In a speech on the first day of the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon recognized that the withdrawal was painful, but he accepted it as “good for Israel in any future scenario”. He postulated that “the world is waiting for the Palestinian response – a hand stretched out to peace or the fire of terror.”
The takeover of Gaza by Hamas, tens of thousands of rocket attacks on Israel from Gaza, and three wars later, it is obvious to everyone that Sharon’s strategy was misguided. Instead of seizing this opportunity for peace, the Palestinians decided to use Gaza as a base for terror. Sharon’s fundamental principle was however very sound. Israel needs to get out of the endless settlements controversies, and it needs to “be free to turn to closing social gaps and to waging a real fight on poverty” and to “advance education and increase the personal security of every citizen in the country”.
Sharon’s mistake was not in removing settlers from Gaza. His mistake was in withdrawing the IDF as well. As much as one wishes that the occupation of Gaza and the West Bank would end, the reality is that the Palestinians have not reached the political maturity required to build a state that respects its citizens’ human rights and economic needs and its neighbour’s right to peace and security. However, the occupation does not need to include unwanted Jewish settlers.
Prospects for Peace
The U.S. and Europe have been promoting the naïve notion that peace can be negotiated between Israel and the current Palestinian administration. This ignores obvious realities that one must be mentally blind not to see. Palestinian culture is still very much based on hating Israel, and President Mahmoud Abbas, assuming that he even wants peace, which is hardly a given, has practically no legitimacy as President and has no authority over Gaza. If a Palestinian state was created today, it would quickly be taken over by Hamas, either by vote or by force.
The settlements in the West Bank, however, while legitimate and justifiable in many ways (Israel’s Controversial Settlements in the West Bank), are reducing every day the likelihood that Israel can survive as a Jewish state. If a peace agreement is reached, 10 years, 20 years, or 100 years from now, what will become of the Jews living in the West Bank? The idea of forcibly removing Jews from the West Bank becomes more difficult and unpleasant every day that passes. Of course Jews could become citizens of Palestine, and in an ideal world they would, but no one seriously expects it to happen; the Israel / Arab conflict started due to Arab antisemitism, and that antisemitism is as virulent today as ever.
If the settlements continue to grow in the West Bank, Israel will eventually be forced to annex the West Bank and give full citizenship to all its residents. This would result in much weaker hold of Jews on the state of Israel. Slowly this would erode the Jewish nature of Israel, eventually leading to the cancelation of the law of return, spelling the end of Israel as a Jewish state. Israel must not allow itself to drift into this scenario, but if it continues on its current course, this is inevitable.
While the concept that Jews should be able to return to Judea and Samaria (from which they were expelled in 1948 or earlier) is valid and morally defensible, it is in contradiction with Israel’s firm stand that Palestinian refugees will not be relocated in Israel. The West Bank settlements are not recognized as a wise policy by anyone in the world except some Christian fundamentalists and a minority of Israelis. The settlements are continuously increasing the divide between Israel and its friends in Europe and North America, including and perhaps especially Jews. Israel must not continue this destructive policy.
What Israel Must Do
To survive as a Jewish state, Israel must do the following:
- Define its border with the West Bank based on its security needs and based on including as many settlements as possible within Israel’s borders. The borders should be adjusted in both directions to allow for land swaps as previously proposed by Israel.
- Although it is a question for Israelis and Jews to decide, I expect that all of Jerusalem would be within the borders of Israel. Jerusalem is likely too important for Jews to give away, even if this were to make the possibility of peace easier in the long term.
- Israelis who find themselves on the Palestinian side of the border, whether Jews or Arabs, should be given the choice of either moving to Israel or losing their Israeli citizenship. Due to Israel’s law of return, Jews who lose their citizenship would obviously be able to gain it back if they change their mind later.
- Israel should continue to militarily occupy the West Bank, but only for security reasons, not for the purpose of building settlements. The occupation would end only when Palestinians are ready to make peace with Israel and act as a responsible and peaceful neighbour.
- Israel should notify Hamas and the world that any further attacks from Gaza would result in an Israeli invasion of Gaza and its occupation. Similarly to the West Bank, the occupation would continue until peace is achieved.
Strength and Clarity
If Israel does this, it would be asserting its security needs, but at the same time it would be sending a clear message to the world, and particularly to Palestinians, that Israel’s only objective is a strong and secure Jewish state, and that Israel is not interested in long-term occupation of its neighbours’ lands. Of course this message is likely to fall on deaf ears, just as it fell on deaf ears when Sharon delivered it in 2005, but the difference is that this time Israel would be in a position of strength, both morally and militarily, and the way forward would be clear to everyone.
In an ideal world, each actor, particularly Arab states, should recognize its part in this conflict and should take actions to resolve it (Kicked, Battered, and Bruised: 66+ Years of Palestinian History), but this is not going to happen any time soon, and Israel cannot afford to wait. The Arab world is going through painful transformations, and while I wish that it would change soon (Manifesto for a Better Arab World), the change will not come soon enough for Israel. Israel today is in acute need of strong leaders like Ariel Sharon who will grab the bull by the horns and take ownership of Israel’s future instead of letting it drift away. Israel is too important to the Middle East, to the world, and particularly to Jews to let that happen.