Diverging From Convergence

By Leonard Fein

Published July 14, 2006, issue of July 14, 2006.
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Edwin Seligman, a founder of the American Economic Association, once wrote that there was nothing wrong with the property tax except that it was mistaken in theory and impossible in practice. So also, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s signature proposal, called in Hebrew “hitkansut,” rendered best in translation as “consolidation” or “convergence.”

What Olmert has in mind is removing the roughly 70,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank who live outside the significant settlement blocs in the West Bank. It appears to be the case — hence “consolidation” — that he intends resettling them in the blocs, meaning that they will still be living beyond the pre-1967 border known as the Green Line.

For those of us who have long believed that Israel’s settlements in the West Bank are a burden rather than a blessing, a tragic and costly error that would one day have to be corrected, the adoption of that view by a mainstream Israeli leader would at first blush seem to warrant at least a subdued celebration. The fact that Olmert’s idea — it is still too vague to be called a plan — is vehemently opposed by Israel’s right-wing fantasists further suggests that it’s time to fetch, if not yet to drink, the champagne.

And, indeed, many Israelis who are part of what’s known there as the peace camp, however much they may prefer a negotiated resolution of Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians, are prepared to mumble their assent to Israel’s unilateral withdrawal if, as seems virtually certain, a negotiated resolution proves impossible. They argue that anything that begins to close down the ugly chapter of West Bank settlement is better than the status quo.

Some of my best friends — really — are veteran members of Israel’s peace camp. I believe that in this case, they are very badly mistaken.

First: In practice, no one, not even the most ardent advocates of “consolidation,” thinks that all 70,000 of the settlers in question will be removed in one phase. It is more likely, if the plan is ever implemented, that the first phase will involved 10,000-20,000 settlers.

Now consider: At least 50,000 settlers will remain in place. That means, necessarily, that the Israeli army will have to remain in place as well. Neither the international community nor the Palestinians will be particularly impressed with a “solution” that leaves the army and the bulk of the settlers in place — and they will be still less impressed if the thousands who have been removed end up in the settlement blocs.

The resettlement will cost Israel, in compensation to the settlers and in new housing construction, on the order of $4 billion. (The estimated total cost for all 70,000 is $20 billion.) That much money, that much dissent, that much wrenching — and nothing much to show for it. That’s hardly an encouragement to move to the second phase and the third.

So much for the practice. As to the theory, its most cogent critic is the estimable Yossi Beilin, Israel’s consistently most thoughtful, and inadequately appreciated, political leader. Beilin’s position, as explicated in a long essay in Ha’aretz the other day, asserts that were Israel unilaterally to withdraw from 90% of the West Bank, the Palestinians would then have inadequate incentive to make the difficult compromises they will have to make if the conflict is to be ended. Give up the right of return, accept limitations on your military capacity and more, for just a paltry 10% of the land?

The Gaza withdrawal, says Beilin, is hardly an encouraging precedent: “It was the most idiotic way to leave Gaza. It gave the Palestinians the feeling that there is no reason to make concessions and it gave the Israelis the feeling that withdrawals do not produce quiet.” He reports that in a recent meeting with Olmert, he told the prime minister that he, Beilin, simply does not understand the logic of the proposal: “What are you saying? That I have a weak partner whom I do not trust and therefore I am giving him 90% of the area for free?… Anyone who gives up 90% of the area and thinks this is an opening to future negotiations is hallucinating. A unilateral withdrawal from 90% of the West Bank means that there will be no incentive for a Palestinian leader ever to reach an agreement with us. The convergence means the most dramatic possible diminishment of the chance to reach a peace agreement in our lifetime.”

The best that can be said for the idea of convergence, or consolidation, is that at the moment it seems a very distant prospect. The troubles in Gaza have persuaded very many people that turning control over to the Palestinians means turning control over to terrorists — and terrorists operating in the West Bank, hard by Israel’s major population centers, are a, well, terrifying prospect. Nor is it at all clear that even without the current violence, Olmert would command a majority in the Knesset in favor of withdrawal.

The tragedy is that the only other prospect, assuming negotiations that either never get started or that fizzle early on, is more of the same — that is, the status quo. And the status quo, as we are seeing, can easily slip and slide into significant and chronic violence.

All this is no longer a march of folly; it is where that march, now just one year short of our 40 in the desert long, long ago, has brought the parties. In the distance, as ever, there is a light. But there is no tunnel from here to there, nor cloud nor fire to guide us.

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