In any possible Israeli/Palestinian future, what to do with the settlements is one of the most difficult of issues. Several weeks ago, when Ariel Sharon hinted that he might, at some undetermined point in the future, consider dismantling even a few of the settlements, 100,000 Israelis took to the streets to protest. But to Dan Schueftan, the highly regarded Israeli analyst and academic whose concept of unilateral disengagement now dominates debate in Israel, the answer is simple.
“Someone asked me how it will be possible to remove the settlements,” he says. “So I told him the story of a man who went to the doctor with a very serious venereal disease. And the doctor told him the whole instrument would have to be removed.”
Unwilling to accept this fate, Schueftan says, the man was determined to look in every corner of the world until he found a doctor who would give him a different opinion. Finally, he found a doctor in Asia who told him he didn’t need to cut off his penis. “Just leave it alone,” the doctor said. “It will fall off by itself.”
“This is what will happen to the settlements,” says Schueftan. “They will fall off by themselves. Once the fence is built, everything on the other side is doomed.” Schueftan is a senior fellow at the National Security Studies Center at the University of Haifa. He also teaches at both the Israel Defense Forces National Security College and the IDF’s Command and Staff College. “My views,” he says at the beginning of our conversation, “are extremely unpleasant and politically incorrect. But I am right.”
Anyone who disagrees with him is an idiot, a liar, or a demagogue. And when pointing out that prime ministers from the left and the right have sought his counsel, he cheerfully says it has given him the opportunity to insult everyone, regardless of ideology.
“Even by Israeli standards, I’m arrogant,” Schueftan says. “But I have such good reason to be that any kind of modesty on my part would simply be false modesty.”
Schueftan is only half kidding. As he watches the Israeli public and its leaders move, however slowly, toward adopting his political vision, he is not above a little gloating. Though the idea of disengagement has been around practically since Israel captured the territories in 1967, Schueftan is largely responsible for its current shape and scope and prominence.
His book Disengagement—Israel and the Palestinian Entity, published in 1999, put the idea of unilateral separation into play. And several critical factors have, over the past 24 months or so, come together to clear a path for Schueftan’s strategy.
There is a growing recognition that the clock is ticking, that a continuation of the status quo is no longer an option. In a poll by the Tami Steinmetz Center for Peace Research at Tel Aviv University, more than two thirds of the Israelis questioned said they fear that if Israel holds onto the West Bank and Gaza, it will become a bi-national state with a Palestinian majority.
“This demographic threat is getting worse every day,” says Yossi Alpher, co-editor of Bitterlemons.org and the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies. “We are approaching a slippery slope at the bottom of which a two-state solution will no longer be possible.”
At the same time, after more than three years of relentless violence, Israelis are exhausted by the pain and suffering. They are also angry over the economic and psychic damage that’s been done to their society. Remarkably, more than 70 percent of Israelis still favor negotiations, but they no longer believe there is a Palestinian partner to negotiate with.
As a result, what they want is disengagement. If a negotiated peace is not possible—and there is currently no reason to believe that it is—Israelis want to unilaterally separate from the Palestinians. It is a searing irony that what the Israelis want is their independence from the Palestinians.
Though Israelis tend to disagree about almost everything, 83 percent support the construction of the security fence, the 452-mile, $1 billion barrier. This despite the fact that the U.S. is opposed to it and the international community may impose sanctions and try to isolate Israel as punishment.
The fence is being built ostensibly to keep out Palestinian suicide bombers. But it is no secret that it will serve as a political barrier as well. When it is completed (there are five phases, the first two already finished), it will create a de facto border, a line in the sand that will essentially be a two-state solution imposed by the Israelis without having to get the Palestinians to the negotiating table.
“Because of the failure of Oslo and the violence of the last three years,” says Schueftan, “Israelis have learned a lesson in the only way Israelis learn lessons. You need to kill a few hundred Jews. Unfortunately, unless you do this, Jews are slow to learn.”
Though it is rarely noted, it was Prime Minister Ehud Barak who was among the first Israeli politicians to adopt pieces of Schueftan’s vision. When Barak made his startling offer to Yasser Arafat at Camp David, his motives were not altruism, fairness, generosity, or a belief—like the one still held by Shimon Peres—that the Israelis and Palestinians could achieve a glorious peace of cooperation. His goal was very clear: separation from the Palestinians.
