Prime Minister Netanyahu’s comment last week that the Kerry proposals, which we are all still waiting to hear about, could entail a situation where Jewish residents of some of the West Bank settlements would remain as exclaves surrounded on all sides by the Palestinian State resulted, as would be expected, in a heated public debate.
The Israeli right, including many members of his own government, foremost of whom Trade Minister Naftali Bennett, came out strongly against the idea. Arguing that the security of these people could not be guaranteed and that the suggestion was no less than a betrayal of the very essence of Zionism, namely living under Jewish and Israeli sovereignty, the suggestion was condemned as stupid at the best, and a betrayal of the State at the worst.
Equally, the Palestinian Authority came out strongly against the idea, arguing that no vestige of the settlements could remain within a Palestinian entity since, from their perspective, settlements represent the very essence of Occupation. There could not be any agreement without a total evacuation of all settlements located within the Palestinian territory.
Netanyahu’s response was to say that he had specifically made the comment in order to show the Americans that such an idea was impossible to implement. Based on the responses from both the Israeli right and the Palestinians, he would appear to have proved his point given the fact that these two diametrically opposites were united in their total opposition to such an idea.
But already during the past week, many commentators have produced maps to show that the existence of national and ethnic exclaves surrounded totally by the territory of another State is not an unknown phenomenon in the world. Relatively few in number, there are cases, notably in Europe, where ethnic groups live under such conditions. They conveniently forget to mention the fact that in almost all of these cases there is a situation of peace and stability, and that the exclaves are often seen as a curious, to be visited by tourists, rather than as a painful reminder of yesterday’s political tensions and animosity which have yet to be resolved.
The idea of ethno-territorial exclaves for some of the settlements has been proposed as a result of the growing understanding that an Israeli government will find it almost impossible to forcefully evacuate the large numbers of settlers who will remain on the “wrong” side of the new border, even if substantial redrawing of the border and land swaps between the two sides are to take place in an effort to ensure that as many of the settlements, particularly the large blocs, remain directly under full Israeli sovereignty without having to undergo evacuation.
This is a pragmatic, rather than ideological, position. Attempting to evacuate the 60-80,000 settlers (out of a total of over 350,000) will prove to be a task which no Israeli government – even one of the left – will savour, assuming that the majority of them will refuse offers of compensation and voluntary self-evacuation. Gaza all over again but in much larger numbers, with much greater ideological and religious opposition (this is after all the very heart of the Biblically claimed Land of Israel), and lessons learned from the Gaza experience in which the more radical elements amongst the settlers argue they were too “soft” in their ineffectual response to the forced evacuation.
In one sense, Bennet’s argument that this is a complete u-turn on the very essence of Zionism, namely that Jews should be enabled to live under their own sovereignty, is correct. But his solution to the problem, namely that Israel should not enter into any peace agreement and should retain control over all of the West Bank, is wrong. In order to ensure the fulfillment of the Zionist dream of living under Jewish sovereignty, the settlers will have to make that difficult, extremely painful, decision to relocate to those places where the State of Israel, the Jewish State, is indeed sovereign and can continue to protect all of its citizens inside its own territory, rather than through a disconnected exclave to which it may not have direct access.
So, is the exclave idea just one of those crazy pipe dreams, or does it have any real significance? Perhaps we will only know when Kerry finally outlines the details of the proposal. But the very fact that it has been raised by Netanyahu and that it has become the subject of such intense and heated political debate, makes this almost fictional idea into a potential reality of the future. Based on recent projects, such as those of the Shasha Center at the Hebrew University directed by former Mossad Chief Efraim Halevy and Hebrew University Jerusalem geographer, Shlomo Hasson, or the project publicized last week by former Peace Negotiations expert Gilad Sher and Tel Aviv University geographer, Gideon Biger, the idea of ethno-territorial exclaves and cross citizenship has been analyzed in great detail. This is seen as a best of all bad scenario alternative to the apparent impossibility of resolving the conflict through the demarcation of a single border which cuts neatly between the two sides and their respective populations.
Given the changing geographical and settlement facts on the ground, which change at an almost daily basis, this is the reality of the situation which both sides face today. Had a simplistic form of Two State solution been on the table at the time of Oslo, when the numbers of settlements were less than half of what it is today, it may still have been possible to draw a clean line with limited evacuation and dislocation. But Israel has a tendency to offer solutions which could have been implemented yesterday but which are no longer feasible by the time they come round to it. The solutions all too often engage with the realities of a yesterday rather than the present, due to the dynamic nature of the change which has taken place during the interim period.
When the Oslo Accords were being discussed, the idea of a sovereign Palestinian state was not yet on the table. It was still considered as being a solution of the radical left and peace groups and it was not yet adopted by Rabin. Twenty years later, right wing politicians such as Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert were committed to a Palestinian State, as the idea became more and more acceptable and as the term “Palestinian State” became part of the daily discourse of Israeli citizens, especially through the media.
When the idea of land swaps, the idea that Israel would have to exchange territory for those areas annexed through the redrawing of the border, was first suggested at a Track II meeting in Rome as far back as 1990, it was thought of as nothing less than fiction. But fifteen years down the road, the concept has become acceptable, to the point of almost automatic acceptance, as the idea has been discussed time after time again by politicians, academic, diplomats and political pundits.
So too with the idea of exclaves. Netanyahu may be opposed to the idea but by virtue of bringing it into the very center of the current political discourse he has made people sit up and start thinking about the idea, when in the past it was never even on the table – much in the same way as the notions of Palestinian State, or land swaps, were initially dismissed as being impractical and unrealistic.
Perhaps this is Netanyahu’s secret strategy – to start a debate and heated public argument around the idea of territorial exclaves, so that the more it is discussed, the more it becomes acceptable to people who would never have been prepared even to mention it in the past.
For most of us it does seem a bit farfetched and fictional at this point in time but there is nothing like the familiarity of public discourse which makes previously unacceptable ideas, acceptable tomorrow. The only question remains as to whether by the time the idea of exclaves becomes acceptable, will too much time have passed to make even this seemingly impractical solution impossible to implement?
As with all past attempts to solve the Israel-Palestine conflict, only time will tell. And first we must await the American announcement.
The writer is Dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben Gurion University. The views expressed are his alone.