How to Evacuate 100,000 Israelis From the West Bank

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The two-state solution is still practically feasible -- if only the political leadership could deliver it.

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A Jewish youth holds an Israeli flag during a rally march in the West Bank settlement of Itamar, near Nablus. Reuters

A two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is still possible. As part of my debate on this question with Robert Wright, who says "it's too late" as "there are just too many settlements," I offered some proposals on how to include the vast majority of settlers within a new Israeli border that would still allow for a viable and contiguous Palestinian state. Wright was not convinced, arguing that there are practical and political barriers to implementing those proposals. I still think he's wrong, and here's why.

Wright's practical argument is that annexing 75 percent of the settlers would likely still leave over 100,000 settlers outside of Israel's new border, that their "uprooting" is not a "readily doable project," and thus the ideas for a two-state solution are not viable.

It's true that getting the 100,000-plus Israelis out of the West Bank would likely be the most practically and politically challenging element of an agreement to implement -- probably even more difficult than the inevitable compromises on Jerusalem. But it doesn't necessarily render a two-state solution impossible.

First of all, the remaining settlers will not all need to be "uprooted" or "extracted," as Wright writes. The majority of settlers are motivated by economic or quality-of-life concerns, since Israel subsidizes housing and amenities in the settlements, and could likely be convinced to relocate voluntarily with economic incentives. Though most of these "pragmatic" settlers are located in settlements that will likely be included within Israel's new borders (and thus will not need to be incentivized to move), many live in these outlying settlements as well.

For example, the settlement of Emmanuel, which will likely fall outside of Israel's new borders, is populated mostly by non-Zionist or anti-Zionist ultra-Orthodox residents who live in the settlements strictly for practical reasons. As a city councilor from the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party told the Oxford Research Group:

We came here because the land is cheap and is subsidized by the government. ...
We are ... identified as the radical right and are seen to be fighting against the Palestinians. This is not our intention; it is our need for housing.

Another significant number of settlers are relatively recent immigrants from the former Soviet Union, who had little choice of where to move upon their arrival and are seen as having weak ties to the settlement enterprise. These immigrants comprise over half the population of Ariel, the controversial settlement that may end up outside Israel's new borders. According to a recent report by the Oxford Research Group, there are also a significant number of secular settlers in the Jordan Valley who are eager for economic compensation to move back within Israel's pre-1967 borders.

To be sure, a large portion of the remaining settlers will not voluntarily leave; the settlers who will be drawn out of Israel's new borders will inherently be from the most isolated settlements, and thus of the more radical ideological bent. But Hebron, as Wright himself says is where the most extreme of Israeli settlers live, does not accurately represent how settlers across the West Bank would react to evacuation.

According to Israeli pollster Rafi Smith, data collected in 2007 from settlers in 60 of the most remote (and most radical) settlements suggests that at most 37 percent of them would accept compensation in return voluntary evacuation. Let's be clear: A significant majority of the remaining settlers will need to be evacuated in some form. According to the poll, 25 percent of them said they would "actively oppose" a governmental decision to evacuate their settlements (as opposed to "no opposition" or "passive opposition"). Almost 75 percent of respondents did not predict any violence from settlers against soldiers who come to evacuate them.

At the end of the day, these settlers will respect the will of the Israeli government. As the head of the Likud party's student organization in the West Bank recently said,  "Many people are wrong in assuming settlers prioritize land over nation. In fact, as in Gush Katif [in Gaza], the great majority of settlers will obey the decision of the majority." A majority of Israelis have consistently supported evacuating the isolated settlements.

The experience of Gaza is instructive in this case. Though Ariel Sharon's unilateral withdrawal in 2005 was an immensely emotional event for the Israeli public, it was executed with almost no violent resistance and was completed in a matter of days. And that was not even as part of a comprehensive peace agreement; there would arguably be even less resistance if there would be a clear (and nationalist) trade off. In fact, according to Smith's polling, one of the most significant factors influencing those outlying settlers' willingness to evacuate was: "If the peace agreement seems credible [and] will gain wide-ranging public support."

To be sure, some settlers may have learned the opposite lesson from the Gaza withdrawal -- since non-violent resistance failed to prevent it, perhaps they'll have to try more extreme methods to block the next withdrawal. However, Israeli military sources estimate these to be few in number.

In thinking about the feasibility of evacuating these remaining settlers, it's important to look at the other two factors that Smith's respondents listed as influential in their decision:  "(1) The possibility to relocate the entire settlement to a settlement block that remains under Israeli sovereignty; and (2) Compensation amount allocated per family." There is likely a direct correlation to the fact that 65 percent of those who expressed an unwillingness to move also said that their positions are influenced by the experience of Israeli settlers evacuated from Gaza -- namely the haphazard way in which they were evacuated, and the lack of care taken of them by the government after the withdrawal. It is not surprising that settlers are reluctant to be evacuated when they see, almost seven years later, many settlers from Gaza still living in trailers, dispersed, unmoored from their communities, unemployed, and largely forgotten by Israeli society.

There is a lot of interesting work being done in Israel to try to avoid this same outcome for the remaining settlers of the West Bank -- much of it driven by genuine concern for them, but also with an eye toward making such an evacuation more politically feasible. Israeli NGO Blue and White Future in particular has taken the lead on these efforts and is doing a lot of innovative work to help relocate the settlers, according to their website, "in a manner that demonstrates compassion and respect for the settlers and in recognition of the sacrifices they have made first by settling the land at the behest of numerous Israeli governments and then by relocating back to Israel." They are working, in conjunction with Israel's leading university, as well as local and municipal leaders, on a comprehensive national plan to absorb of those settlers that would return either before or after an agreement is signed, including urban and vocational planning.

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Zvika Krieger is a former editor and writer at The New Republic and a former correspondent for Newsweek based in Egypt and Lebanon, covering most of the Arab world. More

Krieger has received fellowships to study topics including the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan, the Kifaya reform movement in Egypt, public health in Bombay slums, religious identity in Kashmir, historical memory in Palestinian refugee camps in the West Bank, and the role of religion in Lebanese politics. He has also reported from such places as Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, Libya, North Ireland, Sri Lanka, Japan, and Korea. His work has also appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Guardian, Slate, New York, Arab Reform Bulletin, New Stateman, Chronicle of Higher Education, Daily Star (Lebanon), Cairo Magazine, Jerusalem Post, Christian Science Monitor, and various other publications, and he has appeared as a Middle East analyst on NBC News, CNN, Fox News, and Air America. His writings have earned him awards from the Overseas Press Club, the Scripps Howard Foundation, and the MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies. He is a fellow at the Truman National Security Project. He has a bachelor's degree in Middle East Studies from Yale University and studied Arabic at the American University in Cairo.

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