If not realignment, what?

The first order of business is to disentangle Israelis and Palestinians.

Blair olmert 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
Blair olmert 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
Realignment is a demographic, moral and political imperative that would preserve, perhaps save, Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. A final status agreement is unachievable since the Palestinians are incapable or unwilling to accept a framework that Israel can live with and the status quo will only lead to the emergence of a "One state, one man, one vote" nightmare. In the Middle East, you are always better with the second-best policy option, since the first will never work. So goes the basic premise of a West Bank realignment. As an exercise in self-defeating arguments, here's why opponents claim realignment (unilateral separation, disengagement, convergence, disassociation - whatever) cannot possibly work.
  • The prime minister's coalition is fragile and may implode before realignment takes shape and form.
  • The Palestinians, led by Hamas, will never agree, acquiesce or help coordinate the plan.
  • The abandoned areas will become an entity whose only export would be rockets lobbed into Kfar Saba.
  • No matter what happens, Israel will be blamed for any "humanitarian disaster" that develops.
  • Egypt wants and needs a protracted negotiating process that offers stability and a prominent intermediary role for Cairo. Jordan is apprehensive, and rightly so, of an impoverished, desperate Hamas-led Palestinian entity that may project irredentist tendencies toward the Hashemite Kingdom. In a way, in what seems to be a historic role-reversal, Israel now provides Jordan with a strategic buffer by virtue of its presence in the Jordan valley and the West Bank. Jordan's interests are also not served and its fears not alleviated by the periodic silly statements emanating from Israel about "the tenuous future of the Hashemite Kingdom."
  • There is Europe, which essentially supports negotiations, a two-state solution, and sees realignment as an illegitimate Israeli maneuver, not to say a conspiracy designed to grab chunks of the West Bank and annex them, thus rendering a Palestinian state non-viable.
  • The United States won't go along with it. As Prime Minister Ehud Olmert found out in Washington, support for dismantling settlements and vacating areas does not constitute endorsement of a broad unilateral demarcation of borders on one side of which there is a terrorist mini-Iran. Eventually the US may very well support realignment, but only if it creates a geographically contiguous Palestinian area on which an economically viable and politically stable state can be established. I find it hard to imagine that anyone in Washington sees the current concept of realignment as advancing or facilitating that goal. Secondly, the US is still committed to the road map and to a negotiated settlement. And once Israel resumes negotiations it will be difficult for the administration to back Jerusalem if it leaves the room and declares "there is no partner" to negotiate with. Ironically, there is a case to be made that the US now represents Israel's fundamental strategic interests better than Israel. Israel always enunciated its broad strategic interest in conflict resolution, negotiations and reciprocity leading to the end of the conflict and a lengthy period of relative stability. Around this the old and archaic right-wing left-wing orthodoxies converged in the center, both in effect willing to support a Palestinian state along a modified 1967 border. In a world increasingly tuned to the concept of international legitimacy, how can Israel benefit from what is, irrespective of word-spinning, a unilateral move that would perpetuate the conflict? BUT IF not realignment, what then? Herein lies the tragedy of the current situation. The important truth that came out of the Camp David summit in July 2000 was not what Ehud Barak offered or how Yasser Arafat (and Mahmoud Abbas) declined. The historic conclusion that emanated was that Israel and the Palestinians are not talking about the same conflict. Israel was ready to negotiate 1967 and the Palestinians demanded to redress 1948. We were there with detailed plans and generous offers designed to resolve issues of borders, settlements, security, water resources, Palestinian statehood and Jerusalem. They insisted that the issues were the "right of return" for the refugees and the sanctity of Jerusalem. A Palestinian acceptance of the Clinton-Barak package was for the Palestinians tantamount to conceding that 1948 is no longer an issue once a Palestinian state is established. In a zero-sum world, where Israel used to live, but wisely grew out from and where Palestinians unfortunately are still stuck, accepting Camp David equaled the acceptance of Zionism and would be an unthinkable defeat of historic proportions. The Palestinians still adhere to that interpretation of history. The two narratives are incompatible; the Hamas victory in the Palestinian elections only exacerbates the problem, which is why it may not be amenable to a negotiated settlement in the traditional way. ENTER EHUD Olmert. While he was not the first to recognize the existential danger of demographic disequilibrium, his contribution to public discourse and debate was to implicitly acknowledge that the Gaza disengagement's main flaw was its detachment from a grand strategy. Put simply, Ariel Sharon never had one in respect to disengaging from 2.5 million Palestinians residing in the West Bank. The imminent demographic imbalance stretching from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean could not be fixed only by getting out of Gaza. Olmert expresses a new political reality in Israel: the Right and the Left were inherently wrong. Israel cannot rule the territories, nor can there be a just peace agreement. Israel cannot conceivably benefit in the long run from a withdrawal from Gaza and a West Bank status quo pending serious Palestinian interlocutors with which to negotiate a settlement. Olmert's West Bank realignment is a daring, not risk-free attempt to think out of the box, a box that threatens to suffocate Israel. He concludes that there will not be a tenable and durable final status agreement in the next decade. Factoring in demographics, security, increased friction between populations and the international environment, Olmert reflects what many centrist Israelis now believe; Israel cannot be held hostage to the pace of Palestinian political development. There is no Palestinian Thomas Jefferson waiting on the sidelines to replace Hamas, nor will the Palestinian national narrative adapt and come to terms with reality. Israel enjoys an unprecedented strategic superiority in the region, specifically the flexibility not available to us since 1948, to make major decisions without the need to consider how the Soviet Union or the Arab world will respond. What we are practically left with is a protracted conflict-management situation, in which the first order of business is to disentangle Israelis and Palestinians. It may not lead to peace, but realignment is the only rational option available. WHAT OF the arguments against a further disengagement. They continue to ominously exist, but Olmert's ability to maneuver around them, through skillful public diplomacy, is what separates a statesman from a politician. The ability to do the right thing on a grand scale. The writer, who served as consul general in New York, has been an adviser to four foreign ministers.