Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman’s position of reaching agreement with the incoming Trump administration regarding Israel’s settlement policy is a step in the right direction. The suggestion that Israel should focus any future settlement activities in the so-called “settlement blocs” and not outside of them puts forward the idea that someday there might actually be a border between Israel and the Palestinians.
Coming from a settler who lives outside of the blocs it is actually quite a progressive, forward-thinking policy option.
Of course, the main problem with Liberman’s proposal is that it is not the Americans who need to agree, but the Palestinians.
No Israeli building for Israeli citizens beyond the Green Line will be legitimate, even if sanctioned by President-elect Trump himself, unless and until the Palestinians agree to it. Palestinian agreement on Israeli settlement blocs will become legitimate when it is in the framework of an Israeli-Palestinian agreement on a border that will include territorial swaps and end Israeli domination and control over the Palestinian people and their lives.
Despite Palestinian rhetoric, the Palestinians know that returning to the 1967 borders is never going to happen and only through territorial swaps will any end-of-conflict agreement be possible.
Israel has created too many facts on the ground to be ignored. Those facts are that settlement building (which is illegal by international law, despite the few who might argue differently) will mean that between four and five percent of the West Bank will eventually be annexed to Israel, as part of an agreement which will enable between 75% to 80% of the settlers to remain in their homes, which will become part of the sovereign and recognized territory of the State of Israel.
The rest of the settlements – not a small amount of them, encompassing some 70,000-plus Israelis – will be beyond Israel’s sovereign border. It makes no sense whatsoever to build even a single new house there.
Eventually those settlements will either be evacuated or the homes and people living there will live under Palestinian sovereignty. The primary factor limiting the size of the territorial swap is the availability of non-inhabited land on the Israeli side of the border.
Despite Liberman’s anxiousness to be rid of as many Palestinians with Israeli citizenship as possible, communities such as Umm el-Fahm will not be included in the territorial swap. Umm el Fahm residents may raise the Palestinian flag much more than the Israeli one, but they will not agree to have the border adjusted so that they are no longer Israeli citizens. There are many reasons for that, not the least of which is that Israel is a democracy.
For Israel both sides of the Green Line constitute the Land of Israel, just as for Palestinians both sides are Palestine.
There is nothing holy about the Green Line and therefore it is possible to shift the future border – and in fact there is no other solution. It is perhaps unpleasant to think about so many people who will have to leave their homes and communities. The future removal of the few families from Amona will not be pleasant at all. Recollection of the scenes from the disengagement from Gaza bring back heart-wrenching images that call for empathy at the human level.
Future withdrawals from most of the West Bank will cause no small amount of human suffering.
Settlers beyond the future Israeli border will basically have three choices.
They could relocate to areas of Judea and Samaria that will be incorporated into the sovereign recognized borders of the State of Israel.
They could also move back to Israel inside of the Green Line.
But they could also request to receive citizenship or permanent residency rights under Palestinian sovereignty and law – although very few are likely to do so, mostly out of fear.
One element of the future agreement will have to be mechanisms to protect those Israelis who, despite their fears, may chose that as their preferred option.
One of the lessons that we should have learned from the disengagement from Gaza is that Israel should not demolish what it leaves behind. That was a waste that served no positive purpose, where good use of those homes and communities could have been made for the poorest of Gaza’s residents. Evacuated settlements in the West Bank can be used as a cornerstone of Israel’s contribution to a future international fund for Palestinian refugees. Those are real assets that, while causing pain and anguish to those Israelis who will have to leave them could provide new hope for Palestinians who have suffered for too long and also deserve the opportunity for a new beginning. It is also a tremendous platform on which we call also begin the long and arduous task of building reconciliation – which is much more difficult than negotiating an agreement.
It would be a giant step forward if the homes in Amona, built on private Palestinian land, could be turned over the Palestinian refugees to live in rather than turning them into piles of rubble that will pollute the environment that we all claim to cherish.
What a shift in public attitudes toward peace could be achieved at such a small cost! We will never break out of the dynamics of this conflict if we don’t have a psychological breakthrough that changes mindsets.
Perhaps Liberman’s stepping out of the mold could be first step on a much longer path forging a new future for Israelis and Palestinians alike. Wishful thinking, I know, but sometimes wishes do come true.
The author is founder and co-chairman of IPCRI, Israel Palestine Creative Regional Initiatives. www.ipcri.org.