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Opinion 70 years after partition, a two-state solution is still possible

West Bank settlements are key drivers of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. New satellite images from a think tank suggest peace is possible through land swaps. (Video: Gillian Brockell, Danielle Kunitz/The Washington Post)
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David Makovsky is the Ziegler distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, where he directs the Project on the Middle East Peace Process. He worked in the Office of the U.S. Secretary of State in 2013-2014, where he was a senior adviser during Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.

Vice President Pence went to the Queens Museum in New York yesterday to commemorate the site of the old United Nations, which 70 years ago today voted for partition to divide the land and establish Arab and Jewish states.

The question 70 years later is, is West Bank partition still feasible? Analysts wonder if the various players such as President Trump, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas have the will to successfully launch such an effort — or if the best-laid plans will run aground for lack of political resolve.

Aside from the issue of political will, there are those on both the right and left who say there is no way to reconcile the territorial issue and point to the growing West Bank settlements. Critics on the right want Israel to annex much of the West Bank but fail to take into account the international reaction to such a unilateral move. On the left, critics even want Israel to be replaced in its entirety and become a bi-national Israeli-Palestine state.

Both approaches are delusional. Israel is not about to commit national suicide.

Given the paucity of options, partition is still feasible. Indeed, newest data suggests that territorial dimension is solvable. A new website launched by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy called Settlements and Solutions seeks to use civilian satellite imagery to provide a better understanding of settler trends.

The interplay of geography and demography in the West Bank matters — for it helps to address whether it is too late for Israelis and Palestinians to reach a compromise on the territorial issues, as well as on matters of security, refugees and the fate of Jerusalem.

If we want to parse out territorial solutions, we need to delineate between two groups of settlers, for they have vastly different implications for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Both groups live beyond the Green Line, the boundaries before the 1967 war; one group lives west of (within) the Israeli security barrier (constructed by the Israeli government during the Second Intifada of 2000-2005 to stymie the flow of Palestinian suicide bombers from the West Bank). The second group lives beyond or east of the security barrier. According to the Israel Central Bureau of Statistics, approximately 85 percent of Israelis living east of the Green Line but within the security barrier’s delineated area live in approximately 8 percent of the West Bank, in areas largely adjacent to Israeli urban areas. This translates to just under 556,000 Israelis living inside, or west, of the security barrier and more than 97,000 living outside of the barrier.

The above does not suggest that there are not demographic threats that could end a two-state option. While the ratio of 85 percent in 8 percent of the land has remained largely steady, the number of settlers has grown. In 2009 there were 70,000 settlers living beyond the barrier — as of June 2017, that number has increased by 27,000. If, in a two-state solution, there were an agreement between Israelis and Palestinians regarding the relocation of these settlers, the prospect of relocation would become increasingly difficult. Case in point: In contrast, approximately 8,000 settlers were relocated during the 2005 Gaza withdrawal. Of course, parties could agree in negotiations for the settlers to stay for a period of time.

The numbers also highlight the changing nature of the settlement movement. Two settlements out of 139 now account for almost 30 percent of all West Bank settlers and 46 percent of the growth over the last year. The two locations are ultra-Orthodox settlements, denoting a shift since the settlement movement was launched in the late 1960s, largely by religious Zionists who saw the West Bank as biblical patrimony and viewed themselves as political warriors in the struggle to retain the West Bank as part of the State of Israel. In contrast, the ultra-Orthodox are largely motivated by socioeconomic concerns, especially affordable housing. This is a major demand for an ultra-Orthodox community in which birth-rate averages are an astounding 6.9 per family.

Israel needs to align its settlement policy with a two-state approach that enables Israeli-Palestinian compromise. This would be a strong signal to counter the belief, reflected in Palestinian polls, that Israel wants the entire West Bank. None of this suggests that the barrier would necessarily be the border in a final-status agreement. That border would remain to be negotiated by the parties.

It is not too late. Those on both the right and the left that rush to proclaim the death of the two-state solution due to settlement population growth are too fatalistic. One cannot be certain about the political will to make it happen, but 70 years later, there is — at least for now — a way.