The question of settlers remaining in a Palestinian state is becoming increasingly central to the issue of a successful two-state solution. One reason is quite simply the growing number of settlers who live beyond the settlement blocs and who are not likely to accept financial compensation and leave their homes in order to facilitate an agreement.
Another is that the failure of the government of Israel to resettle the 2005 Gaza Strip evacuees expeditiously reinforces the impression that the removal of tenfold as many settlers from the West Bank may be beyond the capacity of any future government. True, the Gaza failure was caused in part by the obstinacy of the settlers themselves, but that merely reinforces the point that removing many more is a dangerous gamble for Israeli society.
Moreover, the officer ranks of IDF land forces are now so heavily manned by the sons of settlers themselves — around 30 percent and rising — that even Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi has asked the government not to turn to the army to remove settlers because this would be too divisive. In the past, I advocated that the removal of West Bank settlers become one of the tasks allotted to an international peacekeeping force. This would of course constitute an admission of virtual domestic political bankruptcy on Israel’s part. In any case, there is no certainty that troops from Denmark or Colombia would accept that task or could carry it out.
For all these reasons, it is increasingly tempting to contemplate the option of simply informing those settlers who live on land slated to be turned over to a Palestinian state that they can either leave in return for generous compensation and state assistance in resettling — or remain behind as residents of Palestine. Presumably there would be some sort of transition period, after which if remaining settlers change their minds they could still return but would receive reduced compensation.
Let’s assume for a moment that the government of the new state of Palestine does not treat its Jewish minority the way successive Israeli governments, even in recent years, have treated Israel’s Arab minority: short-changing their communities on budget allocations for education and on financial and land allocations for infrastructure. Let’s assume the settlers who remain behind are treated in accordance with the letter of Palestinian law and that that law is fair and progressive. What would happen to settlers who elect to remain in Palestine?
Palestinian courts would determine that settlers living on private Palestinian land that was illegally expropriated by Israel have to return it to its lawful owners. Palestinian Arabs would have the right to buy or rent homes inside the settlements. All issues involving the law would be adjudicated by the Palestinian police and legal system, whether on West Bank roads or in private settler homes. Settlers wishing to bear arms would require a Palestinian gun permit. There would no longer be an armed Jewish guard at the entrance to settlements.
Back in 1995, I convened a series of dialogues between settler leaders and Palestinian leaders where this issue was discussed. The title of the book I subsequently wrote about those talks, "And the Wolf Shall Dwell with the Wolf", says it all. Once the settlers —responsible and level-headed leaders of their community — realized the price they would have to pay for remaining in a Palestinian state, they acknowledged that their options were narrowed to either thwarting a two-state solution or leaving peaceably.
Thus under these circumstances, which are perfectly reasonable by any sovereign standard, it’s safe to assume that even many of the fervently ideological settlers would ultimately opt to leave quietly. But not all: it’s likely that a few thousand extremist settlers would opt to remain behind with the explicit objective of making trouble by attacking their Palestinian neighbors or forcefully resisting legitimate Palestinian security forces, thereby creating a siege situation. Their goal would be to force the IDF to intervene and clash with Palestinian or international forces in order to save Jewish lives, thereby conceivably scuttling the new two-state arrangement.
It’s also reasonable to assume there would be armed Palestinians operating beyond the law and seeking to settle scores with the remaining settlers. This could produce the same chaotic and politically disastrous outcome.
Perhaps not everywhere. While there are, to the best of my knowledge, no Israelis who willingly seek to live permanently in Arab countries, the circumstances of the West Bank with its historic and religious significance to Judaism could conceivably open up a different reality for a limited number of Israelis. For one, there may be dedicated settlers who are confident that the land they live on would remain theirs under Palestinian law. Some fervently religious Jews might wish to remain near the Machpela Cave in Hebron no matter what the price. Then too, a few non-Zionist ultra-orthodox Jewish settlers with no ideological attachment to Israel might be prepared to accept the Palestinian conditions.
Were this to happen, it would help create a positive balance between the new Palestinian state and Israel with its own Palestinian Arab population. Perhaps everyone would then be treated better.
Yossi Alpher is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University. This commentary is published by DAILY NEWS EGYPT in collaboration with bitterlemons.org.