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.

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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.

This is a real problem. Yet Israel doesn't need to wait for the Palestinians to make progress on the occupation. While it would be preferable for the two to strike a deal before either took action, Jerusalem retains the ability to act on its own.

In the seven years since the Israelis withdrew from Gaza, the idea of unilateralism has become highly unpopular in Israel. But it's suddenly being talked about again, and a variety of Israelis -- from Barak to a new peace movement drawn from the security establishment, called the Blue and White Coalition -- have begun pushing for it. This discussion stems in part from Israelis' frustration with the deadlocked peace process. But there are several other key facts that make unilateralism a plausible alternative.

There are currently about 500,000 Jewish settlers living in the West Bank. It's unlikely that any Israeli leader would have the political capital to pull all of them out, short of a comprehensive deal. But Israel could still make great progress in the meantime, because about 375,000 of those half million settlers live in settlement blocs that either straddle the Israeli border or are located just a few kilometers away. These settlement towns function, in a sense, as suburbs of Jerusalem and greater Tel Aviv. They are already practically part of Israel proper -- something even the Palestinian Authority effectively acknowledged when it provisionally agreed, as part of a final deal that was never sealed, to cede most of these blocs to Israel in return for swaps of territory elsewhere. What's remarkable is how little land these blocs actually represent. Trading just about five percent of Palestinian territory for five percent of Israeli land would bring some 85 percent of all Jewish settlers in the West Bank into Israel proper.

Other settlers could be induced to move. According to a survey conducted by Peace Now in 2002 (the last year for which data is available), some 77 percent of West Bank settlers are non-ideological -- that is, they chose the West Bank for economic, not political or religious reasons (many members of this group are recent immigrants from Russia who couldn't afford homes in Israel proper). Settlers enjoy generous government benefits, including higher wages for some state jobs and large subsidies for education, transportation, mortgages, and land purchases. Those who take advantage of these handouts are generally secular or ultra-orthodox, but not necessarily ultra-nationalist. That may explain why, according to a poll taken last year, at least 100,000 Israeli settlers say they would be willing to move back within the pre-1967 borders today if they were offered enough financial assistance.

All of this suggests that the vast majority of Israeli settlers could be peacefully returned to Israel, either by incorporating slivers of land along the Green Line into Israel proper or by offering them economic inducements to move. This wouldn't be easy or uncontroversial in Israel, much less in the West Bank. But the point is that it's doable -- and a step Israel could take on its own.

Such moves could be taken without repeating the mistakes of Lebanon, which the Israelis fled chaotically in 2000, or of Gaza, the withdrawal from which was presented to the Palestinians as an end in and of itself and as an alternative to negotiations, not a prelude to them.

To be sure, there would be some obvious problems for any unilateral withdrawal plan. For one thing, it would be a partial fix; for another, you can't swap land (or anything else) singlehandedly. Some Israelis fear that, by giving the Palestinians something for nothing, it might leave them with little motivation to start talking peace again. Israel could leave the army behind in strategic locations in the Jordan Valley and the Judean heights, both to safeguard Israel's security and give the two sides reason to keep talking. As for the land-swaps, Israel could start acting on its own as if the two sides had agreed to a swap: by freezing new settlement construction while starting to integrate many of the Jewish-populated slivers of land along its borders into Israel proper (without annexing them outright, since that might look like a land-grab) while preparing the territory it plans to hand over by demarcating the ground and clearing it of any structures.

Despite such measures, unilateralism still wouldn't be a perfect solution. It may induce the Palestinians to start talking peace, but it may not. Yet even if the Palestinians simply pocket Israel's overtures or worse respond with violence, Israel would still be better off than today, since it would have dramatically reduced its exposed and vulnerable outposts in the West Bank.

So what are the odds that Netanyahu is going to do any of this? No one but the prime minister knows for sure, and he's given no public indications. What we do know, however, is that Defense Minister Ehud Barak, the second most powerful person in the government, seems to support such a plan. So, it seems likely, would Kadima, the opposition party that controls more seats in the Knesset than any other and that recently bolted from Netanyahu's coalition but is generally supportive of the peace process. The death of Bibi's very influential and very hardline father in April ago could also give him more leeway.

Here the West -- and particularly the United States, whether it is led by Barack Obama or Mitt Romney -- can help. Israelis often give their American supporters the sense that they're very interested in receiving economic support (official aid from Washington is expected to hit just over $3 billion this year plus many millions more in private giving), but are much less enthusiastic about unsolicited advice. But that doesn't mean the West should just pay up and shut up. Sometimes being friends means speaking truth to power -- and pushing partners to act in their own interests, even if they don't want to.