Since 1967 when Israel took over the West Bank in a war of self-defense, it has had no plan on what to do with the land. Fifty-six years later, there still isn’t even the hint of a plan.
That is not to say that individual Israelis and Israeli parties don’t have strong opinions on the subject. There is a wide range of opinions, but this has never translated into a vision, and even less a plan, that the country would pursue.
On the extreme left, Israelis believe that there should be no settlements whatsoever in the West Bank. On the extreme right, Israelis believe that the West Bank is an essential part of Israel and that settlements should be built everywhere and as quickly as possible. Between these two extremes, there are many variations.
On the left, there are those who want an immediate and unilateral withdrawal of Israeli troops, and there are those who believe that soldiers must remain until security could be guaranteed through other means regardless of how long that takes.
On the right, there are those who want all Arabs gone or at least not given citizenship rights, and there are those who believe that Arabs can be managed either through indoctrination or though high Jewish birth rates.
There are also many combinations of the above, such as Israelis who would accept a Palestinian state developing in the West Bank if settlements are allowed to remain, and Israelis who believe that Israel should maintain and even grow the large settlements near the border but limit or even remove settlements deep within the West Bank. Some Israelis even believe in a federation of some sort.
The number of opinions is practically endless, but none has become accepted government policy that spans administrations (as have, for example, Israel’s approach to Iran and to peace with Arab countries). Israel stumbles along with no vision on what will or should happen in 10, 20, or 50 years.
Due to this lack of vision, settlements have continued to grow, which has had two results: reducing the likelihood of the West Bank being viable as a Palestinian state and increasing violence from both Palestinians and settlers.
On the surface, this could be seen as benefiting the extreme right, but despite their apparent successes, their vision is not materializing, and that could start to work against them. The Palestinians who reside in the West Bank aren’t leaving and aren’t becoming any more accepting of the West Bank being part of Israel. Instead, the inability of the extreme right to solve what they see as the Arab problem is causing increasingly more friction with the Palestinians and more extremism on both sides.
Extreme right leader and National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir can successfully incite extremists to “run for the hilltops”, but he cannot make the Palestinians disappear. Settler violence against Palestinians, which Israel’s top security officials correctly called terrorism, is more likely to weaken Israel by rattling its alliance with the United States, than it is to scare Palestinians into leaving.
The vision that would work for Israel is clear, whether Israelis admit it to themselves or not:
- Borders that are based on but not identical to the Green Line, with Israel acquiring part of East Jerusalem and a buffer around the large settlement blocks.
- A solid and very slow security transition that ensures that an independent Palestinian state does not become a threat to Israel. The IDF may need to remain in parts of the West Bank for a very long time.
The problem is that this realistic vision doesn’t excite many Israelis because it is slow and difficult to achieve, and it doesn’t offer any immediate benefits, whereas the naïve vision of the extreme right excites a significant segment of Israelis, and it provides immediate benefits in the form of new and relatively inexpensive homes.
For this reason, despite several proposals from Israeli security experts on how to move forward with the realistic vision, the naïve vision that leads nowhere continues, by default, to drive Israeli policies in the West Bank.
Some Israelis try to mask the issue by calling the current situation a status quo that must continue until there is a peace partner on the Palestinian side, but this is self-delusion. There is no status quo because the situation keeps evolving and not in a good direction. The evidence of this failure is becoming more visible every day.
Gaza is often brandied as proof that limiting settlements doesn’t help, but that is also self-delusion. Even though the departure from Gaza was executed poorly and left a vacuum that Hamas quickly filled, Gaza is a manageable problem for Israel. Gaza remains a costly and frustrating nuisance, but it is not an existential threat to the Jewish state. The West Bank, on the other hand, is increasingly hard to manage, and it is very much an existential threat.
But despite Gaza’s limited success, the solution for the West Bank is certainly not to emulate what was done in Gaza. The West Bank is much closer than Gaza to Israel’s large urban centers and has much easier access to military supplies. However, the solution for the West Bank must be based on the same principle that drove the withdrawal from Gaza: the understanding that to survive as a Jewish state, Israel must maintain a strong Jewish majority.
The question that remains is whether Israel will be able to formulate such a vision early enough to extricate itself from the death trap that is the West Bank, or whether it will continue to stumble along without a vision until it is too late.