Most of the world and half of Israelis think the West Bank occupation is a disaster. But almost no one thinks ending it in an agreement with the Palestinians is possible. What to do?
To Israelis, the issue often feels ignorable, but every so often it raises its unappealing head. Last week, Ben & Jerry’s ice cream decided to discontinue its Israel concession unless the holder denies distribution to West Bank settlements (which would violate a problematic Israeli law).
The uproar this sparked prompted me to write of the absurdities at play (simply put: the West Bank is no more in Israel than Kurdistan is, under Israel’s own law). Numerous readers challenged me to propose a better way. Taking up this challenge is to tread where giants have stumbled. But I will try.
To begin with, a few assumptions:
- Israel has an overriding interest in maintaining a Jewish majority; the current level of just under 80% is the minimum needed to consider the country a “Jewish state”; permanent West Bank occupation violates this interest (as did the Gaza occupation which ended in 2005).
- Right-wing fantasies about Palestinian mass departure are both immoral and infeasible, and efforts to compel such a thing would bring ruin upon all sides; Palestinian cynics are wrong that this is Israel’s plan, but it is also true that some Israeli nationalists wish it.
- The 1949 armistice line, a.k.a. the pre-1967 border or the Green Line, is not sacrosanct; claims to the contrary based on international law are too fuzzy to compel great risks; all countries are in a way occupied and the only immoral thing is the subjugation of the populace.
- That said, this armistice line gives Israel 78% of British Mandatory Palestine (after the 1921 amputation of Trans-Jordan); asking the Palestinians to settle for much less is problematic.
- The disconnected autonomy islands of Palestinian Areas A are better than pure military occupation and a reasonable transition phase – but not a viable permanent arrangement for millions who remain under effective Israeli control without voting rights in Israel (which they will eventually demand).
- Israeli concerns about attacks from the West Bank (like what Israel endures from Gaza) must be seriously addressed. But it is unrealistic to assume that permanent occupation of an oppressed and disenfranchised populace (despite “autonomy”) will result in less violence than potential cross-border attacks.
- Although the Palestinians suffer cruelty and injustice, their leadership is in no hurry to end the occupation; key leaders calculate the default outcome is a binational state in the entire Holy Land, and this has undermined peace efforts.
To exit the paralysis, Israel could resume willingness to engage in talks toward a final settlement, as attempted by prime ministers Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert. But it would be wise to also deny the Palestinians the ability to block change through maximalist negotiating positions, and instead proceed with moves both unilateral and generous aimed at improving the lot of individual Palestinians, nudging them collectively toward independence, and defanging the demographic concerns bedeviling Israel itself.
Here’s a possible road map:
- Israel would calculate and declare an optimal border that incorporates as many settlers as claiming only a small part of the West Bank; a transfer to Israel of no more than 15% of the land would leave fewer than 100,000 settlers across the border.
- The Palestinians would be promised compensation more generous than the once-discussed 1:1 ratio (perhaps 1.5:1) in a future final peace deal (such a markup is fair considering they will get desert land in the Negev).
- The stranded settlers would be asked to return home and generously compensated, to maximize acquiescence – with something in the area of half a million dollars per adult and a quarter million per child, totaling some $40 billion (that is the price of a colossal strategic error); it’s worth considering deadlines for retraction of the offer (with holdouts either forced out or left behind).
- Israel would, without being asked and requiring nothing in return, agree to recognize the State of Palestine along these provisional borders, which would also include Gaza (to be put in effect whenever that becomes possible).
- Israel would spearhead a generous and long-term global aid package for Palestine, with major incentives for collaboration; its own contribution should be in the billions of dollars per year – contingent on non-belligerency – and Israel would also become an advocate for Palestine at world diplomatic and trading forums.
- In the short term, Israel’s military will remain in key locations in the West Bank even past the border – while removing all non-emergency travel restrictions and checkpoints inside Palestine. At the same time, an international mechanism would be established to seek in good faith alternatives such as a NATO or Arab League force. There would be zero tolerance of paramilitary gangs in Palestine, and rewards for Palestine contributing to upholding this arrangement.
- Israel would agree to negotiate better borders whenever the Palestinians become interested in or capable of delivering a formal peace agreement.
- There would be no right of return for the millions of descendants of 1948-9 Palestinian refugees, despite the unfairness – just as Jews are not returning to Iraq, Germans are not returning to the Sudetenland and Hindus are not returning to Pakistan. But there would be generous financial compensation (perhaps $10,000 per descendant, adding up to some $60 billion) with minimal quibbles and bureaucracy, and a right to return to the new Palestine.
Two issues require special attention:
GAZA: It currently poses no demographic threat, which sets it apart from the West Bank, but the situation there is morally indefensible. Gaza would need to be contained for now and appended to Palestine whenever Hamas is dislodged – whether by coercion, persuasion, intervention or revolution.
JERUSALEM: In theory, Israel can keep things as they are, but this is a festering sore that prevents accommodation not only with Palestinians but across the region. I have proposed Vaticanization of the Old City; objections focused not on principle but practicality: Israelis would not support it and some would go berserk. A halfway option would not undo the annexation but merely invite key Muslim players to actively help run it in some new custodial arrangement.
If Israel took these initiatives publicly and spectacularly, it would immediately be embraced by the US, EU and much of the Arab world; the world is fed up with this conflict and tired of forever negotiations (the process variant of forever wars). The pressure on the Palestinians not to play games would be considerable.
Some will say all this is unaffordable since it requires $100 billion in compensation alone. My answer is that Israel’s annual GDP is $400 billion, and that the world (including the Arab world and the United States and the EU) will help, and that even inflationary printing of money is better than national destruction. Remember that the world has spent trillions fighting COVID-19; what must happen, happens.
This path will not please everyone and I am not proposing that this will make all further Palestinian demands go away.
It may, however, be the least bad option.