Israel's Thorniest Dilemma

With Ariel Sharon evacuating most of the Gaza Strip, speculation about Israel's future -- and final borders -- is growing

By Stan Crock

As the Israeli government starts to withdraw settlers from Gaza and some West Bank settlements in August, the question is what this signals about peace and the creation of a Palestinian state? The answer lies in both politics and logistics.

In an astonishing turnabout, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, the architect of Israeli settlement policy, is leading the charge to dismantle his creation. According to Hebrew University's Shlomo Avineri, it's a recognition that neither liberal Labor's outstretched-hand approach nor hawkish Likud's iron-fist policy toward the Palestinians made Israel safer.

"Sharon understood the limits of Israeli power," Avineri said at a July 20 Carnegie Endowment for International Peace meeting. The remaining option was simply to separate the Palestinians from Israelis. Withdrawal and construction of a fence in the West Bank, the logic went, would give the Israelis security, though the effect on the Palestinians was less clear.


  But what happens after the withdrawal and the fence? In theory, there are two sets of issues that both sides must address if and when emotions, rhetoric, and firepower are tamped down. One is highly charged: the fate of Jerusalem and Palestinian claims of a right of return. The other is logistical: What do you do with the West Bank settlers and settlements, which are no longer the minor outposts they once were?

Let's examine logistics first. David Makovsky, director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy's Project on the Middle East Peace Process, has looked at where the settlers and Palestinians actually live and concludes a deal is possible. He argues that the debate within Israel has shifted remarkably. At one point, the right argued that the Torah dictated that Judea and Samaria were an inextricable part of Israel. Then the right talked about keeping just half of the West Bank.

Now, Makovsky says, Sharon talks about keeping about 8% of the West Bank -- implicitly conceding 92% of the area even before negotiations have begun. With some swaps for land inside Israel, the Palestinians could end up with the same amount of land they had before the 1967 war.


  About 420,000 settlers live in that 8% west of the fence on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem, while 175,000 Palestinians live in that area, Makovsky calculates. Excluding Jerusalem, about 60,000 settlers and 5,000 Palestinians live on the West Bank west of the fence.

While not an easy task, moving 65,000 people isn't momentous by the historical standards of past political migrations (India and Pakistan) and boundary changes (Poland), where millions suddenly found themselves in different countries. The fate of the others will depend on the disposition of Jerusalem, something I'm not bold enough to predict.

Still, it's clear Israel will be under intense demographic pressure to cut a deal on the West Bank and Jerusalem, perhaps in return for the Palestinians giving up the right of return. That's because, if the Israelis, with their lower birth rate, don't do something fast, Jews will be a minority in the country by 2011. "Israel has lost the battle of the bedroom," Makovsky says.


  Steve Riskin, a Middle East specialist at the U.S. Institute of Peace, isn't so sure that such pressures will force a resolution of the nearly 60-year conflict. Indeed, Riskin suggests that a two-state solution may be a remedy whose time has passed.

In effect, Riskin argues that logistics has overwhelmed politics. The settlements, some of which have 20,000 or 30,000 inhabitants, are really cities, integrated into Israel. And Israel controls the water, the movement of people and goods, the air space, the coastal waters, and the borders.

"I don't see any future Israeli government, whatever its configuration, ceding the kind of control in these areas that would meet the minimum criteria for a contiguous, viable, and sovereign Palestinian state," he says. Cultural and societal factors -- like the fact that Israeli families tend to be smaller than Palestinian ones, thus making the West Bank apartments that could be vacated unsuitable for Palestinians -- would aggravate any transition. Indeed, Riskin says policymakers should be more creative and think about crafting a multiethnic, one-state solution, much as the U.S. is insisting on Iraq as a multiethnic democracy.

Logistics may be an impediment, but they won't prevent a deal if the Israeli leadership wants one, counters Geoffrey Aronson, director of the Foundation for Middle East Peace. "The Gaza evacuation has demonstrated that settlements alone cannot determine reality," he says.


  While Aronson differs with Riskin, he disagrees with Makovsky as well. Aronson believes that the 8% of the West Bank inside the fence Israel is building isn't the ceiling on the land Sharon wants to retain. The Prime Minister also wants "to stay in the areas east of the barrier that he considers to be required by Israel for security purposes," Aronson contends.

And though the existence of the settlements doesn't inevitably resolve the location of any border, Aronson, like Riskin, doesn't see a two-state solution in the offing. While Israel has recognized that giving up land -- Sinai to Egypt and Gaza to the Palestinians -- can enhance its security, it will have to make that same calculation for the West Bank for there to be a peace deal. "I wouldn't bet that's going to happen soon," he says.

Much will depend on how well the Gaza withdrawal goes. What political price will Sharon pay for leaving? How well will the Palestinian Authority's inexperienced security force crack down on terrorists, and how well will civilian leaders govern their new territory?

Like so much about the Middle East, no one can say in advance. Pessimism may well be warranted. This is, after all, the Middle East. But then, who would have predicted five years ago that evacuation of Israeli settlements would be as momentous a part of Ariel Sharon's legacy as their development?

Crock is chief diplomatic correspondent for BusinessWeek

Edited by Patricia O'Connell

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