Defense Minister Ehud Barak gave a lengthy interview to Israel HaYom on Tuesday in which he called on the government and the public to consider a partial unilateral withdrawal from large swathes of the West Bank, in the absence of a peace agreement with the Palestinians.
Such a withdrawal would involve abandoning Israeli control over dozens of settlements and the creation of a Palestinian state in the vacated areas.
Barak’s plan would leave roughly 90 percent of the settlers in three blocs under Israeli control, and envisions continued IDF control over strategic locations, such as the Jordan Valley and hilltops overlooking Ben-Gurion Airport.
Barak conceded that it would be “better to reach an agreement with the Palestinians. But if that doesn’t work, [Israel] should take practical action to begin separation. The time has arrived to look Israeli society honestly in the eye and to say: We’ve succeeded in keeping in Israeli territory 80 to 90 percent of the settlers who went there over years at the government’s initiative and with its encouragement. It will be a tremendous achievement if we succeed in bringing them into Israel’s permanent borders.”
Barak called for the evacuation of the residents of the settlements situated in the territory slated for withdrawal, and to compensate those uprooted Israelis. He proposed allowing anyone who refused to leave their home to have the option of remaining under Palestinian sovereignty for a five-year trial period.
BARAK HAS come under a lot of criticism about his presumed personal motives for presenting this plan now and, of course, the actual steps proposed. Much of that criticism is pertinent and valid.
The personal attacks on Barak are particularly welldeserved.
Over the past two decades he has proven himself to be one of the most cynical politicians in Israel. His decision to force the Labor Party into Binyamin Netanyahu’s coalition in 2009, contrary to his own explicit commitments, followed by his disgraceful and ultimately failed effort to destroy the party by splintering off to form Independence, are but two of the most recent examples of Barak’s self-serving fecklessness.
Barak’s critics on the Right and the Left who accuse him of cynical self-promotion are justifiably suspicious of his motives. Likud MK Danny Danon, for example, was quoted by Ma’ariv’s website as saying that Barak was gambling with the lives of thousands of people “to save his skin,” so as “not to disappear from the political arena.” Similar sentiments were voiced by Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs Minister Yuli Edelstein (Likud) and even Barak’s erstwhile confidant from the Labor Party, MK Isaac Herzog.
On issues of substance, Barak’s critics from the Right presented a valid point. Citing the precedent of the 2005 unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, which was followed by an ever-increasing number of Israelis being within range of rocket fire, Barak’s detractors said a similar Israeli course of action in the West Bank would almost certainly place all of Israel within range.
A second flaw of the plan is that it would fail to put an end to Palestinian demands for a full withdrawal from the West Bank and east Jerusalem, sentiments that are likely to be shared by much of the international community. Moreover, Palestinian demands that pertain to sovereign Israel — i.e. the claims to a right of return and to private property — would remain unchanged. Arguably, Israel would be foolishly conceding precious bargaining chips that will be needed in the future to offset those Palestinian demands and others.
That said, there are a number of advantages to be gained from unilateral withdrawal in the absence of Palestinian cooperation. Primarily, it would go a long way to ending the ultimately untenable situation in the West Bank. Creating a sovereign Palestinian state on those parts of the West Bank vacated by Israel would put to rest the calls for a one-state solution, on the Left and the Right, a solution that would spell the end of Israel as either a Jewish or a democratic country, depending on which kind of state was formed.
Moreover, it would restore a lot of the world’s trust in the sincerity of Israel’s intentions to end its occupation of the West Bank, trust that has been eroded under the Netanyahu government. Despite the fact that the Palestinian leadership made what can only be construed as a strategic decision not to negotiate with the Netanyahu government, continued settlement expansion as well as demands by MKs from the Likud and other coalition partners to legalize and expand outposts have played a critical role in undermining faith in the sincerity of Netanyahu’s commitment to the two-state solution, his June 2009 Bar- Ilan speech notwithstanding.
The Zionist movement has a long and overwhelmingly successful history of unilaterally shaping its future in the face of Arab intransigence. The decision by the Yishuv’s leadership under David Ben-Gurion to unilaterally accept the UN partition plan in 1947 has and continues to strengthen the legitimacy of Israel’s positions, particularly against the backdrop of Arab rejectionism. Israeli unilateral action at present to end its occupation of large parts of the territory that the Palestinians demand for their future state would immeasurably improve Israel’s credibility when it claims to truly seek a peaceful resolution of the conflict. By ending its occupation of most of the West Bank, Israel would prove beyond doubt that it was not merely paying lip service to the two-state solution, as many suspect of Netanyahu, but that it was prepared to take real action to bring that about. Most important, however, it would ensure Israel’s continued existence as Jewish and democratic state, which is the ultimate Zionist goal.
The risks of unilateral withdrawal are clear and real, and must not be dismissed out of hand. At the same time, however, they should not be inflated so as to prevent Israel from taking the proactive steps that are vital for its very survival: ending the occupation so as to prevent the Zionist dream from turning into a onestate nightmare. Israel cannot afford to continue to follow the path charted by Netanyahu, which has allowed Palestinian intransigence to force Israel to perpetuate its self-destructive occupation of the West Bank and its Palestinian population.
Barak’s plan might be flawed, and it certainly will involve taking substantial risks, but at the very least it provides Israel with a possible way out of the greatest threat posed to the survival of the Zionist endeavor.
That is something the Netanyahu government has failed to do.