Bradley Burston
Haaretz (Opinion)
December 7, 2009 - 1:00am

Barack Obama cannot and will not compel Israel to withdraw from the West Bank and free up land for a Palestinian state. Neither will the international community as a whole, nor Hamas, and certainly not the Palestinian Authority, nor what remains of the Israeli left.

Trust the settlers, though. They alone will make it possible. Sooner or later, they'll lose the West Bank all by themselves.

There's no one else to do it. The president's sway over a client ally is limited by a host of constraints, not least, the contingencies of a congressional election less than 11 months from now. The world huffs, puffs, and blows nothing but smoke. Hamas has problems of its own, one of them being the bitter fact that the best way to boost its popularity among Palestinians is to negotiate a prisoner exchange with a Jewish state that, it asserts, does not, and should never, exist. For the Fatah PA and the Israeli left, existence itself has become the problem.

If past experience is any guide, only the settlers themselves are capable of doing what is needed to bring about a pullout. And if present indications hold, at some point, they will do just that.

Not on purpose, by any means. It is the settlers' worst nightmare. Still, the settlement enterprise has a fatal weakness for Greek tragedy - not unlike the Palestinian national movement - in which the main character alone has the power and the fiery, headstrong determination required to thwart its own most cherished goals.

As for how this could work, the most dramatic examples of withdrawal, the 2005 disengagement from Gaza and the early 1980s evacuation of the occupied Sinai Peninsula, may also prove to be the most relevant.

Fittingly, for a culture so steeped in loss - over the years, Israel has withdrawn from nearly 90 percent of the territory it captured in 1967, and a total of 43 settlements in Sinai, Gaza and the West Bank, expelling more than 10,000 settlers - the progression of the settlers' self-destructive behavior tends to follow this pattern:

1. DENIAL In case after case, settlers have refused to take seriously the signs that a pullout was impending, waiting much too long to launch their fight against withdrawal.

The wishful-thinking watchword of the settlers' campaign against the Sinai withdrawal was the bumper sticker slogan "There will be no evacuation."

When five years ago then-prime minister Ariel Sharon declared his intention to oust all Israelis from the Gaza Strip, settlers, echoing the smirks and dismissal of the Israeli left, said in unison "No way, he's just saying that to be populist" and "It's a bluff, he doesn't mean a word of it, he's just diverting attention from graft probes."

The irony is that the settlers and their allies on the hard right may be the only Israelis who still listen to the Israeli left. When prominent doves in academia and the media now declare that it's now too late for a two-state solution, and that Benjamin Netanyahu is merely going through the motions of seeking a future peace, only the settlers breathe a true sigh of relief.

You can bank on their denial. You can bank on their failure to recognize that a majority of Israelis would agree to withdraw from the West Bank under a peace deal. Just as you could bank on their willingness to believe that a Likud leader would never agree to such a thing.

They believed it when they elected Menachem Begin, who ceded Sinai, and when they elected Yitzhak Shamir, who set the precedent for a total withdrawal when he returned Taba, and later, when in full confidence they elected Sharon. Now they have elected Netanyahu. The pillars of the right, Avigdor Lieberman, Benny Begin, and Moshe Yaalon, have all voted for the first settlement freeze since Oslo 1993. The result:

2. ANGER From the standpoint of achieving their aims, the settlers' vocal fury over the unfairness, the racism, the injury to human rights implicit in a settlement freeze - let alone a future expulsion - is programmed to boomerang.

For more than 40 years, Israelis have subsidized settlers, defended their enclaves with their life's blood, drove on disintegrating highways even as transportation budgets laid down dedicated settler roads to remote hills and preposterous trailer camps, all the while listening to West Bank rabbis issuing rulings justifying violence against Arabs, refusal to serve in the army, and opposition and resistance to Israeli soldiers, police, and government. It has further hurt the settler cause that their rightist allies have led the fight to foil a deal to free Gilad Shalit.

The anger, the settlers are always shocked to discover, cuts both ways.

3. BARGAINING Here is where the settlers' battle is typically lost. Activists actually believe that they can stop a withdrawal if only they are proactive enough: e.g., if they block major intersections, assault government officials, brand IDF soldiers and Israeli leaders Nazis. Again, the Israeli public's backlash proves as surprising as it is immediate.

And, in perhaps the surest sign of a movement in desperation, many young settlers have come to believe that if they are only more religious in outlook the Evil Decree will be lifted. So far, arming oneself with phylacteries and ram's horns while battling Israeli soldiers has, for some reason, not worked.

4. DEPRESSION The more messianic the faith, of course, the more cataclysmic the disappointment. Again, in this context, the settlement enterprise has begun to show the stresses and creaks of an aging, perhaps dying revolution. Not for nothing has a debate opened within the movement over whether the settlements - widely viewed by the right as the more viable heir to kibbutzim - might now face the kibbutz movement's fast-dimming fate.

5. ACCEPTANCE It may be argued that there are many in Israel who see a more urgent need for a Palestinian state at this point, than do many Palestinians. The jury is still out, but Netanyahu may well fit into that category. If he does, and he decides to drive for a dramatic peace with the Palestinians, it is more than likely that a majority in Israel will back him. The settlers will then once again be forced to accept a withdrawal, a prospect made perhaps more palatable under draft proposals under which Israel cedes pre-1967 land to the Palestinians, and annexes settlements comprising 80 percent of the settler population.


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