It will most likely happen unilaterally

An Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement–that inevitably would mandate the removal of settlements–is not likely in the near future, if only because all mutual trust has been destroyed and both sides believe they have no peace partner. Meanwhile the settlements and outposts (which are essentially nascent settlements) continue to spread, thereby interlocking the Israeli and Palestinian populations to an ever-greater degree and reducing yet further the likelihood of a negotiated settlement.

At the same time, a growing proportion of the Israeli population supports some form of unilateral redeployment, both for security reasons and due to concern that settlement spread is already beginning to compromise Israel’s democratic and Jewish nature from both a demographic and a geographic standpoint. Hence if settlements are dismantled in the foreseeable political future, this is more likely to be a limited unilateral act–say, in the Gaza Strip or the mountain heartland of the West Bank–than a function of an Israeli-Palestinian agreement.

The maximum number of settlers whose removal is envisioned according to the terms of a political agreement, such as the one nearly reached at Camp David II-Taba in 2000/2001, is around 70,000. Under an initial unilateral withdrawal, we are probably talking about a considerably lower number; the total settler population of the Gaza Strip, for example, is around 6,000.

Assuming that an elected government of Israel commands the parliamentary majority, and has the political will, to carry out a partial withdrawal (or for that matter, to dismantle settlements within the framework of an agreement), it will encounter a number of very serious challenges. Even a handful of settlers now appear to constitute a problem. One explanation for the difficulty experienced recently in removing sparsely populated outposts is the settler establishment’s capacity to mobilize large numbers of reinforcements to man a position and oppose evacuation, then quickly rebuild the outpost, with all the media coverage involved. This problem will be multiplied a hundredfold with regard to larger settlements, unless two solutions are invoked: turning over to Palestinian rule each settlement as it is evacuated; and taking advantage of the security fence–in this instance not to keep Palestinians out of Israel, but to prevent supporters of the settlement movement from arriving. This is one reason why it will be easier to evacuate Gaza first; the fence is already there.

One alternative to turning settlements over to the Palestinians intact is to remove the settlers unilaterally but leave the army there, pending Israeli-Palestinian negotiations over the fate of the settlements within a broader political framework. While this approach ostensibly enhances Israel’s negotiating position and reduces damage to its deterrent image as a result of unilateral moves, it also reduces the level of finality involved in the removal of the setters: if the IDF (Israel Defense Forces) is still there, there will be political pressure to allow the settlers to return.

Nor is it necessarily a foregone conclusion that the physical plant of the evacuated settlements will be left intact for Palestinian usage. The famous precedent of Ariel Sharon’s destruction of the town of Yamit in Sinai, in the course of Israel’s evacuation more than 20 years ago within the framework of its peace agreement with Egypt, is usually cited in a negative light. In fact, by destroying Yamit, Israel added a degree of finality to its evacuation that almost certainly reduced dangerous irredentist and revisionist pressures from within Israeli society. Fifteen years later, it was still possible to read poems of longing for Yamit in the settlers’ monthly, Nekuda, but at least former settlers were not able to stand on a hilltop with their children and point and say "You see, there, that’s our real home; one day we’ll go back there"–an emotional response very familiar to Israelis from Palestinian refugee attitudes.

But by the same token, in the Palestinian case, the refugee factor dictates that Israel take advantage of every possible opportunity to institute a norm of "return" to the new state and not to Israel, while creating a reality that could considerably reduce the compensation sums it pays to Palestinian refugees or to the state of Palestine on their behalf. The settlements in question and their infrastructure undoubtedly represent an investment of hundreds of millions of dollars over the years. Hence if Israel chooses to leave them intact, it should do so only in accordance with an agreement with the Palestine Liberation Organization, or alternatively an arrangement with the international community, whereby the value of the settlements is calculated and recognized as a factor in eventual final status compensation payments.

But the most difficult and most obvious challenge is the actual physical removal of settlers, some of whom will invoke passive and even violent resistance. Settlers opposing evacuation will have high religious/ideological motivation, and will seek to influence portions of the governing coalition as well as the security establishment, where in recent years they have established an increasingly prominent presence.

Settler opposition–political and physical–is the single greatest obstacle any government will have to overcome; every additional day of settlement expansion renders this challenge more daunting.