Trust the Settlers to Lose the West Bank

U.S. President Barack Obama cannot and will not compel Israel to withdraw from the West Bank and free up land for a Palestinian state. Neither will the international community, nor Hamas, and certainly not the Palestinian Authority, nor what remains of the Israeli left.

Trust the settlers, though. They alone will make it possible. Sooner or later, they'll lose the West Bank all by themselves.

There's no one else to do it. The president faces a congressional mid-term election less than 11 months from now. The world huffs, puffs and blows nothing but smoke. If past experience is any guide, only the settlers themselves are capable of doing what is needed to bring about a pullout. And if present indications hold, at some point, they will do just that.

The settlement enterprise has a fatal weakness for Greek tragedy - not unlike the Palestinian national movement - in which the main character alone has the power and the fiery, headstrong determination required to thwart its own most cherished goals.

Fittingly, for a culture so steeped in loss - withdrawal from 89 percent of the land captured in 1967, removal of 43 settlements in Sinai, Gaza and the West Bank, expulsion of more than 10,000 settlers - the settlers' behavior tends to follow this pattern:

1. Denial. In case after case, settlers have refused to take seriously the signs that a pullout was impending, waiting much too long to launch their fight against withdrawal. "There will be no evacuation," read the stickers before Sinai was ceded. "Sharon doesn't really mean it," the right told itself before the disengagement. The irony is that the settlers and their allies on the hard right may be the only Israelis who still listen to the Israeli left. When prominent doves in academia and the media now declare that it's too late for a two-state solution, and that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is merely going through the motions of seeking a future peace, only the settlers breathe a true sigh of relief.

You can bank on their denial. You can bank on their failure to recognize that a majority would agree to withdraw from the West Bank under a peace deal. Just as you could bank on their willingness to believe that a Likud leader would never agree to such a thing.

They believed it when they elected Menachem Begin, who ceded Sinai, and when they elected Yitzhak Shamir, who set the precedent for a total withdrawal when he returned Taba, and later, when in full confidence they elected Ariel Sharon. Now they have elected Netanyahu. The pillars of the right - Avigdor Lieberman, Benny Begin and Moshe Ya'alon - have all voted for the first settlement freeze since Oslo 1993. The result:

2. Anger. From the standpoint of achieving their aims, the settlers' vocal fury over the unfairness, the racism, the injury to human rights implicit in a settlement freeze - let alone a future expulsion - is liable to boomerang.

Blocking intersections, refusing orders in the Israel Defense Forces, calling soldiers Nazis, leading the fight to foil a deal for captive soldier Gilad Shalit - the grounds for backlash go on and on. And the anger, the settlers are always shocked to discover, is a two-way street.

3. Bargaining. Here is where the settlers' battle is typically lost. Activists actually believe that they triumph if only they are proactive enough; for example, if they block major intersections, assault government officials and security forces and brand them Nazis - or, if they are just religious enough, a sure way to alienate the consensus.

4. Depression. The more messianic the faith, of course, the more cataclysmic the disappointment. Again, in this context, the settlement enterprise has begun to show the stresses and creaks of an aging, perhaps dying revolution. Not for nothing has the settlement movement begun to wonder whether the sad fate of the kibbutz enterprise might point the way to its own demise.

5. Acceptance. At this point, many in Israel seem to see a more urgent need for a Palestinian state than do many Palestinians. The jury is still out, but Netanyahu may be one of them. If past experience holds, the majority will back him - and the 80 percent of settlers to be annexed in blocs will, in the end, swallow the pill.