This week marks the 45th anniversary of the Six-Day War. It was a war of necessity for Israel -- Egypt and Syria, in particular, had manifested themselves as existential threats to the then-19-year-old Jewish state (Jordan less so) -- and it was a war whose first phase ended in unambiguous victory. The second phase, which is to say, the next 45 years, hasn't ended, and it hasn't been so fantastic for Israel in a couple of respects, mainly because successive Israeli governments succumbed to the (understandable, from a certain point of view) temptation to settle the West Bank (the most highly populated of the territories Israel captured in the war) with religious pioneers. The settlers today represent the vanguard of binationalism, not the vanguard of Zionism -- if the stay in the West Bank permanently, they will most likely forestall the creation of a Palestinian state. No Palestinian state = a very difficult future for Israel as a democracy.
The time is not exactly propitious for peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians: The Palestinian Authority is weak and corrupt, and does not even control a big chunk of the territory it would theoretically rule. That territory, Gaza, is under the control of Hamas, which would like to take control of the Palestinian Authority itself. That would, of course, represent a clarifying change in Middle East reality. But what it wouldn't change is the fact that it is untenable for Israel to maintain control over large numbers of Palestinians. Hence, the attractiveness of unilateralism. Ariel Sharon liked the idea of unilateral withdrawal so much he pulled out from Gaza not only its Jewish settlers, but the army as well. Pulling out the army without a negotiated agreement gave an easy victory to Hamas, and led to the group's takeover of the Strip. But unilateralism, nevertheless, isn't dead; just last week, Ehud Barak, the Israeli defense minister, proposed unspecified unilateral moves in the West Bank -- presumably a settlement pullback and the drawing of provisional borders -- if the peace process doesn't move forward.
Barak's notion didn't go down well with Hussein Ibish, who sees Israeli unilateralism undermining Palestinian moderates. Hussein on these unilateral ideas:
"(Barak) didn't specify what those (actions) might be, but several others have suggested that Israel create "temporary" or "provisional" unilaterally-imposed new borders in the territory. This idea is simple, superficially appealing and profoundly dangerous.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is correct in warning that unilateralism runs counter to the whole framework of a negotiated agreement. Rather than calming the situation on the ground, this could greatly inflame an already tense situation. Whatever the professed or real intentions behind such a move, Palestinians and other Arabs will assume that what is enacted as "temporary" will be at least semi-permanent (if not, indeed, permanent). They will believe that Israel is imposing unilaterally, by force and fiat, what it could not get Palestinians to accept at the negotiating table.
My own notion is that a modified unilateralism -- a partial pullout of settlers (preferably through financial inducement) -- might actually trigger a virtuous cycle, in which Palestinian moderates could point their skeptical public to Israel's evacuation of its far-flung settlements as proof that it just might want to create a contiguous state on the West Bank. The withdrawal of the Israeli army, of course, would have to be negotiated, but a partial pull-out of settlers could actually lead to useful negotiations. A settlement freeze might also help, but something more dramatic is needed, I think. In any case, Israel doesn't really have a choice, as I wrote in my Bloomberg View column this week. Eventually, I wrote,
...Israel's government will be forced to make a choice: Give up the settlements, or give up the idea of a democratic Jewish homeland. A decision that could have been made gradually and responsibly will have to be made in a crisis -- and in a crisis Middle Eastern countries tend to act in stupid and self- destructive ways.
It doesn't take special powers of discernment to understand that the time isn't ripe for a comprehensive peace treaty. Palestine is divided into two warring camps -- one led by Hamas, the other by Fatah -- that continually threaten to unite, and then fail to do so. The more moderate Fatah, led by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, is weak and corrupt, and Abbas recently walked away from negotiations with Israel, according to Jordanian officials who helped organize the talks. Hamas is devoted to Israel's physical destruction -- not ideal for a negotiating partner.
On the Israeli side, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is preoccupied with the threat of a nuclear Iran. He is a powerful prime minister, but his right-leaning coalition, still dependent on the settlers and their supporters, could thwart even modest compromise, especially in the absence of a compelling Palestinian partner.
Still, there is something Netanyahu can do: He can have an honest conversation with the Israeli people about the consequences -- military, moral and demographic -- of the settlements. And he can contemplate a notion advanced by a growing number of the country's security experts: a unilateral pullout of some settlers from the most distant reaches of the West Bank.
"Unilateralism" has a bad name in Israel, given that the country's pullout of settlers and soldiers from the Gaza Strip in 2005 led to a Hamas takeover. But a unilateral departure from the West Bank could be carried out in slow motion, and in a way that leaves the Israeli army in place until negotiations resume in earnest.
A pullout of settlers would signal to the Palestinians that the Netanyahu government is serious about compromise. It would show the world that Israel is not interested in being an occupying power forever. And it would show Israelis that their government is interested in finally winning the Six-Day War.