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Elliot Leven

Elliot Leven: Proposed unilateral withdrawal from West Bank raises more problems than it solves

By Elliot Leven, July 12, 2012

In late May, former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak raised some eyebrows by speculating that a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank would be a realistic option. “Israel cannot afford to tread water,” Barak said at a security conference. If a peace deal “proves to be impossible, we have to consider a provisional arrangement or even unilateral action,” Barak mused.
Barak did not explain what he meant by “unilateral action,” but his comment started a round of debate in Israel about the concept that Israel might withdraw from the West Bank (or most of it), even without the consent of the Palestinian Authority (PA).
Needless to say, neither Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu nor PA leader Mahmoud Abbas endorses a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from any or all of the West Bank.
The precedent is Israel’s 2005 unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, which included the dismantling of Israeli settlements in Gaza. Though some settlers used passive resistance when Israeli troops moved in, the troops exercised admirable restraint and there was no violence. Israel continues to control the borders and airspace of Gaza to this day. Israeli soldiers no longer have to patrol the cities and refugee camps of Gaza, but there is no peace in the strip.
Various proposals for peace include Israeli withdrawal from at least some West Bank settlements. Though the PA has not conceded on the record that it would agree to a peace plan which left any settlements intact, objective observers have long agreed that any realistic peace plan would include provisions to leave a few of the larger settlements in place. Different peace proposals have varied in terms of how many settlements would be dismantled.
A fairly new Israeli organization called Blue White Future advocates that the Israeli government should offer incentives to West Bank settlers to leave their homes in advance of a formal peace agreement. This group was founded in 2010 by prominent Israelis including Ami Ayalon, a past head of Shin Bet (the Israeli FBI). The group’s ideas make sense. There is no harm in offering incentives. If only a few settlers accept them, no harm done.
The concept of a unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank has a few advantages. It would not require any negotiations with the PA, and would not have to wait until the PA and Hamas (the radical Palestinian organization that governs Gaza) reconciled all of their differences. It would enable Israel to decide which settlements to dismantle and which to leave intact. This would be a way of creating “facts” that might become permanent. In other words, the theory goes, when the PA and Israel eventually do sign a peace agreement, they might simply agree to leave the West Bank status quo in place.
Furthermore, if Israel were to dismantle most of the West Bank settlements, and most of West Bank military checkpoints, the PA might not be happy, but it would eventually get on with the mundane business of governing its expanded West Bank territory. With most of the settlements and their access roads gone, the new PA territory would look much less like a checkerboard, and much more like a state. The world might even recognize Palestinian statehood in this new entity.
Unfortunately, unilateral withdrawal would leave the big problems completely unsolved. If Israel and the Palestinian people are ever to become peaceful neighbors, they will have to do so bilaterally. Even a “cold peace” (involving diplomatic relations but no feelings of friendship) requires bilateral action. A state cannot unilaterally force its neighbors to maintain diplomatic relations with it.
Also, even a cold peace will require some arrangements for the PA to exercise some control over its own airspace. A bilateral peace agreement might include provisions prohibiting the PA from creating an air force, but this would require bilateral agreement.
Even a cold peace will require some agreement about the movement of people and goods across the Jordan River (the international border). 
In short, the essential fact is that Israel wants peace, and there is simply no way to “finesse” peace through unilateral actions.
It appears that Bibi Netanyahu, even with an expanded coalition, is in no hurry to tackle the difficult issues that are an essential part of peace-making. Hamas remains a complex problem. The PA may be too weak to make the hard compromises needed for peace with Israel. One can understand why Ehud Barak is frustrated. 
But a unilateral withdrawal will not solve any of the big problems. 
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Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

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