Settlement construction threatens two-state solution and Israel

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Proponents of this viewpoint believe that the gaps between the Israeli and Palestinian positions on the core issues – permanent borders, the status of Jerusalem, the plight of refugees, and security arrangements – cannot be bridged at this stage and that Israel should therefore establish borders for itself and evacuate the settlements that lie beyond. According to such thinking, such a move would‫ ‬bring about a two-state reality that would, in turn, make a full agreement possible in the future.

Such a unilateral initiative falls into the category of "conflict management" that, in the Israeli-Palestinian case, is inconsistent with that of "conflict resolution." Regrettably, those who support ‫"‬conflict management‫"‬ include a mixture of Israelis who are ready to make painful compromises for peace and Israelis who oppose any compromise and that regard ‫"‬conflict management‫"‬ as a useful framework for their intransigence. The fact that the Palestinians have presented their opening positions on all four core issues, including a border map, while the Israeli side failed to reciprocate, did not attract significant attention.

If Israel had presented its positions on the core issues, serious negotiations aiming at bridging the differences would have been possible. A steady march toward an agreement would have strengthened a Palestinian partner that wishes to end the conflict based on historic compromises; a political impasse, on the other hand, strengthens Hamas.

Advocates of ‫"‬conflict management‫"‬ and of the ‫"‬unilateral initiative‫"‬ act as if they offer a sober and realistic understanding of the tangled reality of the Middle East and that they are therefore proposing a practical alternative to the naïve dream of reaching an end to the conflict. Yet, ironically, it is the unilateral approach that is the harmful illusion.

This approach is based on the premise that the Government of Israel is able to evacuate tens of thousands of Israelis from their homes without receiving anything significant in return for such an enormous sacrifice. This premise is unfounded. The only chance of assembling a majority in support of what surely will be a traumatic evacuation of Israeli settlers from their homes is by favoring a full and permanent agreement. This will make it possible to present the Israeli public with a comprehensive package that includes the benefits it will receive for paying the agreement's painful price.

For Israel, the diplomatic challenge requires increasing the "benefit" component just as much as reducing the "price". This task can be achieved if the architecture of the process includes the Arab World and brings Israel regional reconciliation. Such an approach could also create pan-Arab legitimacy for the concessions that would be required of the Palestinians and help to overcome their own internal opposition.

A conflict management strategy that promotes a unilateral Israeli initiative or some kind of interim arrangement would divert energy and political capital to futile discussions and endless delays that lead nowhere. However, it would buy time for more settlement construction in the West Bank, bringing us closer to a point of no return, making a violent bi-national reality in a single state unavoidable. The steady growth in the number and spread of settlers not only increases the reluctance of Israeli leaders to make a decision that involves evacuations, it also increases the political power of the settlers and their supporters who have a personal interest in preventing an evacuation.

Those who fear for Israel's future as an attractive state that is both democratic and Jewish must, above all, halt the process that threatens to destroy the chances of the two-state solution. This means halting and reversing the settlement momentum, a task that is possible only by achieving a comprehensive permanent agreement that will give Israel recognized and final borders.

Israel's willingness to accept that final borders will be based on the 1967 lines with agreed-upon land swaps will make its demands on the other permanent agreement issues – particularly with regard to security – much more credible. For example, an Israeli demand that the implementation of the agreement be gradual and phased in stages that meet strict performance tests.

Reaching a permanent agreement, even if its implementation takes years, will put an immediate end to the dream of the Greater Israel. Through agreed-upon territorial exchanges, it will turn some 80 percent of the Israelis now living beyond the 1967 lines into citizens living under recognized Israeli sovereignty.  The remaining settlers will require the compassionate assistance of their fellow Israelis as they leave their old homes for new ones within Israel's recognized borders.

The "Arab Spring" and the victory of political Islam have turned a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into the most important strategic lever that Israel now possesses.  A permanent Israeli-Palestinian agreement will pave the way for Israel's gradual acceptance in an evolving region.

Israel does not have the capacity to influence the trends unfolding in the Arab world. But it does hold the key that can enable it to reverse the processes that threaten its Jewish and democratic character, and to cope much more effectively with unfavorable regional scenarios threatening to erode its security and its international standing.

This key does not lie in conflict management or in an illusory unilateral initiative. It lies only in a true and full resolution of the conflict.

Gil served as the director general of Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs (2001 – 2002). He was closely involved in Israel's policy-making and peace efforts, including the negotiations that led to the Oslo Accords. Mr. Gil is a Senior Strategic Adviser at the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace and a senior fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute.