Bennett, it is time to freeze West Bank settlements
The millions of Palestinians cannot forever be suppressed, and pressure to make them citizens will grow
The current government cannot pursue peace with the Palestinians because of Naftali Bennett. The prime minister is a right-winger, and his six seats were critical to removing Benjamin Netanyahu. But could Bennett change his mind? Might he be pretending? Can this be finessed? I say maybe on all counts.
Having lost many of his voters by abandoning Netanyahu’s nationalist bloc – for the handsomest reward – Bennett is in the rare situation of having little to lose. Meanwhile, he is in the familiar position of a sophisticated right-winger who is almost certainly too intelligent to not understand the problem with Israel’s entrenchment in the West Bank. This applied in various ways to Tzipi Livni, Ehud Olmert, Ariel Sharon and even Netanyahu (for a brief moment, before he became Voldemort).
The realization is that Israel with the West Bank is barely 60% Jewish, and with Gaza already is majority-Arab, and that’s not good for Zionism. The millions of Palestinians cannot forever be suppressed, and pressure to make them citizens will grow.
To some Israelis this is no problem because God will fix it; there is not much to discuss with them, but Bennett is not this way, despite his microscopic yarmulke.
To others this is no problem because when need be the Palestinians will magically depart; as a clever businessman who thinks and speaks American, it’s safe to say Bennett is not in this crowd either.
So what on earth is Bennett thinking when he goes to bed in placid Ra’anana, far away from the feverish settler reveries of manifest destiny?
Judging by his few statements on the matter (other than vague assertions about “values”), he thinks partition has already been achieved by the 1990s establishment of the Palestinian Authority. Many intelligent right-wingers think this (the right bitterly opposed the creation of the Palestinian Authority, but they seem generally untroubled by the hypocrisy). But the problem is that Israel and the Palestinians in fact remain intertwined.
Though Palestinian leaders are happy to strut about pretending otherwise, their autonomy government’s functions are essentially municipal; Israeli courts can try Palestinians when they so choose; Israeli security forces can enter the PA areas, including “full PA control” Areas A, with impunity; Israel can let supplies in, or not; if you are a Palestinian in need of medical care outside your autonomy island, you need Israel to agree; Israel controls all entry and exit from the overall West Bank, by land, sea and air.
In short, the government that still ultimately governs the Palestinians is in Jerusalem. By the millions these Palestinians cannot vote for that government yet are told its actions must be accepted, because it was “democratically elected.” This is a farce, and it is highly unlikely that Bennett cannot be made to see it.
Nor does the autonomy map look like anything even remotely sustainable. The PA presides over dozens of non-contiguous islands of territory. Israel controls passage between them and building rights and natural resources in the rest of the territory. There is a point where fragmentation becomes unworkable and I imagine Bennett can be made to see this.
Meanwhile, in most of the West Bank, which is joint-control Areas B and Israeli-controlled Area C, settlers and Palestinians are mixed together with the settlers clearly favored in a variety of ways (the AP did a study several years ago, when I was the Cairo-based regional editor). Palestinians are periodically killed by the understandably jittery soldiers (and often stage attacks). Under these circumstances claims of apartheid are – while historically inaccurate – not completely ridiculous, and they will continue and grow. Bennett could never be made to admit this, but he knows it, I am sure.
Some will say that nothing matters because a peace deal is impossible because the Palestinians are unreasonable – especially as evidenced in their insistence on the so-called Right of Return, which played a key role in scuttling several far-reaching Israeli peace offers in the past. And this is true.
But there is a difference between maintaining the status quo while seeking opportunities (perhaps unilateral) for change – and continuing to pour settlers into the territory. Every day that passes and settlers are added brings Israel closer to the point of no return at which it will find itself facing Palestinian demands for annexation and citizens’ rights that will reflect the reality of its control. It would end Zionism and so Israel will resist, but make no mistake: that way lie sanctions and global pariah status.
Is there hope that Bennett might not only understand all this but act? I note that he is advised by historian Micah Goodman, who made a mark with his book Catch 67. That book argued that both the Left and Right are correct in that the occupation is bad for Israel but also it cannot currently be ended, and so the conflict must be managed.
That is not inconsistent with freezing the settlements (with the possible exception of a few that are directly next to the 1949 armistice lines).
If Bennett were to agree to this, the result would be an instant outpouring of good will from the region and the world (and also his coalition). He would stand for something, and he might become a real leader to the remaining pragmatic right-wingers. It would also be a signal to Israelis who seek to end the occupation that his joining with the center-left was not just a stunning gambit to become prime minister.
The pressure would shift to the Palestinians to respond in kind, perhaps by the summer 2023 deadline for the moderate Yair Lapid to take over as prime minister.
What might the Palestinians do? They might have an honest internal discussion on the notion that millions of descendants of Palestinian refugees have a “right” to return to ancestral areas in Israel. It would take courage, but they probably know this idea is standing in their way, and the Sunni part of the Arab world is losing patience with their cause.
Tens of millions of people were dislocated in World War II and its aftermath as the colonial era ended, in part in a movement to create viable nation-states. Germans are not returning to the Sudetenland (though they could under the EU) and Pakistanis do not have any “right” to return to Mumbai. Turks and Greeks, internally displaced people by the tens of millions in Red China and the Soviet Union – none of their descendants are running around with rusty keys demanding “rights” to return.
In the case of Israel/Palestine, a return would oppose the very demographic logic that might compel Israel to divest itself of strategic territory. Palestinians have argued Israel should accept the principle since few would actually arrive; that would be insane. One can speak of compensation at the most.
That’s what we might hope for in the two years of Bennett: Israel admitting settlement in most parts of the West Bank is wrong, and Palestinians admitting that the return is nonsense. After that, there may be chances for an amicable divorce.
(This article was first published in the Jerusalem Post)