Allowing Israeli settlers to remain in the West Bank may ease the burden of drawing a border, but it is not in the interests of Palestinians or Israelis
Israeli children in the settlement of Itamar in the West Bank. / Reuters
The Atlantic's new special report "Is Peace Possible?" is featuring multimedia presentations on the four core issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: Borders, Security, Refugees, and Jerusalem. These are complex issues, so post your questions in the comments section of each chapter, send them via email (to Questions@IsPeacePossible.com), or tweet them to us at @IsPeacePossible.
Much of your Borders presentation focuses on how to draw the final borders of Israel in order to evacuate as few Israelis as possible from the West Bank. Why can't Israelis stay in the West Bank as citizens or residents in the new Palestinian state? Are Palestinians insisting on a Judenrein?
Allowing settlers and settlements to remain in the future state of Palestine, and therefore obviating the need to evacuate them forcefully, would remove one of the biggest obstacles to reaching and implementing an agreement. There are a few different versions of this concept, but most of them involve the idea of leaving those Israeli settlers who wish to remain (and there are many who would not want to) in existing settlements, most likely under Palestinian sovereignty but with some limited autonomous rights.
Obviously, the novel part of this proposal is to make it part of an Israeli-Palestinian agreement, as Israelis live in settlements right now, but absent the legitimacy of any significant international actor. The only party that could grant Israeli settlers and settlements the legitimacy they need is the Palestinians. So the key question to ask here is whether the Palestinians would accept such a notion.
Why are Palestinians so opposed to this idea? To Palestinians, the settlement enterprise in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and formerly in the Gaza Strip is the most potent symbol of Israeli occupation. In their eyes -- and in the eyes of the vast majority of the international community -- they embody Israel's aggressive strategy to chip away at what is left of the 22 percent of their historical homeland that they claim for a state. Politically, the continuation of settlement growth and expansion has signaled to them Israeli insincerity about a viable two state solution. It is no surprise, therefore, that the Palestinians insist that as part of a final resolution of the conflict, all settlements and settlers will be removed from within the borders of the new state of Palestine. For them, it would be the minimal correction to an historic injustice.
Palestinians claim that once they are satisfied that this injustice has been rectified, they would be ready to consider allowing Israeli Jews to become residents or citizens of Palestine in accordance with Palestinian immigration laws and relevant clauses of the peace treaty. "Once we have peace and two states on the ground, we will have to work on the best of the special relationships between Palestinians and Israelis," chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat told the Jerusalem Post. "I hope the day will come when Israelis can live freely in the state of Palestine."
It is difficult to gauge the level of sincerity with which Palestinians endorse such an option. On the one hand, it is the radical elements of the settler population -- historically and currently the source of violent aggression against West Bankers -- that are most likely to want to live in the new state of Palestine. On the other hand, it would be difficult for Palestinians to enact policies that discriminate on ethnic or religious grounds. "The kind of state that we want to have, that we aspire to have, is one that would definitely espouse high values of tolerance, co-existence, mutual respect and deference to all cultures, religions. No discrimination whatsoever, on any basis whatsoever," Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad said in 2009. "Jews to the extent they choose to stay and live in the state of Palestine will enjoy those rights and certainly will not enjoy any less rights than Israeli Arabs enjoy now in the State of Israel." (In turn, it would also be difficult for Israel to demand Palestinian immigration policies that allow Israelis to become residents or citizens if Israel would not allow the same right to Palestinians.)
Even though the idea of Israelis remaining in a future Palestinian state has recently gained traction in right-wing Israeli and international circles, many Israeli officials object to it. Their first concern is the Israeli interest of clarifying that the two-state solution is a two nation-state solution: Israel fulfills the national aspirations of the Jewish people and Palestine fulfills the national aspirations of the Palestinian people. Accordingly, mixture of populations should be kept to the absolute minimum necessary. For years, Israeli officials criticized the Palestinian Liberation Movement for being the only nationalist movement that wanted, in their demand for a return of Palestinian refugees to homes and properties left in 1948 within Israel proper, to settle parts of its people outside their independent state. Now, some Israelis seem to be arguing for a similar trend.
Secondly, allowing settlers and settlements to stay intact in Palestine would undermine the basic Israeli rationale for amending the 1967 lines. If all settlers could stay where they are -- why change the 1967 lines to annex some of them at all?
Thirdly, and not least important, is the issue of security. Should violent incidents occur between Israelis living in the new state of Palestine and Palestinian citizens or security forces, the Israeli government would be in a very tough spot -- pressed to act in what essentially is a domestic Palestinian matter of law and order. Any incursion could threaten the peace agreement by infringing on Palestinian sovereignty; if it didn't act, the Israeli government would allow its citizens to come under threat a few kilometers from its borders, within the historical land of Israel. "How can I provide Israelis living in Palestine with security?" asked former Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni during the Annapolis negotiations. "I cannot bear the responsibility of their life in case they are exposed to danger and then the army will have to interfere."
There are many technical challenges to the implementation of such a proposal. Will the settlers be granted Palestinian citizenship or will they be only residents of Palestine? Will dual Israeli-Palestinian citizenship be allowed by Palestine? by Israel? What will be their civil obligations to Palestine and to Israel? Will they be able to vote in either or both places? But the key impediment to its adoption is that, despite its allure in relieving the need to evacuate Israeli settlers, it is in the interests of neither Palestinians nor Israelis.
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Dan Rothem is a Senior Research Consultant for the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace.