The Israeli public is ready for radical compromise

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In 1994 I published a research proposal regarding final status arrangements for the settlements, which became known as the Alpher Plan. I suggested a map that enabled Israel to incorporate around two-thirds of the settlers into its final status borders, while annexing some 11 percent of the West Bank and Gaza. The Palestinian state would be compensated with land, a Gaza-West Bank corridor arrangement and concessions in other areas of concern. The remaining one-third of the settlers, most in relatively small settlements in the Samarian and Judean mountain heartland and in the Jordan Valley and the Gaza Strip, would be evacuated. Arrangements would be made to accommodate those few who might choose to live in a Palestinian state.

In the ensuing years, that map went through a number of permutations, resurfacing in altered form first as the Beilin-Abu Maazen Plan, then as the basis for Israeli-PLO negotiations at Camp David II in July 2000 and at Taba half a year later. By the time negotiations had exhausted themselves and violence took hold, the gap separating the two sides’ alternative maps had been narrowed to around one percent of the territory. Reliable polls indicated that the Israeli public would support a negotiated outcome along these parameters.

Meanwhile a succession of Israeli governments, from Rabin’s through Sharon’s, continued to build and expand the settlements. This was a violation of the spirit, if not the letter, of the Oslo agreements. It was also–at least for those Israeli governments dedicated to advancing the peace process–an incredibly mindless act that placed short-term political expediency ahead of the welfare of the peace process. The signal it sent to the Palestinian people was translated directly into the violence that broke out 16 months ago. It was no coincidence that the Mitchell Commission report placed such a high priority on freezing settlement construction as a confidence-building measure.

Months of violence have hardened Israeli attitudes on some issues, such as even a symbolic refugee “return.” But they actually appear to have instilled a greater willingness within the Israeli public to part with the most provocative settlements. The public is not happy to devote Israeli defense resources, including army reserve service, to protecting extremist settlers. It increasingly recognizes that maintaining the more isolated settlements will eventually bring about a demographic disaster for Israel. And it has come to terms with the need for, and inevitability of, a viable Palestinian state.

Today around half the public is prepared to consider unilateral withdrawal and the dismantling of the “heartland” and Gaza settlements even without an agreement. But this new attitude has not found expression in the platform of a single party in the Knesset; even on the Left, political leaders continue to hold out the hope of a negotiated settlement, and to fear the possible negative consequences of a unilateral act of withdrawal.

As for the settlers themselves, the vast majority are understandably confident of their future. These are the non-ideological settlers who live in the bedroom suburb blocs abutting the Green Line, whose eventual annexation to Israel even the PLO tacitly accepted in negotiations. In a few isolated secular settlements in the mountain heartland there have been cases of settlers leaving under pressure of the Intifada; no doubt there would be more if the government were to offer financial compensation now. But the ideologically motivated settlers in Shiloh, Elon Moreh, Hebron and elsewhere in the mountain heartland and the Gaza Strip have, with great dedication and considerable political skill, ensured for themselves an extraordinary degree of influence over the Israeli internal debate that far exceeds their numbers. They remain absolutely determined to impose their messianic vision on their fellow Israelis–and on the Palestinian people.

That vision, if realized, bespeaks a disastrous outcome for both peoples. If the ideological settler minority has its way, Israel will face a choice between becoming a full-fledged apartheid state, with the Palestinian cities (area A) filling the role of bantustans, and becoming a binational state. The first alternative spells the end of Israeli democracy; the second, the end of Israel as a Jewish, Zionist state. The ideological settlers would procure for Israel a place of honor in the March of Folly.

In recent years prime ministers Rabin, Peres and Barak all struggled–despite, and alongside their mistakes–to reach political accommodation with the PLO in order to avert precisely such an outcome. Rabin paid with his life, Barak with his political reputation; only the indefatigable Peres persists. None reached the point where they were actually called upon, as national leaders, to implement a final status agreement and remove settlers and settlements.

When this does happen, it will be a major moment of truth for Israeli democracy. Dismantling settlements will require an extraordinary level of leadership, capable of galvanizing a solid majority in the Knesset. And for that to happen, there will have to be a substantial improvement in the quality of Israeli political life.

Yossi Alpher is the author of the forthcoming book “And the Wolf Shall Dwell with the Wolf: The Settlers and the Palestinians.”

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