Consequently, when Arafat ended the negotiations by walking out, Barak quickly shifted gears and began trying to sell the Israeli public on the idea of a fence to achieve separation. If it couldn’t be done through negotiation, he argued, then it needed to be done unilaterally.
It has been lost in most of the recent debate over the fence that the idea was originally embraced by Israel’s left. The right was opposed to the fence for precisely the same reason as the Palestinians—because they knew it would create a virtual border. This means two critical things: a de facto Palestinian state and the likely abandonment of at least some of the settlements.
Nevertheless, Israel’s politicians, even those on the pragmatic right (as opposed to the religious right), have begun to recognize what the public is clamoring for. “People in politics don’t do what they want, they do what they must,” says Schueftan, who has been telling the leading members of Israel’s right for five years that eventually they would have to accept and implement disengagement.
“The Israeli public wants to be completely cut off from the Palestinians,” he says, “and as a result nobody can be prime minister without going in this direction. It’s not even an option if they want to stay in power.”
More and more politicians have also begun to recognize the time imperative. Stalling, muddling along, or simply waiting for the Palestinians to negotiate could very well result in the end of the Jewish state.
These notions have penetrated so far into Israeli society that even Ariel Sharon knows he must respond. The grand designer and builder of the settlements, the fervent believer in the “greater land of Israel,” is talking for the first time about unilateral steps to leave at least part of the West Bank and Gaza and, in the process, give up some of the settlements.
Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, the former mayor of Jerusalem and one of Sharon’s closest allies, has gone even further, openly expressing his concern about maintaining a Jewish majority in Israel if it doesn’t give up almost all of the territories. The demographic arithmetic is pretty simple. Right now, there are 3.2 million Palestinians living in the territories. Israel’s population is 6.3 million, which includes the more than 1 million Arabs who are Israeli citizens (but doesn’t, of course, include the Palestinians).
In other words, of the more than 9 million people living in Israel and the territories, roughly 55 percent are Jewish and 45 percent are Arab. But based on population-growth rates, these percentages will be reversed by 2020.
“We are approaching a point,” Olmert has said, “where more and more Palestinians will say: ‘There is no place for two states between the Jordan and the sea. All we want is the right to vote.’ The day they get it, we will lose everything.”
In fact, Palestinian prime minister Ahmed Qureia recently warned that if something doesn’t happen to break the deadlock soon, Palestinians may change their strategy and simply start asking for the vote in Israel. Though no one on the Israeli side thought he actually meant it (at least not yet), and his own people weren’t happy about his playing this card, the message was clear: The Palestinians may be suffering, but time is not on Israel’s side.
Much of the always raucous public debate in Israel is currently focused on Sharon’s intentions. He has said that if there’s no progress with the Palestinians in the next few months, he will consider unilateral steps. Is he serious about this or is he just trying to buy time? Is he hoping that once the presidential race in America really heats up, the Bush administration will be too distracted to pay attention to what he is doing?
Yossi Alpher does not believe Sharon will dismantle a single settlement. He argues that the prime minister is still intent, as he has been for twenty years, on compelling the Palestinians to accept a state on only 50 percent of the West Bank, with Israel maintaining permanent control over the Jordan Valley.
Alpher believes Sharon may simply be buying time. His approval ratings are way down, he is facing potential legal difficulties over a bribe scandal, and he has also been hurt recently when several high-ranking military and intelligence officers publically denounced the failed policies of the past several years. “Sharon knows he has to do something to reposition himself in the center,” Alpher says, “but he’s very fortunate that his political opposition is in complete disarray.”
Schueftan, on the other hand, is not interested in what Sharon wants. “I’m not his mother,” says Schueftan, who knows the prime minister well. “And what he truly wants deep in his heart is a matter for his cardiologist. I’m only interested in what he’s doing. And what he’s doing is sending the message to the mainstream Israeli public that ‘I, Ariel Sharon, the great builder of the settlements, am heading in the direction of dismantling them.’ This is of historical significance.”
In the 37 years israel has controlled the West Bank and Gaza, 144 settlements have been built, and they are now officially home to 237,000 people (there are, however, many unoccupied residences, and the number of people actually physically living in the settlements is probably closer to 185,000). The purpose of the settlements was to make it difficult, if not impossible, for Israel to give back the West Bank and Gaza. And their existence creates two substantial obstacles to separation: one practical and one ideological.
