Shades of Algeria on the West Bank
A right-wing government that settlers believed would look after their interests instead enters into negotiations with an organization that established its position through terrorism. Outraged by the prospect of concessions, the angry settlers openly defy their government’s authority. Despite the onset of peace talks, bloodshed continues — and it is unclear how an agreement can actually be reached.
A synopsis of recent events in the Israeli-Palestinian arena? Perhaps. But it could also be a description of France’s efforts to bring to an end to its war in Algeria in the early 1960s. And just as the fate of the pieds noirs, French Algeria’s European population, was a key barrier to achieving a negotiated agreement in Algeria, skeptics today argue that the rapid growth of Israel’s West Bank settlements has rendered a two-state solution impossible. Is any Israeli government really prepared to evacuate (or perhaps leave behind under Palestinian rule) tens of thousands of Israeli settlers, as would be required under any foreseeable peace accord?
The skeptics, however, should remember that in 1958, when French President Charles de Gaulle proclaimed “vive l’Algérie française,” the pieds noirs did not look like they were going anywhere. Yet only four years later, the war in Algeria was over, and nearly all the pieds noirs soon left the country.
Indeed, the two situations have some remarkable parallels: In both the West Bank and Algeria, settlers moved to the conquered territory with government encouragement. There were about a million pieds noirs in Algeria, or about 10% of the overall population. The demographics of the West Bank (excluding East Jerusalem) are remarkably similar: about 300,000 Jews living amid some 2.4 million Palestinians — also about one-tenth of the population.
Both the Algerian Front de Libération Nationale’s uprising in 1954 and the Second Intifada in 2000 signaled turning points, as French and Israeli civilians faced sustained waves of attacks. As violence spiraled out of control, and amid the resulting political upheaval, both France and Israel turned to old nationalist war heroes to lead them. For France, it was de Gaulle; for Israel, Ariel Sharon.
With the support of the pieds noirs, de Gaulle took office in 1958 and expected to continue the French presence in Algeria, just as Sharon enjoyed the backing of the settler movement in his efforts to suppress Palestinian violence. But both de Gaulle and Sharon came to the conclusion that military force alone would not be sufficient.
Sharon, of course, disengaged from Gaza, and the settlers quickly turned against their former patron. Yet Sharon suffered a debilitating stroke without resolving the issue of the West Bank. Now Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, long a stalwart supporter of Greater Israel, has embraced the concept of a two-state solution and is insisting that he is eager to see negotiations through to a more successful conclusion.
For his part, in September 1959, de Gaulle dropped a bombshell by endorsing the principle of Algerian self-determination, with the vague hope that the Algerians would opt for a continued association with France. The pieds noirs, however, believed that de Gaulle had betrayed them.
The following January, far-right pieds noirs known as ultras set up barricades in the heart of Algiers and fired on a contingent of French gendarmes, killing 14. The uprising quickly petered out, but not before the violence did lasting damage to the pieds noirs’ cause. A year later, fed-up French voters overwhelmingly endorsed self-determination for Algeria in a national referendum.
Yet the ultras continued to grow even more radical. In April 1961, retired French army generals sympathetic to their cause mounted a coup attempt that failed. And as de Gaulle’s government negotiated with the leaders of the Algerian insurgency, the ultras launched a bloody terror campaign targeting their French political foes and Algerian civilians alike.
As a result of the ultras’ actions, whatever reservoir of support the pieds noirs enjoyed in France all but evaporated. By
July 1962, Algeria was independent, and the pieds noirs fled the country en masse.
Years later, General Maurice Challe, who commanded French military forces in Algeria at the time of the “Barricades Week” and later participated in the 1961 putsch, wrote: “I still today consider the affair of the Barricades as an imbecile and tragic mistake… and probably it was the critical moment marking the defeat of the policy of Algérie française.”
The increased radicalization of Jewish settlers may be laying a similar groundwork for an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank. Even the most minor concessions by the Netanyahu government, such as the settlement freeze, are being met with outright defiance from the Israeli far right. Right-wing rabbis have called on religious soldiers to disobey orders to evacuate settlements.
A minority of extremely radical Israeli settlers have adopted rhetoric similar to that of the French ultras, dissociating themselves from a state that they believe has betrayed them. Under the so-called “price tag” policy, radical settlers have avenged evacuations of unauthorized outposts with violence against Palestinians and their property — and even, occasionally, assaulting Israeli soldiers. The Israeli army is increasingly stuck in the middle, trying to keep the radical settlers and Palestinians apart.
Of course, there are key differences between the two situations: The Algerians had no territorial designs on Metropolitan France itself, a stark contrast to the historic Palestinian political position toward Israel. Perhaps most important, when France left Algeria, it withdrew across the Mediterranean Sea — no need to worry about Qassam rockets. The level of violence in the West Bank also has not approached the magnitude of bloodshed in the waning days of French Algeria. And whereas the ultras engaged in indiscriminate and mass killings of Algerian Muslims in the final months of the war, there has not been any comparable wave of sustained, deadly violence by settlers against Palestinians.
Still, even if the West Bank never descends to the level of chaos that engulfed French Algeria, the settlers are becoming more and more radicalized. The process is already well underway, and the result is likely to be that the Israeli public will increasingly disown them. The French didn’t leave Algeria because they finally found the perfect negotiating partner; they left in large part because they had had enough — and the radicalization of the pieds noirs helped push them to that point. Israelis may soon find themselves in the same position.
Even the presence of a million pieds noirs could not prevent a determined leader with overwhelming public support from pulling out of Algeria. The question now is whether Netanyahu can follow de Gaulle’s playbook and translate growing Israeli public sentiment into action.
Jacob Savage is a former graduate fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem.