Detailing the long and fruitless “peace process” that has spanned many years and U.S. presidents, Hoover scholar Peter Berkowitz considers a recent interview by the Israeli prime minister:
While insisting that “negotiations are always preferable,” [Benjamin] Netanyahu also noted that “the idea of taking unilateral steps is gaining ground, from the center-left to the center-right.” Netanyahu did not himself embrace the idea of withdrawing from selected areas of the West Bank. Indeed, the prime minister stressed that “the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza didn’t improve the situation or advance peace—it created Hamastan, from which thousands of rockets have been fired” at Israeli cities.
Nonetheless, since the beginning of this year, four prominent Israelis have advanced the idea of partial unilateral withdrawal. Three have either recently held, or presently serve in, major positions in Netanyahu’s government.
Berkowitz notes the differences among the plans, but observes that they all set up the same question: Would the benefits from unilaterally giving up rule over the largest concentration of Palestinians outweigh the dangers, including risk of terrorism and international disapproval?
The Jewish state’s critics are a funny bunch; they excoriate Israel for its presence in the West Bank, ignore attempts to give it back and would certainly holler about unilateralism if Israel gave it up. Strange, isn’t it, that whatever the Jewish state does is fodder for international condemnation?
Berkowitz explains that some of the concerns commonly raised about a unilateral pull-back can be addressed. For example, helping to strengthen Palestinian civil society can still go on. The retention of mountains and the Jordan Valley would minimize the risk of terrorism. He also points out that such a move might be seen as rewarding Palestinian obstinacy, but offers that the incentive would still be there to finalize borders and address other issues.
I would concur that unilateral withdrawal is an “imperfect response” to the conflict, but one worth considering. Let me suggest a few other concerns.
First, Israel should wait until there is a friendly administration in the White House. The current one is not friendly, and there is no use giving the president further excuse to bash Israel. If Israel does this, it will need the U.S.’s continued goodwill and diplomatic and military support. Assuming that any president likely to be elected in 2016 would be more attuned to Israel’s needs, any plan shouldn’t be implemented before President Obama leaves.
Second, Israel should be concerned about Jordan’s reaction. Jordan has as much to lose as Israel from the influx of jihadis and a ramp up in terrorism. Jordan has already been under political and economic strain, in large part because of the flood of refugees from Syria. Acting against the wishes of Jordan and/or increasing instability there would be problematic.
Third, by giving up land now Israel depletes the things it can later give in exchange for Palestinians’ recognition of the Jewish state and their giving up the right of return. The pressure may increase on Israel to do things it has no intention of doing, like ceding sovereignty over Israel. Without the unilateral withdrawal, the trade was Israel gives up the West Bank and the Palestinian Authority (PA) gives up the right of return, a logical expression of two countries for two peoples. But having given up the West Bank, Israel surely won’t be prepared to convert the trade into one that envisions, for example, ceding control over East Jerusalem in exchange for the PA giving up the right of return.
In that sense, future negotiations become all the more problematic. But — and here is the kicker — maybe it does not matter. If the goal for Israel is not to obtain recognition or convince the PA to give up the right of return but instead to separate from the Palestinians as much as its security will allow, then it is immaterial if there is no final deal for the foreseeable future. There is simply a new status quo in which Israel is freed of the responsibility for overseeing a hostile population.
And finally, with an indefinite map and the region in disarray (Egypt at odds with itself, Syria’s civil war, the Iranian threat) it is that much harder to figure out the consequences of a unilateral withdrawal. The identity of its neighbors makes a difference in Israel’s security calculations.
In this case, debate and consideration are certainly worthwhile. In the short term, caution is likely to prevail. But after 2016 maybe the path to a new status quo will become more inviting.