Is a two-state solution still possible? Absolutely, say the authors of a new report on the subject – both possible and necessary. Those who claim otherwise are not looking at the facts on the ground but distorting those facts to pursue their own right-wing agenda.
The report, issued by the center-left think tank Molad, is particularly welcome at this moment, even if it goes astray in drawing its final conclusions.
The report is welcome because the Prime Minister of Israel has dropped the issue of peace negotiations from his agenda, and during his speech to the UN General Assembly, even refused to mention the world "Palestinian."
Israeli parties on the left and in the center have agreed to set these issues aside for now. And many members of the Israeli public have simply given up on a two-state peace agreement; they have accepted the argument of the right that in view of settlement expansion, it is "too late," and that Israel has "passed the point of no return" on the question of dividing the land.
Molad is known for its tough-minded, security-oriented approach to peace. Using this perspective, the report’s authors – Omer Eynav, Avner Inbar and Assaf Sharon – expertly demolish the "It’s too late" mindset. They offer ample evidence that the image created of the settlement enterprise by Israel’s rightwing is a fantasy, far removed from the actual reality in the West Bank.
The authors concentrate on the isolated settlements east of the security fence. Separated from the major settlement blocs, these are the settlements that would have to be evacuated as part of a negotiated two-state solution. In the public’s mind, the report notes, these settlements tend to be seen as solid, established, and self-sufficient, and the settler movement presents them as enjoying broad public backing. But in fact, none of these things is true.
The isolated settlements are artificial creations, lacking the infrastructure and the resources to survive on their own. They contribute little or nothing to Israel’s security. For education, transportation, housing, and all the other needs of daily life, they depend on contributions from Israel’s government that far exceed, in proportional terms, what other communities of Israelis receive.
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Furthermore, they have not won acceptance and legitimacy from the Israeli public that the settlement movement claims for them. The majority of Israelis would support their evacuation in the context of a political settlement with the Palestinians.
So far, so good. The first part of the report is a compelling document, marshalling arguments and evidence that the isolated settlements are tenuous in nature, utterly dependent for their existence on outside resources, and lacking broad-based backing and sympathy from Israel’s population.
Could these settlements be evacuated if it were necessary to secure a peace agreement with the Palestinians? Surely yes, the report says. And the easiest way to do it would be for Israel’s government to terminate the very generous subsidies that allow the settlements to survive, along with offering appropriate compensation for resettlement within Israel’s borders.
The government could also rescind the legal status that gives the settlers the legal rights of Israeli citizens – rights that the settlers see as essential to their wellbeing but are not enjoyed by Palestinians in the territories.
The report does not suggest that a political settlement is likely at any time in the foreseeable future. But by dispelling the notion that the two-state option is dead, it does many things that need to be done:
It sends a message to Israeli voters that while peace may be very far off, it is not forever beyond reach. It strengthens the hand of Israeli centrists and leftists, barraged by the phony "It’s too late" claims of the settlers, in pushing for a two-state solution. It encourages those elements of Israel’s coalition who want peace negotiations to do what they can to limit settlement, and to confine the building that does take place to the major blocs.
It offers reassurance to American Jews that Israel is not condemned to a one-state reality – meaning an Arab-majority state, an apartheid-like Jewish state, or a "confederation" that will not satisfy the national aspirations of either Jews or Palestinians. And it adds an arrow to the quiver of the Biden administration, which knows that being a friend of Israel means promoting two states and discouraging settlement.
And now the bad news.
While the first part of the report is impressive and convincing, the second part is clearly flawed.
The authors argue that in addition to the many reasons already stated, Israelis oppose a two-state solution for another reason: They fear violence if their government were to carry out evacuations to implement the terms of a negotiated agreement.
They remember the resistance to disengagement when 8000 Israelis were removed from Gaza, and they worry that removing tens of thousands of settlers from the West Bank would be far more bloody and far more traumatic. Creating fear of civil war, the report notes, is one of the "important strategic successes" of the settler movement in its fight to win over Israeli public opinion.
The report’s solution: Don’t increase military force and impose a quick evacuation, as some have suggested, but do the opposite. Given the vulnerabilities of the isolated settlements, a policy of reducing support and offering compensation will accomplish the same goal without violence. Absent a government lifeline, the settlers will have no choice but to leave, especially if the policy is clear, the timeline adequate, and the subsidies generous.
In fact, avoiding violence emerges as the central theme of the report, which is entitled "Non-violent civil evacuation: New thinking on ending the settlement enterprise."
But this is craziness.
Every possible step should be taken to avoid violence, of course. And if a peace agreement involving evacuation is ever approved by the Knesset or by a referendum, one assumes that its terms will be reasonable and a substantial national consensus on moving ahead will exist in Israel. Under those circumstances, one hopes that violence would be absolutely minimal.
But maybe not. In fact, probably not. No matter what the conditions on the ground or the terms of the agreement, the likelihood is that elements of the settler movement will take to the streets and defy the will of Israel’s democratically elected government. Everything – absolutely everything – in the history of the settlement movement suggests that this will be the case.
And the situation is getting worse all the time. One need only look at the recent mini-pogrom in the Palestinian village of al-Mufaqara, where settlers overturned cars, attacked homes, and put many Palestinians in the hospital, including a three-year-old boy. One need only look at the shameful words of settlement leaders, who blamed their "guests" for the violence and not themselves.
And most important, one need only look at the explosive growth of settler attacks on Palestinians in the territories. As noted by Michael Koplow of the Israel Policy Forum, in the first six months of 2021, there were 416 incidents of violence against Palestinians reported in the West Bank, compared to 507 in all of 2020.
The point is that if a two-state solution is a good idea, and it is, you should not promise something that you cannot deliver when you advocate for it. And a non-violent response from settlers is not something that anyone can deliver.
By framing the problem in these terms, the report empowers the settlers and even encourages them to blackmail the State of Israel with acts of violence. It gives them leverage that they do not deserve and must not have. Far better to acknowledge the realities of settler behavior, express a determination not to be deterred, and offer a matter-of-fact approach to dealing with the problem.
After all, Zionism has always been about the creation of a Jewish and democratic state that exercises sovereignty on behalf of its Jewish majority and all its citizens. Those who defy that sovereignty are not really Zionists; they are hoodlums, and Israel’s duly elected government must treat them as such, when it comes to peace or to anything else.
Molad should be applauded for producing this report, and for the superb case it makes on behalf of a two-state solution, no matter how distant such a solution may be.
But while we fervently hope that peace will ultimately be implemented without violence, things may not work out that way. And if violence happens, Jewish fanatics threatening civil war must not be allowed to carry the day. The government of Israel must enforce the law and carry out the will of its citizenry, come what may. That should be the message of Molad, and of any Zionist think tank.
Peace, as we know, is both essential and precious. And like all precious things, it comes at a price.
Eric H. Yoffie, a rabbi, writer and teacher in Westfield, New Jersey, is a former president of the Union for Reform Judaism. Twitter: @EricYoffie