This week, sources close to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu sparked controversy when they announced that in any future Palestinian state, Israel would insist that Israelis living in Judea and Samaria be allowed to remain under Palestinian control if they should choose to.
Coalition partners, even members of Netanyahu’s own party, were quick to reject the idea.
Palestinians were no less adamant in their opposition to allowing Jewish settlements to remain in any future two-state solution.
“Anyone who says he wants to keep the settlers in a Palestinian state is really saying he does not want a Palestinian state,” chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat declared. “No settler will be permitted to stay in a Palestinian state, not one, because the settlements are illegal and the presence of settlers on occupied lands is illegal.”
This is hardly the first time this issue has come up between the sides. Discussion of the possibility of leaving Israeli settlements under Palestinian control came up ahead of the 2005 Gaza disengagement. In 2006, when he was pondering a unilateral withdrawal from parts of the West Bank euphemistically called “realignment,” then-prime minister Ehud Olmert stated that “each and every one of the settlers who live in territories that will be evacuated will need to decide whether to live in a Jewish state or in a Palestinians state.”
In January 2011, when Al Jazeera leaked hundreds of documents that revealed details of the negotiations that took place between Olmert’s government and the PA in 2007 and 2008 – an incident that became known as “Palileaks” – it emerged that Ahmed Qurei was willing to allow Jews to stay put if they agreed to live under Palestinian sovereignty, though then-foreign minister Tzipi Livni rejected the idea.
In August 2013, during a meeting with a group of Meretz MKs and activists, PA President Mahmoud Abbas was asked by Haaretz if he would agree to allow Jewish settlements to remain under Palestinian sovereignty. He replied that “these are details that need to be discussed. Every topic is open for negotiation, keeping an open mind.”
However, one month before, while in Egypt and speaking in Arabic, Abbas said something very different: “In a final resolution, we would not see the presence of a single Israeli – civilian or soldier – on our land.”
Other Palestinians have made a distinction between existing settlements, which would have to go, and future Jewish immigration to “Palestine,” which would be allowed. They have done this to counter the argument that Palestinians are trying to make Judea and Samaria, areas so resonant with historical and religious meaning for Jews, the only place in the world that is officially Judenrein (“cleansed of Jews”).
All supporters of a two-state solution would ideally like to see a Palestinian state created alongside Israel that is pluralistic enough and democratic enough to incorporate a Jewish minority, just as the State of Israel is able to incorporate a large Arab minority. Such a Palestinian state would be more stable and peaceful than an autocracy or an Islamic republic, which seem to be the norms in the region.
Unfortunately, this is not the situation. Any Israeli left behind under Palestinian sovereignty would likely be in danger.
Some, such as MK Hilik Bar (Labor), chairman of the Knesset caucus to resolve the Arab-Israel conflict, argue that under conditions of peace Palestinians would work hard to ensure the security of Israelis who would remain. They would do this to prove that a Palestinian state is capable of protecting all citizens, Bar claims. But we cannot rely on such optimistic forecasts.
The question is whether the two-state solution will remain feasible even if Israel is forced to evacuate tens of thousands of settlers – many of whom include the most ideologically opposed to territorial compromise – while the majority remains in large settlement blocs that will be annexed to Israel.
Ensuring a strong Jewish majority dictates the need to support a two-state solution, but at what price? Therein lies the paradox. If the Palestinians were truly interested in peace, they should be able to absorb a Jewish minority. If, on the other hand, the Palestinians are unwilling to integrate Jews, perhaps they are truly not interested in peace. Under the circumstances, it will be no easy matter to convince a majority of Israelis that the price of a two-state solution is worth it.