Why Israel Should Withdraw From the West Bank—Now

With peace process stalled and the Iranian threat looming, one controversial solution could help Jerusalem evade both problems.

israeli soldier.jpg
An Israeli soldier stands guard at a checkpoint near the West Bank. (Reuters)

These generally feel like good times in Israel. The existential dangers facing the country often seem to have subsided, with sanctions starting to bite Iran and most Israelis, secure behind their wall, able to ignore the Palestinians. Recent protests in Tel Aviv have focused on social security, not the physical kind.

Yet the dangers posed by Iran and by Israel's occupation of the West Bank have never been greater. Take Iran: while the chances of conflict may seem to have diminished recently, there's reason to believe that the chances of an Israeli strike are actually as high as ever. Jerusalem knows that Washington opposes an Israeli attack on Iran's suspected nuclear program -- so the best time to launch one would be now, before the U.S. election, when both parties are still desperately courting the pro-Israel vote. A number of experts think an Israeli strike wouldn't actually keep Tehran from building a bomb, at least not for very long. But Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak say they disagree.

Then there's the occupation, now in its 45th year. The peace process is dead, or at least in a coma, and the Obama administration has dropped it, at least for now. Yet the costs for Israel keep climbing. The Jewish state has never been more isolated; Turkey has grown distant and with the Arab Spring, Jerusalem may have lost its cold but important ally in Cairo. Inside the territories, Palestinians are growing less supportive of the peaceful president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, whose administration is struggling with corruption and whose cooperation with Israel has earned him little in return.

These two problems -- Iran and the occupation -- can often seem like crises with no solutions. But there is one move Israel could take that could immediately improve its security, rebuild its moral standing, defuse tensions with the Palestinians, and deeply rattle Iran: start to dismantle the occupation of the West Bank. Ideally, Israel would do so as part of a negotiated peace, but it could also move unilaterally, if necessary.

Unilateral withdrawal has a bad reputation in Israel. It is neither a perfect nor a complete solution. But it's the best step Israel can take now, on its own, to shore up its physical security and its status as a liberal, democratic, Jewish state.

Consider the benefits Israel would reap if it started reducing its footprint in the West Bank. First there would be the financial dividend. The direct costs of running the occupation are thought to come to around $6.3 billion a year -- a significant sum and a big savings Israel could reap if it no longer had to protect so many outlying outposts in hostile territory.

Then there's the moral reward. Pulling out from all or most of the West Bank settlements would free Israeli parents from having to send their sons and daughters to enforce a brutal project that many of them oppose. It would weaken the power of Israeli extremists and ultranationalists by depriving them of their power base in the Jewish settlements and undermining their messianic dreams of a Greater Israel. And it would finally allow the Jewish State to start shedding its international pariah status. It may be too optimistic to hope that the country would recapture its pre-1967 glow -- when a combination of sympathy for Israel's underdog status, admiration for the tiny state's stunning successes, and European guilt about World War Two made Israel a cause célèbre in Western capitals.

But even a partial Israeli withdrawal would, at the very least, deprive Israel's enemies of their biggest rhetorical weapon. At best, it would lessen or even end Israel's isolation and open doors for trade, investment, and tourism in Europe and the Middle East. It would also greatly strengthen Israel's position on Iran by giving its Arab neighbors more room to openly support Jerusalem against Tehran.

On a recent trip to Saudi Arabia, I was struck by something officials kept repeating (albeit always off the record): that their leaders would love nothing better than to cozy up to Israel on security matters. I've heard the same thing in the Gulf emirates and Jordan as well.

This sentiment, implausible as it sounds, is not being driven by some mysterious new wave of brotherly love in the Levant. It is based on something much more primal and powerful than that: fear. The one country that scares most Sunni leaders more than Israel is Iran. Yet they also know that Israel happens to be the only country in the region strong enough to stand up to the Islamic Republic. What's keeping these emirs from joining forces with Israel against Iran is the opposition of their own publics, opposition that is based overwhelming on Israel's oppression of the Palestinians. Were Israel to end that oppression, the popular opposition might well soften, freeing up Sunni Arab leaders to at least quietly join forces with Jerusalem against Tehran.

So if the benefits of ending the occupation are so powerful, why hasn't Israel started doing it already? The answer one hears most frequently is that time is not ripe, that Israel has no Palestinian partner for peace. There's something to this: despite pledges of reconciliation, Palestinian rule is divided between Hamas, which is still sworn to Israel's destruction, and the Palestinian Liberation Organization, which is too weak and corrupt.

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Jonathan Tepperman is the managing editor of Foreign Affairs. He was previously managing editor and a director at Eurasia Group, a global political risk consulting firm, deputy editor of Newsweek International, and deputy managing editor at Foreign Affairs. More

Jonathan Tepperman is the managing editor of Foreign Affairs. He has spent his career covering foreign policy and international news, both as a writer and an editor. He was previously managing editor and a director at Eurasia Group, a global political risk consulting firm. Before joining Eurasia Group, Tepperman spent three years at Newsweek, where he was the deputy editor of Newsweek International. In that post he helped oversee Newsweek's Asia, Europe, Middle East, and Africa coverage, top-edited the InternationaList section, ran the annual Davos Ideas issue, and wrote a regular style and luxury column, "The Good Life." Prior to that, he spent eight years at Foreign Affairs magazine, rising to the post of deputy managing editor.

Tepperman has written for a range of publications, including Newsweek and Foreign Affairs, as well as The New York Times (magazine, op-ed page, and book review), The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The International Herald Tribune, The Los Angeles Times, The Christian Science Monitor, The New Republic, and others.

He has a BA in English literature from Yale University and law degrees from Oxford and NYU. Tepperman lives in Manhattan.

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