Gorenberg: Call Netanyahu’s Bluff

Categories: Israel, Letters From Leadership, Two States

Writing for his column in The American Prospect, Gershom Gorenberg offers a recipe for making settler lemons into lemonade.  Reacting to Prime Minister Netanyahu’s recent video contention that removing Israeli settlements within a two-state agreement would constitute “ethnic cleansing,” Gorenberg suggests that the Palestinians confound Netanyahu and other Israelis resisting a two-state solution by allowing settlers to remain under Palestinian rule.  What follows is most of Gorenberg’s concluding section of “So Let the Settlers Stay. They Won’t.

. . .  [T]here’s an audience for whom Netanyahu’s argument resonates, it’s … among settlers, but also among Israeli centrists. The latter would say: We object to the racist idea of expelling Israeli Arabs, so what’s the deal with Jews in the West Bank? Why couldn’t they stay put?

The best response—by an American administration and by a Palestinian leader—would be to call the bluff. Fine, settlers can stay if they want.  . . . Like other residents of newly independent Palestine, settlers who decide to stay put will become Palestinian citizens. Their position will be the mirror image of that of Israel’s Arab citizens.  . . .

The former settlers will live under Palestinian law and the authority of Palestinian courts. They should be prepared for lawsuits by Palestinians with very strong claims to ownership of the land on which large parts of the settlements stand. Where they don’t have such legal problems, they should know that Palestinians will be moving in next door, into homes that belonged to Israelis who chose to return to Israel.

The number of settlers who would stay under those conditions could meet in a small cafe in Ramallah, perhaps at one table. All the rest would do the Zionist thing and move to the state of Israel.

The first advantage of making this offer is that it would eliminate Netanyahu’s false claim of inequality. The second is that if a peace agreement were made on this basis, it would eliminate the need for the Israeli government to evacuate any settlers forcibly, and would put the government in a much better position to negotiate compensation. The government’s stance would be, “If you don’t like our offer, you can stay where you are.” A real part of Israeli anxiety about a two-state agreement, even among Israelis who support it in principle, is concern about the potentially insane cost of compensation and about a near civil war between settlers and soldiers coming to evacuate them.

The rub is that Palestinian public support is also essential to making a peace deal. After 50 years of Israeli occupation and settlement, it would take a particularly brave, persuasive, and charismatic Palestinian leader to tell his public, “Let’s make this offer because it will help get us independence.” Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas is not that leader, and there’s no potential heir who seems capable of the gambit.

Still, it’s an idea for a future American mediator to keep in her arsenal. And just playing out the scenario now, in theory, shows that the argument in Netanyahu’s video is not worth buying.

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