Alex Stein
Writer, translator and tour guide based in Jerusalem

Why Unilateral Withdrawal Isn’t the Answer

Perhaps inevitably, it took satire to get to the heart of the matter. With two Bibis before him, Eretz Nehederet’s Eyal Kitzis asked the real one if he was serious about the two-state solution. The prime minister insisted that he was. Unconvinced, Kitzis asked Bibi what he would do if Abu Mazen agreed to all his demands. “Bring it and we’ll see,” Bibi replied, prompting a knowing smile from the show’s host. “Are you worried about a bi-national state?” was his next question. “Yes, but I’m more worried about this state remaining secure forever.”

While there is talk about a one-state solution on the fringes of the right and the left, a strong majority of the Israeli public supports a two-state solution, even if there is no agreement on the details. And yet, since the failure of Camp David in 1999, and barring one or two diplomatic initiatives since, every Israeli government has been content with the status quo, despite the fact that every passing year and every new home built in the settlements makes it harder for Israel to separate itself from the Palestinians and risks making the country an international pariah. Why do successive Israeli governments not show more urgency on this issue?

One answer, best articulated by +972’s Noam Sheizaf, is that Israel maintains the status quo because there is not enough pressure on it not to do so; that is to say, there is a dissonance between the doomsday scenarios regarding the consequences of an Israeli failure to get out of the West Bank and the reality on the ground, where the territories are mostly peaceable and the international pressure in the form of boycotts is marginal. Nobody gives up power unless they are made to do so; ergo, the only way to end the occupation is to ensure that Israel pays a price for not doing so.

But Israel has experimented with unilateral withdrawals in the past, both in South Lebanon and Gaza. And while I would argue that Israel is in a better situation strategically as a result of these withdrawals, they have not proven the “land of peace” principle that vast swathes of the Israeli public once swore by. Hezbollah remains ensconced in South Lebanon and Hamas remains capable of firing rockets at Israeli population centres. It may be true that Israel is still “in control” of the Strip, and that the restrictions on goods entering the Strip have been self-defeating, but these issues are overshadowed by the fact that disengagement was the first time the Palestinians had ever managed to get Israel to leave their territory. Thus it became an important test case. The Hamas decision to build on this achievement by continuing to fire rockets at Israel was a disaster that makes it almost impossible to convince the Israeli public that a further unilateral withdrawal is desirable.

Israel clearly holds overwhelmingly more power than the Palestinians, but this does not mean that it can end the conflict on its own. And it is a question of ending the conflict, not only the occupation. If it is only a question of ending the occupation, then it can’t also be a question of the refugees and 1948. One cannot have it both ways. And it is not only about the occupation. It is about two peoples sharing this small piece of land in an equitable way as possible.

So why does the situation persist? I actually think that the new US Secretary of State, John Kerry, has come closer than anyone in articulating the problem. During a recent briefing in which he suggested there was a “year, year and a half” before the window for a two-state solution shuts, he said “[The] Palestinians [are] convinced Israel will never give them a state, Israel [is] convinced the Palestinians will never give them security”. The principle of Occam’s razor holds that the most obvious answer is true; this principle also applies in the Middle East. Israel’s actions in the West Bank do not look like those of a country serious about a two-state solution; I have already dealt with the devastating impact of the rockets from Gaza on the collective Israeli consciousness. For all my dislike of the man, a dislike that won’t disappear as the result of one affable appearance on Eretz Nehederet, I think Netanyahu is genuine in his fears regarding the security implications of a West Bank withdrawal. Whether he’s right or not is another question, but if the two-state solution is to have a future (and while two years may be an exaggeration the idea doesn’t have an unlimited shelf life), then the focus of well-meaning outsiders needs to be on how best one can have a Palestinian state that is as secure and viable and sovereign as possible alongside an already sovereign Israel that is as secure as possible. Unilaterally ending the occupation, though, won’t guarantee any of that.

About the Author
Alex Stein is a writer, translator, editor and tour guide based in Jerusalem. He is one of the founding editors of the Tel Aviv Review of Books. His Substack is