How to Evacuate 100,000 Israelis From the West Bank

By Zvika Krieger

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.

They have also been drafting and lobbying for an "Absorption, Compensation and Voluntary Evacuation Bill" to encourage the return of settlers who wish to come back into Israel's pre-1967 borders before the signing of an agreement. The group's co-founder, Ami Ayalon, former director of the Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet) recently made a convincing case for the law in the Jerusalem Post.

The Oxford Research Group's report lays out options for various compensation schemes, as well as mechanisms for the international community to make constructive contributions on this front. Such planning, the report argues, is "important to address the psychological fears and insecurities that prevent the settler movement from engaging in the necessary preparations to relocate to Israel proper" as well as "giving settlers more control over shaping their future lives." The report also suggests how to change the narrative so that the returning settlers can be seen as the "new pioneers," reclaiming much of the nationalist zeal that brought them to the West Bank in the first place -- an idea that is also fleshed out in a thoughtful article in International Journal by Brent Sasley and Mira Sucharov.

There are some, including the Oxford Research Group, who argue for allowing Israelis settlers to stay in the future Palestinian state. This would certainly alleviate the considerable challenges (not to mention expense) involved in evacuating them. But I think the risks of such proposals outweigh their benefits, as persuasively argued recently by my colleague Dan Rothem in The Atlantic.

These polls and proposals can't paper over the practical difficulties involved in dealing with the tens of thousands of Israelis who will be left out of Israel's new borders, of course, nor should they. But these challenges are not the death of the two-state solution. There are reasonable ways to deal with them, especially in the context of a comprehensive end-of-claims peace agreement. If a serious Israeli prime minister wanted the country to finally have a border with a clear Jewish majority for generations, there are ways he could do so.
9-11 Ten Years Later
I largely agree, though, with Wright's second argument about evacuating settlers: "No [Israeli] government is going to try to do it anyway!" It's hard to foresee the Netanyahu government, particularly with its current constellation of right-wing political parties, finding a political agreement with the Palestinians, let alone implementing any of the above measures that would ease the return of these settlers to Israel proper. A two-state solution is still technically feasible -- though politically, in many ways, seems as far off as ever.

I also largely share Wright's pessimism that "this right-wing government could eventually give way to a government well to its left." The major left-of-center parties (Kadima and Labor) seem to have abandoned talk of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict altogether, and erstwhile-savior Yair Lapid has been frustratingly vague on the topic. But there was a ray of hope in The New York Times' profile last weekend of new Kadima leader Shaul Mofaz, who has been "dismissed by many as a pale shadow of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a hawk who would try to join the governing Likud coalition." In one of Ethan Bronner's last pieces in his Jerusalem posting, he reveals that Mofaz actually intends to prioritize making peace with the Palestinians and ending settlement construction in much of the West Bank. "The greatest threat to the state of Israel is not nuclear Iran," he told Bronner. "It is in Israel's interest that a Palestinian state be created."

Unfortunately, even if Mofaz does hold to this focus, it remains unlikely that he could unseat Netanyahu in the next elections. And as both Wright and I can agree, irrespective of the practical ability to reach an agreement, the window for a solution is quickly narrowing. I also agree with Wright that perhaps the only "shock to Israel's political system sufficient to salvage a two-state solution is the tangible prospect of a one-state solution."

I think there is a rising consciousness of this reality within Israel, as summed up well by an Israeli colleague who I recently called to discuss the difficulty of evacuating settlers:

The challenge of my grandparent's generation was to forge and secure Israel.  The challenge of my parent's generation was to fortify the state's security by de-escalating the conflict with its neighbors away from wars that threaten its existence. The challenge of this generation is to make Israel a legitimate and accepted part of this region. The alternative is a forceful minority Jewish rule of an Arab majority and its moral and political implications. We can try to punch our way through reality with a mixed sense of victimhood and self-righteousness, but the only way to potential real acceptance is a peace agreement. ... I'm not saying it's easy. I'm saying it's doable. But the alternative is much much worse.

To see where the discourse is heading in Israel, check out this widely circulated and re-aired clip from Israel's highest-rated TV show, their version of the reality show "Big Brother."

The two-state solution is not dead yet, but it will be if people cease looking for creative and realistic solutions to the roadblocks, such as the huge task of moving out the settlers who would not be within the new Israeli borders. Just as it is unhelpful to harbor "cozy illusions" about the feasibility of the two-state solution, it is equally unhelpful to make alarmist proclamations about its death rather than trying to substantively and constructively engage with the challenges in its way.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2012/04/how-to-evacuate-100-000-israelis-from-the-west-bank/255775/