Israel or Palestine: Who Will Take in the Settlers?

Despite the Netanyahu government's jockeying for position before Kerry's plan is unveiled, the idea that Jewish settlers could remain in a Palestinian state shouldn't be rejected out of hand.

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Ariel Sharon is likely rolling over in his grave this week with the latest developments in the peace process. Even with his well-founded reputation as a man of great appetites, Sharon’s gluttony for Greater Israel has been surpassed by his political successors since his incapacitation eight years ago. Today, with its newly insatiable appetite for annexation, koshering illegal outposts, and adding new settlement blocs to the national consensus, Israel’s leadership seems devoted to polishing off the Palestinian state altogether. Could Ariel Sharon himself have stomached Israel’s new settlement policy?

On Friday, Benjamin Netanyahu announced his proposal for a new settlement bloc in the vicinity of Beit El, a fourth to join the three blocs in the area of Ariel, Maale Adumim, and Gush Etzion that have been on the table since the Oslo Process, comprising approximately 13% of the West Bank in total. While the PM has yet to reveal his secrets, presumably this bloc might contain some of the original settlements Sharon helped bring into existence - including Ofra, Beit El, and Shilo, as well as some of the more entrenched ideological settlements between Ramallah and Nablus including Kfar Tapuach, Maale Levona, and Eli.

For swallowing another chunk of settlements, the Prime Minister gets a 2 for 1 deal:

First, in proposing a Beit El bloc, Bibi has spiked the punch in the struggle to have Israel recognized as a Jewish State. Having schooled Secretary of State John Kerry on the supposed scriptural significance of Shilo (the resting place of the Israelite sanctuary, or mishkan) and Beit El (the site of Jacob’s ladder dream), he seamlessly integrated ingredients of Zionist and Jewish history while simultaneously erasing the Green Line. As Netanyahu expressed in a recent cabinet meeting, he seems to be hoping that a Beit El bloc could also help the United States (and the Palestinians) overcome their “mental block” about Israel’s right to exist in the whole of the land of Israel.

Secondly, beyond the biblical claims, it seems that Bibi hid another surprise -hinting at the impossibility of evacuating some of the most ideological settlers and the realistic alternative that either Israel or Palestine must digest them as part of any peace deal. Speaking at Davos last week, he announced that he would not "uproot a single Israeli" from the Jordan Valley either. In fact, Netanyahu offered various scenarios that would allow settlers to remain under a Palestinian state, including long term land leases in the West Bank (turning Hebron into some kind of Hong Kong?) or land swaps within territorial Israel. It didn't take long for Naftali Bennett, his economy minister, to accuse him of "ethical befuddlement" in even airing the idea that settlers might choose to stay in their homes under Palestinian sovereignty: “Two thousand years of longing for the Land of Israel did not pass so we could live under the rule of [Palestinian Authority President  Mahmoud Abbas]".

While it’s rare that I agree with Benjamin Netanyahu on most Israeli policies, there is a case to be made that this scenario is not only in the interest of Israeli democracy, but should be incumbent on a future State of Palestine. Certainly, the international community should not accept Palestinian sovereignty that justifies being judenrein (like many other Arab/Muslim states), as Palestine, like Israel, should also be ideologically predicated on becoming a multi-ethnic democracy in the Middle East.

Responding to these ideas, the PLO Executive Committee's Hanan Ashrawi said on Monday that she affirmed the premise of some Jewish settlers living under a future Palestinian state, but only they be treated as individuals, each of whom must apply for Palestinian citizenship (and forfeit their Israeli citizenship) and would be forbidden to live in "ex-territorial enclaves." While both Netanyahu and Ashrawi seemingly agree on the premise of a forced population transfer of Israeli settler-citizens, her idea is of a group that can no longer live as intact community and must be neutered of its national ambitions (or at least sympathies) - essentially ideologically dismantling the settlements while leaving them physically intact. Certainly, these are terms that Israel does not demand of Israeli Arabs and the international community should not accept less of a Palestinian ethnocracy than it demands of Israel.

Moreover, this equivalency is important because Ashrawi seemingly speaks to a larger issue far beyond the West Bank. If the Palestinian movement fundamentally does not accept a Zionist entity (which is how Bibi must recast his demand for a recognition of "Jewish State" for it to have any meaning) - believing that the difference between the settlement of Ofra and Tel Aviv is just a matter of semantics - then the issue of West Bank settlers living under a Palestinian state really only becomes a proxy for the Palestinian vision of a one-state solution where Jews can only live in "settlements" as a religious ethnic minority with no political rights. (Essentially, modern-day version of the dhimmi status of Jews in Muslim lands in the medieval period.) This arrangement would end the occupation by giving Israeli settlers fewer rights than Palestinians today and sets a troubling precedent for the future, calling into question whether settlements are really the obstacle to peace at all.  

Yet, the Prime Minister’s grandiose ideas for a Greater Israel have been outflanked recently by those in his own cabinet. Bennett and the ultra-nationalist movement’s continued agitation for annexation officially moved into the Israeli mainstream last week when former Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren opined in his own obituary for Sharon that in the absence of a negotiated peace agreement, “one solution could be a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian population centers.” (Perhaps he had other ideas in mind, but with his implication that that the IDF would remain in the settlements, calling this anything short of annexation seems to be mostly a matter of taste — although for Palestinians, a fourth settlement bloc might still be a better deal than a state on less than 40% of the West Bank.)

Meanwhile, Avigdor Lieberman has stirred the pot again with ideas of transferring Wadi Ara Israeli-Arabs to the West Bank, fare that was immediately rejected as "delusional" by those in the Triangle. The Palestinians, for their part, have few appealing options left should the Kerry talks fail - one can only hope for a revived UN bid or other forms of non-violent resistance, rather than the outbreak of a third intifada.

Would Ariel Sharon be getting his just desserts? In an interview with Haaretz's Ari Shavit in 2003, Sharon surmised, “if it turns out that there is someone to talk to, we will have to take steps that are painful to every Jew and painful to me personally. Look, this is the cradle of the birth of the Jewish people. All of our history is connected to those places: Bethlehem, Shiloh, Beit El. And I know that we will have to separate from some of those places.” As documents from the Wikileaks cache reveal, in 2004, Sharon may have intended to go further, taking far-reaching steps in the West Bank and Jerusalem and annexing the major settlement blocs, implying he would concede other parts of the West Bank and would consider handing over some Arab neighborhoods, although “not the Temple Mount, Mount of Olives or the City of David.”

Yet, by 2005, Sharon had seemingly rejected either Israeli disengagement or annexation as a preferred solution, falling back on a negotiated solution of land-for-peace, averring that any other option “would be a mistake…there will not be another unilateral move.” Nonetheless, subsequent Israeli leaders have mobilized Sharon to justify whatever policies they have seen fit, regardless of whether Sharon himself would have considered them before he fell into a coma. If even the great patron of the settlements could not swallow these ideas, one wonders how history will judge Israel’s hunger for the settlements in decades to come.

The author is University Research Lecturer and Sidney Brichto Fellow at Oxford University. She is writing a forthcoming book about American Jews and the Israeli settler movement. Follow her on Twitter @SaraHirschhorn1. 

Construction site in the West Bank settlement of Modiin Illit. Settlement construction − and not any talks or prisoner release − is the only thing that creates solid facts.Credit: AP

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