AN INTRIGUING PROSPECT
The story I’m about to talk about isn’t getting much press in America. We’re too obsessed with our own domestic issues to think much about events across the ocean that do not affect the stock market.
Greece is getting a lot of coverage in America these days, but that’s only because it is helping to tank our stock market. We’re also seeing a lot of coverage about the New York mayor’s proposal to ban Big Gulps. It sounds like a joke, except that it actually makes sense, given our obesity epidemic. And then there’s the John Edwards trial. If I weren’t a DOJ attorney who stays away from legal topics in this blog, I’m sure I could find something to say about that trial, and don’t wish to minimize it’s importance.
But despite all that pressing news, the real story of the week may have come out of Israel. It was there, on Wednesday, that Israel Defense Minister Ehud Barak suggested that Israel might want to consider unilaterally withdrawing from much of the West Bank if peace discussions with the Palestinians fail.
The initial reaction from the U.S. Department of State – at least publicly – was negative. Hillary Clinton said that unilateral action by either side is no substitute for bilateral negotiations, which she claimed were the “only route” for a peace agreement. I have no inside information in this regard, yet I wonder if behind the scenes, Clinton and other Americans who have been trying to work out a Middle East peace agreement aren’t secretly thrilled at what Barak said. He’s not claiming that unilateral action is a substitute for peace negotiations. He’s implicitly suggesting that if and when those discussions fail, unilateral Israeli withdrawal from much of the West Bank land might be the spark that we need to usher in a workable bilateral agreement. The more that I think about it, the more intrigued I am by his suggestion.
Let’s first of all consider the source. This isn’t just some random Israeli statesman. Back when he represented the left-of-center Labor Party, Ehud Barak was elected Prime Minister, and served in that capacity from 1999-2001. He went on to lead the Labor Party as recently as January 2011. And today, he serves as the Minister of Defense and Deputy Prime Minister of the unity government headed by the right-of-center statesman, Bibi Netanyahu. By all accounts, Barak and Netanyahu are close associates, and it is entirely possible that Barak is simply floating a trial balloon approved by Netanyahu himself.
Recently, Netanyahu’s governing coalition changed. It absorbed the centrist Kadima party. That not only helped to consolidate Netanyahu’s power but also moved his coalition back from the right toward the center. And this creates an opportunity for peace. In a democracy, confident leaders tend to be the more courageous ones, and confident leaders who oversee centrist governments may be the most courageous of all. I don’t for a second believe that the hawkish Netanyahu has suddenly turned into a “give up the store” peacenik, but it isn’t far fetched to think that he is concerned about his legacy and would view sensible progress on the peace front as a way to cement that legacy. Besides, even dovish Israelis have pointed out that just as it took Menahem Begin to lead the withdrawal from the Sinai, or Ariel Sharon to lead the withdrawal from Gaza, it may take a Bibi Netanyahu to lead the withdrawal from the West Bank. So if you want peace, Bibi may be your best shot.
When I consider the downside of unilateral withdrawal, what first comes to mind is the experience in Gaza. After Israel withdrew, Palestinian militants destroyed precious greenhouses that were left behind, the Palestinian people voted in Hamas to govern the region, and Hamas proceeded to regularly fire rockets into Israel and kidnap an Israeli soldier. Collectively, that conduct has only served to polarize the Israeli people (not to mention the American Jewish community) against the prospects for peace.
Surely, Barak remembers full well that recent history. He also is aware that the Gaza withdrawal involved the removal of fewer than 10,000 Israeli settlers, whereas a withdrawal over any meaningful portion of the West Bank would involve removing several times that number. If Israel took that step, only to feel spat on by the Palestinians, a bad situation could get far worse.
Still, Barak cannot help but take stock in the status quo and fear what he sees. Gradually, the Israeli public is losing faith in the prospect that there will ever be a two-state solution to this debacle. If there isn’t one, Israel would have to permanently govern a region with more Arabs than Jews – not exactly the “Jewish State” that we Zionists had in mind. As for the Palestinians, their leadership continues to make it crystal clear that it finds no legitimacy in the notion of a Middle Eastern Jewish State. And given the understandable mistrust among the Israeli population that any peace treaty will actually satisfy the Palestinian population and stop the calls for Israel to give up its status as a Jewish State, as things stand now, it has become almost absurd to imagine that the two sides can enter into a treaty. Somehow, the cards need to be reshuffled.
Stated simply, the situation in Israel is so polarized that the prospects for an agreement are approaching rock bottom. And it is precisely at a time like this that the dynamic may have to be changed. If Israel unilaterally withdraws from much of the West Bank, the Palestinians will have a choice. Treat the land like it did the Gaza Strip and make the polarization in the region even worse. Or use this as an opportunity to show the Israelis that these two people can live together, side by side, in peace and prosperity. If the Palestinians choose the latter path, they might find an Israeli population a bit more willing to roll the dice on a peace treaty.
Truly, only a Pollyanna would react to Barak’s announcement by envisioning the likelihood of a peaceful two-state solution within the next five to ten years. But until now, the issue hasn’t been whether an imminent peace agreement is likely; it’s whether any peace agreement is even possible. Ever. With Barak’s announcement, you’d have to say that the possibility of an ultimate peace is now apparent. Maybe it’s only a mirage. Yet when you’re in a desert, it’s always nice to see a pond in the distance. That sure beats the alternative.