The practical issue, though difficult, is not, despite what it might seem, insurmountable. Just about half of all the settlers live in six towns: Ariel, Efrat, Giv’at Ze’ev, Betar ’Illit, Ma’ale Adummim, and Modi’in Illit.
It is possible to incorporate 80 percent of the settlers on the Israeli side of the fence. This requires Israel’s taking 8 to 10 percent of the West Bank. And, given that Israel is acting unilaterally, it may take more like 15 or 20 percent, which, the argument goes, can be negotiated when the Palestinians are ready.
But what about the 50,000 to 60,000 Israelis on the Palestinian side? Who also happen to be the most radical, religiously driven settlers? Schueftan argues that Israelis have already given up on them. “The settlers know it,” he says. “Members of their leadership council have come to see me five times to discuss these issues. They understand that when they lose two thirds of the Israeli public, they’re doomed.”
The ideological obstacle may also prove less formidable than it used to be. The ugly reality on the ground since the failure of Oslo has closed off Israel’s options. Both the dream of the left and the dream of the right now look like broken relics from another time. The dream of the right, of course, was the greater land of Israel. A Jewish homeland that incorporated the West Bank and Gaza. In this fantasy, Israel would control the territories and the Palestinians would live with some measure of autonomy within a Jewish state.
The dream of the left was that Israel would give back the territories, the Palestinians would have their state, and everyone would live together, side by side, with full economic and social connectedness.
Schueftan argues that the left’s vision of a cooperative peace was never a real possibility. “This is the reason Israel’s left is totally impotent now,” he says. “Because they continue to sell this complete fantasy. And Israelis know it’s a fantasy.”
Even during what in retrospect looks like the golden days of Oslo, Palestinians never really accepted the notion of a Jewish state. Not a single map or a single schoolbook was ever altered to reflect a new reality, and the Palestinians never budged on the right of return. “Oslo,” Schueftan says, “was Jews helping Palestinians manipulate Jews. It has always been a zero-sum game for the Palestinians. They want to harm Israelis more than they want to help themselves.”
Schueftan is not against making concessions. On the contrary, he says he would have happily given the Palestinians the territories—and a piece of Jerusalem as well—if he believed they would accept a two-state solution. What he has done is take the assumption of the right and combine it with the conclusion of the left. “The right starts with the correct assumption. Namely that the Arabs want to butcher us. But they arrive at the dumb conclusion that because they want to butcher us, we need to stay in Gaza and Nablus and Ramallah and Hebron forever.”
“On the other hand, the left,” he says, “starts with the right conclusion, but based on the wrong assumption.” The conclusion is that Israel should get out of the territories, but the assumption is that all the Palestinians want is peaceful co-existence.
“The Arabs do hate us, and they do want to kill each and every one of our children,” Schueftan says. “So we need to leave the West Bank and Gaza because the only kind of society that can survive generations of conflict with the Palestinians is a society with a solid Jewish majority. A society that is completely convinced it is morally justified in what it’s doing.”
Schueftan argues that it is critical, however, that the Palestinians not be given 100 percent of the West Bank. At least not right away. “They must pay for killing 900 Jews in this three-year war they have been waging. We cannot send the message that if you kill Jews you get 100 percent of what you want. It would reverberate for generations.”
There are a number of serious arguments against Israel’s unilaterally separating itself from the Palestinians. First, it is a violation of international law. The World Court at The Hague is scheduled to hear the case against Israel’s security fence in a few weeks. The Europeans will use this as a reason to isolate Israel and impose sanctions. “But since the Europeans are such complete incompetents,” Schueftan says, “and have never done anything right, even the sanctions probably won’t be effective.”
The Palestinians and others have already argued that the fence will turn Israel and the territories into some kind of South Africa, especially given the fact that Israel will hold onto the Jordan Valley until it is determined there is a responsible Palestinian leadership. If in doing this they decide to build a fence on the eastern side of the West Bank, the Palestinians will effectively be surrounded. But there are no plans right now to actually build this side of the fence.
It is also argued that the Palestinians will end up with a bunch of noncontiguous pieces of land—in essence, a collection of Bantustans. Schueftan argues this is completely untrue: It is simply anti-Israel propaganda. “We are giving the Palestinians what they want—a state on contiguous land. Not because they deserve it but because it is the only way to get rid of them. There has to be territorial contiguity, because if there isn’t, we will be held responsible for their failure.”
But finally, Schueftan is only interested in one argument. “If we have to control these areas until the Palestinians give us peace,” he says, “we will cease to exist.”