As the Obama administration contemplates what is required to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it had best take into account that reaching an agreement between the parties may not turn out to be the most difficult part. Indeed, it will almost certainly be easier for an Israeli government — any government, left or right — to negotiate a two-state agreement with the Palestinians than it will be to physically remove the 80,000 or so settlers who would have to be relocated in order to implement any agreement.
Ehud Olmert, who preceded Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister, made considerable progress toward an agreement with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas. But Olmert was barely able to remove six structures from a single illegal outpost without endangering his governing coalition. Netanyahu’s own current dilemma regarding the Obama administration’s demand to remove outposts and freeze settlement expansion clearly reflects not only his ideological inclinations but, perhaps more importantly, the huge influence of the settlers within the Israeli political system.
True, Ariel Sharon successfully removed settlements from Gaza, using Israeli army and police forces. But that was Sharon, a uniquely determined and capable leader the likes of whom Israel can’t seem to find anymore. And Gaza was a settlement backwater with little religious or historic Jewish significance where only 8,000 settlers lived.
What Israeli leader would be capable of removing at least 10 times as many settlers — roughly the number likely to find themselves on the Palestinian side of a final-status border — from the biblical heartland of the Jewish people in the West Bank: Hebron, Shiloh, Bet El, Elon Moreh? The ridiculously undermanned Israeli police, all 25,000 of them, would not be up to this task. The army, increasingly staffed at the officer and operational level by religious Jews from the settlements who themselves reject a two-state solution, would evade the task in every way possible. And this time around, extremist settlers would be prepared to shed blood to prevent their removal.
One alternative frequently discussed is simply to leave recalcitrant settlers behind and abandon them to their fate inside a Palestinian state. But settler extremists would like nothing better than to rampage against their Arab neighbors, inviting Palestinian forces to attack them and perhaps prompting the Israeli army to return to protect them, thereby destabilizing the nascent two-state solution. No responsible Israeli or Palestinian government could agree to this situation.
If Israel can’t remove the settlers on its own, but can’t leave them behind either, what can be done? Enter the international security force.
The idea of deploying an international security force to support and stabilize an Israeli-Palestinian peace process has long been bandied about. Thus far, however, neither Israelis nor Palestinians have shown much enthusiasm for such a deployment.
Israeli security thinkers, while increasingly willing to accept an international role in dealing with Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, have generally argued that an international security force inserted into the West Bank to prevent rocket and suicide attacks against Israel would prove unwilling to fight armed Palestinian terrorists. Instead, they fear it would end up confronting Israeli soldiers if they had to return to the West Bank to stamp out terrorism. Palestinians also tend to reject the idea of an international deployment. They insist that their nascent state must be allowed to maintain order on its own.
Nevertheless, the potential usefulness of an international force should not be dismissed out of hand. Such a force could effectively monitor West Bank demilitarization arrangements and help ensure the smooth operation of Palestinian-Israeli border crossings. But the task that may ultimately end up justifying its deployment is the removal of Israeli settlers.
Certainly, many of the settlers slated for removal under an Israeli-Palestinian agreement would leave peacefully or offer only passive resistance. Surveys show that some could be persuaded to leave today in return for adequate compensation.
But the hard-core of West Bank settlers numbers in the many thousands — and perhaps tens of thousands — and is fanatically messianic. The most extreme elements would fight their fellow Jews rather than abandon what they believe to be theirs by the will of God. And their fellow Jews, whatever their ideological persuasion, would not want to spill their blood, lest “Jewish wars” bring down the whole house.
This would be a sad moment for Jewish sovereignty, brought on by 40 years of willful negligence and at times open encouragement of settler fanaticism by the Israeli mainstream. The hard-core of the settlement movement today endangers Israel as a Jewish state. It prolongs an occupation that has already eroded Israel’s sovereign capacity to deal with the problem.
That’s why the goyim may have to do it for us.
Yossi Alpher is co-editor of the bitterlemons.org family of Internet publications. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.