility, at least among those who are not closet anti-Zionists.
Each of these arguments seems to have merit, and taken together, they point to a middle ground. Assuming one believes that Israel must maintain its democratic character as well as its Jewish character, a two-state solution would seem to be the inevitable end goal. In whatever form one envisions the final borders of a Palestinian state, it would unquestionably have to be on contiguous land. Considering this, Beinart’s claim would seem to be correct, at least regarding some of the settlements: any land that would of necessity be part of the future Palestinian state should not be settled, and if it is already settled, it should not be expanded. In fact, maybe it should even be dismantled.
On the other hand, there seems to be no moral imperative to give the Palestinians all of the West Bank: the land was won in a defensive war and Israel has every right to keep it. The reason Israel cannot reasonably choose to keep it, as it has for the Golan Heights for instance, is because there are millions of Palestinians living on this land who cannot be made citizens, since granting them citizenship would undo the Jewish majority demographic.
Following Gordis’s analysis that capitulating to Palestinian demands without a negotiated settlement only encourages extremist behavior on the part of the Palestinians, and following Beinart’s point that building on land that cannot possibly remain Israeli in any two-state solution is disingenuous as well as senseless, I suggest a compromise position.
Israel does not wish to rule over West-Bank Palestinians, but the borders of a future Palestinian state are unclear. In the absence of a negotiated settlement to determine the borders, Israel will determine tentative borders that will be in its own interest. Anything inside these new borders will be settled, and settlements outside these borders will be dismantled, although an Israeli military presence will remain if necessary. At a certain point, the area of the new settlements will be annexed to Israel; the rest of the West Bank—a contiguous area—will eventually become a Palestinian State, once a treaty is signed or Israel determines that it would be safe to allow this.
This suggestion is actually an updated version of what was once known as the Allon Plan. In 1967, when the West Bank was taken from Jordan, Yigal Allon prophetically claimed that it would be impossible for Israel to keep the West Bank for demographic reasons. (Apparently, foresight is sometimes twenty-twenty.) He therefore suggested that Israel annex a buffer zone around its main population areas and give the rest back to Jordan. Although Israel did not give the land back, settlements were built only along the Allon road and in his buffer region — until the messianic movement Gush Emunim gained ascendance in Israeli policy and pushed the building of settlements in demographically Palestinian areas. I suggest we turn back the clock to predate the Gush Emunim ideology.
To be clear, I am not advocating for the Allon Plan map, but for Israel to devise its own back-up territorial plan, in the spirit of Yigal Allon’s insight, but taking into account recent political and territorial developments. Building in the buffer zone puts pressure on the Palestinian authorities, since facts on the ground will be established that will be difficult—although not impossible—to change. Stopping settlement expansion, or even dismantling settlements, in the remaining parts of the West Bank would demonstrate that Israel really does intend to allow Palestinian self-rule on contiguous territory in the future, once doing so is determined to be safe. Dismantling these settlements would also lessen the Israeli army’s presence in demographically Palestinian territory, easing tensions, somewhat, between the two populations.
For those who believe in the Two-State Solution there is still room for reasonable people to disagree about borders and tactics. One need not accept my suggestion, but it appears to me that abandoning the settlements in demographically Palestinian areas while continuing to build in a buffer strip until a negotiated peace settlement is reached strikes the right balance. The key is to maintain the two pillars of the Beinart-Gordis debate: It is both senseless and disingenuous to build on land that must inevitably become part of Palestine, but it is counter-productive to encourage the extreme elements of the Palestinians by giving up the entire West Bank without a negotiated settlement.