No One to Give Them Back to

There is a growing consensus in Israel that a withdrawal from the West Bank is no longer possible.

The demonstrators and writers of articles commemorating 40 years of Israeli occupation of the territories this month can save their placards and high-brow expressions for repeated use - they will need them in the coming years.

There is a growing consensus in Israel that a withdrawal from the West Bank is no longer possible. It may be possible to hide the Palestinians behind a separation fence, but it is impossible to relinquish control over them.

Everyone shares this conclusion, in all the camps and across the political spectrum. Only the reasons differ. The ideologically motivated right considers the settlements a religious decree. Benjamin Netanyahu is talking about the "defensive wall" of the mountains of Judea and Samaria. Ehud Olmert, who promised to withdraw from the West Bank and evacuate most of the settlements, turned his back on the idea following the Second Lebanon War and the Qassam rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip. They are no longer talking about a permanent settlement even in Meretz, only about a theoretical agreement which will grant Israel international legitimacy, out of recognition that Mahmoud Abbas will not be able to carry it out.

What is shared by these views, on the left and the right, is that they all perpetuate the existing situation of dozens of settlements, hundreds of roadblocks and thousands of soldiers who are deployed over the fence.

They used to say in Israel that "there is no one to talk to" on the other side. Now they say that there is no one to whom we can return the territories. No one said it better than president-elect and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shimon Peres. "It is unclear when we will pull out entirely from the territories," Peres wrote in last weekend's Yedioth Aharonoth. "Even if we are ready to pull out, we have no one to hand them over to at this stage, because of the Palestinian inability to establish a single army, and a single state that will assert their control over the territories. In the meantime, Israel is unable to ignore its responsibility for the territories, whether it is a responsibility by choice or lack of choice."

It is hard to believe that only a year ago Peres was part of a government that was commited to the disengagement, and the evacuation of settlers from the West Bank was at the core of political debate. In the current public discourse, any talk of withdrawing from the territories is perceived as a dangerous illusion.

The reason is obvious: Israel has grown accustomed to living, even unwillingly, with a daily barrage of Qassam rockets on Sderot. It has also managed to go through five weeks of rocket attacks in the north. But it does not want Qassam rockets against Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and Ben-Gurion International Airport.

Most Israelis assume, in view of the experience from Lebanon and the Gaza Strip, that any territory that will be evacuated will become a launching pad for rocket attacks against Israel. It is not surprising that the army and the Shin Bet are opposed to the lifting of a single roadblock in the West Bank, out of fear of attacks. The political leadership heeds their advice.

In this atmosphere, it is clear that any talk about a "two-state solution" and the prime minister's declarations at the Sharm el-Sheikh summit about "new opportunities" and "accelerating the process toward a Palestinian state" are bogus. This diplomatic lip service, disassociated from reality and real expectations, is meant to assuage the Americans and the Europeans and deflect pressure on Israel.

The international community is participating in the show, and gradually is losing interest in the conflict. The postponment of the speech of President George W. Bush, meant to commemorate five years since he presented his "vision" and to offer new ideas for an Israeli-Palestinian settlement, suggests that he has nothing to say. As it winds down its tenure, the Bush administration in Washington is toying with fake charms: like the "shelf agreement," proposed by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, or the appointment of Tony Blair as the Quartet representative "to build Palestinian institutions." Does anyone remember his predecessor in that job, James Wolfensohn?

From Israel's point of view, freezing the situation in the territories is the default option, freeing the government from internal disputes. But it comes at a cost - in growing calls for an academic and economic boycott of Israel, in perpetuating the conflict with the Arabs, and in a growing gap between declarations and actions. If the government considers control over the Palestinians as inevitable and not as a temporary situation, it must prepare accordingly: through the correct public relations abroad, through building task-specific security forces, and through fair treatment of the residents of the West Bank. The current approach - in which there is a surprise with every development, in which there are measures announced to ameliorate the lives of the Palestinians only to be withdrawn a day later, and mostly, in which we believe that time is in our favor - does not bode well.