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Another former ambassador, Michael Oren, who is close to Netanyahu, floated the idea in February, arguing, “If we declare our borders, that creates a de facto situation of two nation states recognized by the U.N. — we may not recognize one another, but they’re already recognized by the U.N. — that have a border dispute.”
Such a unilateral step, supporters of this move say, would help Israel fend off potential Palestinian challenges in the U.N. and at the International Criminal Court by shifting the discussion from the term “occupation” to “border dispute.”
Netanyahu’s own policy preferences remain unknown. But advocates of annexation and/or partial unilateral withdrawal took hopeful note of the Israeli leader’s comment at his government’s April 6 Cabinet meeting that “unilateral steps on their part will be met with unilateral steps on our part.”
Tamar Hermann, a leading public opinion expert, said the idea of partial withdrawal could be accepted by Israeli public opinion. Hermann, who conducts a monthly survey called The Peace Index on a broad range of issues for the nonpartisan Israel Democracy Institute, said support for partial withdrawal would feed on “the desire of Israelis not to be bothered by the conflict.”
Dennis Ross, a former top Middle East negotiator for several administrations who is now with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank supportive of Israel, said Washington, too, might welcome such a move by Israel.
“It becomes something they do with [the United States],” he said during an April 7 discussion at the institute. “It’s not part of a formal agreement, and maybe that’s an easier thing to work out.”
Miller questioned Netanyahu’s domestic political ability to pull off such a move. In 1998, he noted, Netanyahu lost his coalition for proposing minor withdrawals during talks with the United States and the Palestinian Authority. It is hard to see how his coalition today would approve a much more significant pullback, Miller said.
This could leave one final fallback option as the most practical: maintain the status quo. It is not an option the Israeli government would adopt or declare as official policy, but it may be the most obvious route for most Israelis.
“The public has not bought the interpretation that the situation on the ground can’t go on the way it is,” Hermann said. Jewish Israelis, she said, “do not see the Palestinians as a [security] threat or a strategic threat, and sanctions are not yet felt by the average Israeli. People expect life to go on as it is and do not expect a third intifada.”
The defense establishment, which has supported a peace drive as a national security interest, could also unenthusiastically agree with a continued status quo between Israelis and Palestinians. “It can be an option,” said Shaul Shay, former deputy head of the Israel National Security Council, “not a preferred option, but we can survive it.”
Dan Soffer, vice president of business development at VeriFone and part of a business group promoting a two-state solution, said he remains optimistic. And if his optimism is misplaced?
“Unfortunately I don’t think we have a Plan B. As a businessperson I always have a Plan B but I don’t see a Plan B beyond a deadlock and a third intifada.”
Nathan Guttman reported from Washington. Nathan Jeffay reported from Tel Aviv. Hody Nemes contributed reporting from New York.