Too dangerous?

The only recorded instance of settler leaders and Palestinian leaders discussing the possibility of settlers remaining on Palestinian territory after Israeli withdrawal, took place ten years ago in talks I organized in Jerusalem. The discussion of the issue is recorded in And the wolf shall dwell with the wolf: the settlers and the Palestinians, a book (in Hebrew) I published four years ago. Some of the statements made then have only now become truly relevant.

Hassan Asfour, chief Palestinian negotiator: "We want a democratic country. The presence of Jews will help us ensure democracy, and will also enable us to serve as a bridge between Israel and the Arab world. As for the settlements per se, they are a consequence of occupation. Where their location doesn’t constitute a problem for us, we’ll consider the possibility of leaving them in place. But not before a Palestinian state comes into being in Gaza and the West Bank. . . . [A] settler can remain . . . as an individual. . . . "

Khalil Shikaki, leading Palestinian political scientist: "I understand [the settlers’] ideological motivation. But why . . . insist on national sovereignty? I came . . . to see whether I’m correct or not when I assume that ideologically-motivated Jews want to live in the Land of Israel for reasons that transcend politics."

Prof. Yosef Ben Shlomo, settler and teacher of Jewish philosophy: "I want to stay in Kedumim even if I accept Palestinian sovereignty. I will be like the first Zionists, who came ready to live on Ottoman-governed land. The [Israeli left wing] are etatists who see state rule as more important than the Land of Israel. I cannot accept citizenship in the state as the highest authority; for me the main thing is Jews living in the Land of Israel."

Notably, among the settler leaders the secular Ben Shlomo was the exception; the religious settlers who took part in the discussions were deterred by the notion of living under Palestinian sovereignty, confronting Palestinian ownership claims on their settlement lands, welcoming Palestinian neighbors into their settlements, and obeying Palestinian laws. The talks, begun at a time when the Oslo process was flourishing and the settlers increasingly apprehensive about their future, petered out after the Rabin assassination. Events seemed to have passed them by.

Now, ten years later, with the physical removal of settlers for the first time an impending reality, and in view of the open demand on the part of a few settlers to actually remain behind, those discussions are more relevant than ever. Beyond the many tactical and political issues involved, there are two broader questions at stake.

First, despite years of peace between Israel and two neighboring Arab countries, open invitations to return by Moroccan and Libyan leaders, and a two thousand year tradition of Jewish life in Egypt (and discounting Israeli diplomats and temporary commercial representatives and perhaps a few long term campers along the Sinai coast), no Israeli Jews have opted to try to live permanently in Egypt, Jordan, or any other Arab country. In other words, there is no precedent for Israelis to live in Palestine.

But, secondly, Palestine is not just another Arab country; it is, for Jews, part of the historic Land of Israel. If Jews are going to reestablish permanent residence anywhere in the Arab world, Palestine is indeed the most logical choice. If a few settlers from the northern Gaza Strip are interested in trying, and declare themselves ready to live under Palestinian law with all the consequences that entails, why should they be forcibly removed from their homes by the government of Israel?

Anticipation of Palestinian confiscation of the settlers’ lands or heavy-handed Palestinian police behavior cannot be the reason. If that happens, the settlers can still pick up and leave and presumably collect their Israeli compensation check. Rather, the obvious reason is physical security: the settlers’ lives will be in danger. They may at some point have to be rescued, their blood may be spilled or they may spill Palestinian blood, and the ensuing security and political complications could be costly. So there is a risk involved, not merely at the personal level but at the national level.

On the other hand, the experiment the settlers are volunteering for has important potential implications for the future of Israeli-Palestinian relations. Today we are preparing to remove 8,000 settlers in what is liable to be a violent and highly traumatic operation. Yet tomorrow, in order for any sort of Palestinian state to emerge, we will have to remove at least another 50,000. Today, the settlement blocs and East Jerusalem Jewish neighborhoods continue to expand. Tomorrow, the prospect of locating territory with which to compensate a Palestinian state for settlement bloc annexation by Israel becomes increasingly daunting.

If settlers could remain behind as residents of Palestine, a new and far more flexible model could emerge for drawing borders and swapping land. Hebron/Kiryat Arba, for example, could conceivably maintain its Jewish settler population without being annexed to Israel. Settlers living on land intended for the Palestinian state could contemplate a third option–remaining in place–in addition to the options of fighting the Israeli government tooth and nail or accepting compensation and relocating. The entire process could be less traumatic, hence more acceptable to larger numbers of Israelis.

Having participated in serious discussions of the issues involved, and in view of the challenges and dangers they would face, I personally am skeptical regarding the staying power of any settlers who choose to remain. But if they want to try. . . ?