Seven years after Israel’s unilateral disengagement from the Gaza Strip, and twelve years after the same move from southern Lebanon, Israeli policy makers are once again debating the merits of another unilateral withdrawal—this time from parts of the West Bank east of the security barrier.
But while unilateralism is the correct strategy for Israel at the moment, it is not a panacea, and the structure of Israel’s disengagement from the West Bank must be modified from its two previous incarnations for it to be successful this time around.
The revival of the unilateralist movement in Israel, after being buried for years under the hail of thousands of Hezbollah and Hamas rockets, stems from two related phenomena—one strategic and one ideological.
As all but the most extreme members of the Right and Left acknowledge by now, the Jewish state is caught in a strategic dilemma.
On the one hand, the left wing is absolutely correct in arguing that Israel must relinquish control of West Bank Palestinians in order to preserve its democratic and Jewish character. In an age of instant communication, transnational networks and the elevation of universal values such as self-determination, holding onto that territory will either transform Israel into a single binational state or an apartheid, pariah state.
On the other hand, the right wing is justified in claiming that peace with the Palestinians is not currently possible. Despite admirable attempts by some Palestinians to engage in nonviolent activism, far too many Palestinians refuse to accept Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state. This is most obvious in the refusal of the Palestinian leadership—both Fatah and Hamas—as well as the general population, to renounce the right of return for Palestinian refugees to pre-1967 Israel. It is also clear in the continued glorification of terrorism within the Palestinian national discourse.
The second phenomena is the rise of Centrist Zionism, which—while almost completely absent in the Zionist discourse in the United States—is now the preeminent ideology of modern Israel.
Centrist Zionism emerges from the fundamental truth that Israel’s policies are leading the Zionist ideal of a democratic Jewish state into the dustbins of history and that neither liberal nor conservative Zionism has provided an answer for Israel’s strategic dilemma. This platform discards the all-too-obvious errors of right- and left-wing ideology while embracing the fundamental truths each speaks.
Centrist Zionists believe Arab rejectionism remains a key impediment to reaching a comprehensive peace agreement and, subsequently, that peaceful coexistence is not currently possible. And due to Israel’s very persistent and very real security threats, the Jewish state cannot be expected to uphold the same standards of human and civil rights as Western Europe 100 percent of the time.
But Centrist Zionism also holds that Arab rejectionism does not give Israel carte blanche to systematically subjugate millions of people for more than four decades. A Jewish state based on Jewish principles and ethics cannot blithely violate the rights of others, as Israel now does. Moreover, doing so dangerously isolates Israel in the world and complicates its most important relationships with Western allies.
Unilateralism therefore logically emerges from the synthesis of Centrist Zionism and Israel’s current strategic dilemma. But in order to advance Israel’s strategic interests, one major modification must be made from the model enacted in Lebanon and Gaza.
While Jewish settlers must be removed from areas east of the security barrier—forcibly if necessary—the army should retain a presence inside the West Bank and on the border with Jordan for the foreseeable future. Without the IDF presence, Hamas and groups like it would inevitably arm themselves as they have in Gaza, allowing Palestinian militants to rain rockets down on Israel’s main population centers and international airport—a scenario Israel cannot abide.
While the American press largely misread the vast expansion of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government coalition as an opportunity for him to make a breakthrough in the peace process, it was at least correct in stating that he has a “historic” opportunity in front of him. With Kadima’s votes, Bibi likely wields enough power to implement the unilateral option. But he must act now, as the opportunity to do so with such broad support in the Knesset may not come again soon.
This modified version of unilateralism will no doubt be unsatisfying to many supporters of Israel. It places a huge burden on the state in terms of resettling tens of thousands of people without producing true peace. But Zionism has reached a point where the traditional left and right ideologies have failed to produce realistic strategic options and where continued inaction will lead to the end of Israel as we know it. A unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank—which denies the Palestinians a veto on Israel’s future—is the only realistic method of resolving the Jewish state’s strategic dilemma.
Under the suggested paradigm, the security Israelis deserve will be preserved while the threat posed by the one-state solution will be abjured. Some conflict will continue, but it will be the type of conflict that Israel knows how to manage. And without Jewish settlers confiscating land, torching mosques and carving up the West Bank with Jewish-only bypass roads, much of the justified moral consternation over Israel’s colonial enterprise there will evaporate.
One day, if and when Israelis and Palestinians both learn to truly accept each other and the fact that they are destined to share this land together in perpetuity, peace may be achieved. Until then, modified unilateralism, while not ideal, is the best course to pursue.
Rafael D. Frankel is a former Middle East correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor and The Boston Globe and is currently a Ph.D. candidate at Georgetown University. You can follow him on Twitter @rafaeldfrankel or on the web at www.rafaeldfrankel.com.
Image: Jamie Lynn Ross