It’s time for a serious public debate

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When seasoned Israeli political actors and observers as diverse as Dan Meridor (former Likud minister, currently Center Party minister) on the Right and Shlomo Avineri (former Director General of the Foreign Ministry) on the Left reach the same conclusion regarding the need for unilateral Israeli redeployment–it’s time for a serious public debate. Both concur that traditional Israeli political discourse regarding the fate of the West Bank and Gaza is bankrupt. The Right’s contention that Israel can hold onto the territories and compel Palestinian compliance has failed. But so has the Left’s advocacy of a far- reaching compromise with the PLO. The only route we have not yet tried is unilateral separation.

The advantages of withdrawing unilaterally from the Gaza Strip and the West Bank heartland and dismantling the settlements there are manifest. Since negotiations with the PLO are totally stalemated and terrorist attacks inside Israel are rampant, a unilateral initiative is called for to improve both our negotiating position and our defenses. To a large extent it would end the evils of occupation, for both Israelis and Palestinians. It would radically reduce the destructive humiliation of our Palestinian neighbors. It would constitute a major step toward braking Israel’s current demographic slide toward either a binational state or apartheid.

We could build a border fence separating Israel from the West Bank that virtually stops the penetration of suicide bombers; the fence around Gaza has accomplished this admirably. The new fence would follow the Green Line in most places, but include the major settlement blocs, thereby creating, for the first time, a clearly delineated border. The areas remaining in Israeli hands, Greater Jerusalem and the Jordan Valley, would continue to constitute adequate territorial incentives for the PLO to negotiate a final status agreement. In any case, this initiative would leave refugees and most strategic security issues for future talks.

This separation plan would create for the first time a considerable degree of public consensus in Israel regarding the nature of future territorial coexistence with a Palestinian state. It would to an extent restore the unanimity that characterized Israeli society prior to 1967, when we had “indefensible” borders and knew exactly what we had to do if attacked. Like the case of the withdrawal from Lebanon in May 2000, the public would judge that on balance, it was a good idea, long overdue. Any new Palestinian attack on Israel would be considered an act of war by a neighboring sovereign state.

However, just as with Lebanon, there are clear drawbacks to the plan. It does not solve the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. As in the Lebanon case, unilateral withdrawal is liable to be seen by some Palestinians as an act of Israeli weakness, thereby provoking yet further attacks and making future negotiations harder. Why should Palestinians negotiate if more terrorist atrocities will force Israel to deliver yet more territory free of charge? Unlike the Lebanon case, in the West Bank the international community is liable to refuse to recognize the new borders and to accuse Israel of de facto annexation. Nor is there an obvious solution for those Palestinians whose villages are included within the new borders. To the east, Palestinians might now drill new wells in the Yarkon-Taninim Acquifer under Western Samaria that adversely affect Israel’s access to vital water resources. Even those who argue that we should have ended the occupation years ago might hesitate to end it in the face of the current terrorist offensive.

Apropos Lebanon, one could also argue that “the jury is still out” regarding the efficacy of Israel’s unilateral withdrawal there. Hizballah, with Iranian and Syrian help, is building fortified emplacements and acquiring long-range rockets. If the situation on Israel’s northern border deteriorates, we may yet wish to reconsider whether our withdrawal there was a good idea. This could have implications for unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank.

Thus there are compelling arguments for and against unilateral withdrawal. The most striking aspect of the debate is that some 50 percent of Israelis support the idea, yet not a single political party has adopted it. Hence, under current conditions, it is a non-starter politically. All the more reason why it should be the subject of a far more penetrating debate at the national level. It is entirely possible that the considerable strategic advantages of unilateral withdrawal will be seen to outweigh the drawbacks.

Yossi Alpher is the author of the forthcoming book “And the Wolf Shall Dwell with the Wolf: The Settlers and the Palestinians.”

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