To judge by the Israeli public’s reaction t0 President Obama’s visit to that country, there may be a new opening to unfreeze Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. The President articulated as clearly as one could how, from a pro-Israel point of view, a Palestinian state is a necessity. The arguments are anything but new: there is no example in today’s world of a democracy ruling over a population who are not citizens; the historic necessity of a majority Jewish state is in danger; and simple justice dictates that what is right for the Jews is also right for the Palestinians.
But the inexorable growth of Israeli settlements in the West Bank has long been recognized as a major impediment to the creation of a Palestinian state. For the last two decades, it was assumed that a peace settlement would result in the dismantling of most of the more isolated settlements and the retention of a number of large settlement blocs, perhaps with land swops to compensate the Palestinian state. However, with the predominance of the settlers and their supporters in Israel’s present governing coalition, it seems increasingly unlikely that the parties can arrive at this resolution.
It is therefore time for some fresh thinking. The following proposal recognizes one of the central claims of the settlers: that Jews should have the same right to live anywhere in the historic Land of Israel as Palestinians have to live anywhere in the historic Land of Palestine. But it also recognizes the contradictory claim of Palestinians and the Israeli peace movement that the settlement project of successive Israeli governments since the 1970s is both legally dubious and founded on the injustices of military occupation. It also addresses the demand for “the right of return” of Palestinian refugees while simultaneously protecting Israel’s Jewish majority.
How is it possible to resolve these seeming contradictions? Here’s how: a peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians would allow all settlers currently in the West Bank to remain, if they wish, and would even allow other Jews to move there. Jews living in those settlements would continue to be Israeli citizens (they would vote in elections, serve in the army and so forth), but also abide by Palestinian law (criminal acts, traffic regulations, etc.) after a mutually agreed upon period. There is nothing particularly remarkable in this arrangement since many countries treat their expatriates as full citizens (for example, US citizens living abroad can vote by absentee ballot).
But for every settler who remains in the West Bank, a Palestinian refugee would be allowed to settle in pre-1967 Israel. Thus, based on statistics from 2012 of the number of settlers in the West Bank , some 350,000 Palestinians would immigrate to Israel proper, whether from the West Bank or the Palestinian diaspora. Each side would be responsible for providing police protection for the “settlers” within their respective territories. Since each side would have a sizable group of non-citizens within its borders, each would be motivated to provide this protection, if only to make sure that its own citizens living across the border would also be protected.
Naturally, it would be in the interest of each side to reduce as much as possible these expatriate populations, since the larger the number of expats, the larger the number of Jewish or Palestinian settlers. So each would be motivated to offer generous financial incentives for its citizens living “abroad” to repatriate themselves.
Beyond the actions of governments, Jewish settlers and Palestinian refugees would have their own nationalistic reasons to relocate into their respective states because doing so would reduce the number of the other living in one’s own state. This incentive is based on current hostility of substantial majorities on each side to living in true multiethnic, multireligious states. But, in the long run, if such a peace agreement is successful, the understandable desire to maintain ethnic hegemony may wane.
There are, of course, many potential land mines lying in wait. The thorny problem of Jerusalem would require some kind of similar legerdemain, possible designating certain Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem as part of Israel and others as settlements. The equally thorny problem of Hamas-ruled Gaza would also require a solution, although one might hope that significant movement toward a real agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority would paint Hamas into a corner ultimately leading it to more moderate policies and acceptance of peaceful coexistence with Israel..
It may be that the Israeli settlement project has doomed the two-state solution, at least as it has been conceived for the last two decades. But if Israelis and Palestinians can, on the one hand, simultaneously accept the settlements while creating incentives for their removal, and, on the other, simultaneously affirm the Palestinian refugees right of return while creating incentives for them to settle in the State of Palestine, then the settlements may turn out not to be an impediment to peace but its catalyst.
David Biale is Emanuel Ringelblum Distinguished Professor of Jewish History at the University of California, Davis