Amy Teibel
The Statesman
November 5, 2010 - 12:00am

It has become an article of faith in the Israeli-Palestinian equation: Israel's withdrawal from occupied lands must be accompanied by a removal of Jewish settlers.

But perhaps there's another option.

Although it's hardly mainstream thinking, voices on both sides are quietly contemplating an alternative: Perhaps some Jews can live in a future Palestine, even if only in small numbers, the way Arabs live in Israel.

That would reduce Israel's challenge, perhaps avoiding possible violent settler resistance. It would also absolve the Palestinians of an uncomfortable charge sometimes leveled at them using a Nazi term — that they want a state that is "judenrein," or "free of Jews."

By "allowing those Israelis who always claim to love the land more than the state to live out their dreams ... you have the chance to defang one of the most difficult issues (among many) and set a solid foundation for a just, robust, free and democratic Palestine," said Akram Baker, an independent Palestinian analyst.

The problem, of course, is that most settlers have no desire to live under Palestinian rule — and in fact moved to the West Bank to prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state. Others are radicals who could well prove problem citizens.

The antipathy is generally mutual: Palestinians tend to think that the settlers' presence there is a violation of international agreements against colonizing occupied land. They are widely hated, and it is easily conceivable that they might suffer discrimination and even vigilante violence without protection of the Israeli military.

Still, proponents argue that out-of-the-box notions — on settlers and on other issues — are what is needed to nudge the current peace effort, which started in September but stalled over settlement construction, past a finish line that has eluded peacemakers during two fitful decades of negotiations.

A leading advocate, Rabbi Menachem Froman of the West Bank settlement of Tekoa, notes that improbable though the idea of Jewish citizens of Palestine might seem, the removal of all 300,000 settlers from the West Bank is equally difficult to imagine.

"What gets peace stuck? (The notion that) wherever there is a Jew, you can't have a Palestinian state. So you have to evacuate the Jews, like you did in Gaza," said Froman, referring to the forcible 2005 removal of 8,500 settlers from the seaside strip — an event remembered as something of a national trauma in Israel.

He acknowledged the notion of leaving settlers in a future Palestine resonates "very weakly" among Israeli politicians. "So this is where it's stalled," he said.

Mainstream settler leaders don't even consider the possibility of keeping settlers under Palestinian rule.

Dani Dayan, chairman of the settler umbrella group Yesha Council, called it a "preposterous, insane idea" that would endanger Israeli citizens.

"Israel has a responsibility to maintain all the communities it established under Israeli sovereignty, even in the event of a deal," Dayan said.

The West Bank carries much more weight for Israelis than Gaza did, so beyond the challenge of sheer numbers, evacuating the territory would be a much more fraught endeavor.

Observant Jews believe God gave the West Bank, home to the holy cities of Bethlehem and Hebron, to the Jewish people as part of the Land of Israel. Hawkish Israelis see continued control of the territory as integral to Israel's security because the West Bank borders Israel's Tel Aviv heartland.

In previous rounds of peace talks, Israel and the Palestinians have discussed swapping land close to Jerusalem, where most settlers live, for an equal amount of Israeli territory.

But even under this scenario, some 75,000 settlers would have to be evacuated. The anti-settlement watchdog group Peace Now estimates that more than 2,000 are fervently ideological — raising the possibility of violent clashes.

Yossi Beilin, a former Israeli peace negotiator, said he does not remember the proposal ever coming up in formal negotiations, but that he and Mahmoud Abbas — years before he became Palestinian president — suggested it in an unofficial peace proposal they crafted in 1995.

Under their proposal, settlers would remain in the West Bank under Palestinian sovereignty — but in communities that would be open to Palestinians as well.

Settlers rejected the notion outright at the time. Now, says Beilin, he hears it brought up more often in settler circles.

"It's not a central issue," Beilin said. "But it's right to talk about it because ... it could be a real solution to one of the big problems facing governments, what to do with the settlers."

U.S.-based Palestinian commentator Ray Hanania sees allowing settlers to live in a future Palestine as part of a broader solution of competing claims to land.

Palestinians insist on repatriating Palestinian refugees who were driven from or fled homes in what is now Israel during the war surrounding the Jewish state's 1948 creation, as well as their millions of descendants.

"I think the trade-off is that Israel take some refugees back as part of an effort to end the conflict and to establish confidence-building," Hanania said.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has not publicly stated an opinion on the idea.

Palestinians do not see settlements peppering their future state, "though in principle, non-Palestinians, including Israelis, would be able to live (there)," said Palestinian Authority spokesman Ghassan Khatib.

No position has yet been set on details such as numbers and whether they would be citizens, Khatib said.

Right now, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators aren't discussing any day-after-peace scenarios, because they aren't even sitting down to talk peace.

Palestinians have refused to talk unless Israel renews a 10-month construction moratorium in West Bank settlements that expired a month ago. Israel has resisted U.S. pressure to do so.


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