A funny thing happened last week in Israel: both the Israeli right and left managed to agree on something with regard to the peace process. First, an official in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office told the Times of Israel that in the event of a peace deal with the Palestinians, “settlers [should] be given the free choice of remaining in place and living under Palestinian rule.” Then, just a few days later, famed Israeli author and left-wing peace activist A.B. Yehoshua suggested the exact same thing to the media: “The fear of evacuating settlements is preventing peace. Maybe, just as we have an Arab minority within our midst, they [settlers] can remain as a Jewish minority among the Arabs. They can become Palestinian citizens if they do not want to evacuate.” (To get a sense of the vast political divide between Yehoshua and Netanyahu, Yehoshua offered this proposition while advocating a cultural boycott of the settlement of Ariel.)
When both sides of the Israeli political spectrum come to the same conclusion, they’re probably on to something. In this case, they may have just discovered the key to creating a viable Palestinian state. If Israel simply cedes some settler areas to the Palestinian Authority, it becomes much easier to fill in the territorial gaps necessary for a contiguous Palestinian state. Moreover, such a move sidesteps the problem of trying to evacuate certain smaller, more radical settlements whose inhabitants would resist any attempt to relocate them–religious people who feel more connection to the land of Israel than its government. Allowing them to stay put is thus preferable for all concerned. (At the same time, those settlers who don’t like the idea of being governed by Palestinians will have a strong incentive to leave for Israel of their own accord, obviating the need to forcibly remove them.)
Of course, as with anything connected to Israel-Palestine, this plan is not without detractors. Jewish Home party chairman Naftali Bennett, who strenuously opposes the two-state solution, tore into Prime Minister Netanyahu for floating the possibility, perhaps realizing that it offered the most realistic path to the peace agreement he disdains. (That said, in an interview several weeks ago, Bennett’s deputy Ayelet Shaked had voiced her support for having settlers remain in Palestine, demonstrating that the idea appeals even to Israel’s hard-right.) More consequentially, Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat has rejected Netanyahu’s proposal outright, saying, “No settler will be permitted to stay in a Palestinian state, not one, because the settlements are illegal and the presence of settlers on occupied lands is illegal.”
But it’s unclear just how seriously this claim should be taken. After all, both parties have staked out hardline starting positions on everything from Jerusalem to the right of return for Palestinian refugees, and all are expected to compromise on these issues in the context of an agreement–and have done so in previous negotiations. And in fact, leaked reports from the current talks suggest that allowing settlers to live under Palestinian sovereignty is on the table.
In this context, it’s important to realize that we are talking about a fraction of a fraction of Palestine. Erekat himself has pointed out in the past that settlements have been built on just 1.1 percent of the West Bank, as evidenced in satellite images taken by the European Union. Given that most of the settler population within this small slice will be transferred to Israel through land swaps, the actual amount of settler land and population that Palestine might be expected to absorb is truly miniscule.
If Palestinian negotiators can bring themselves to make that small compromise, under the prodding of Secretary of State John Kerry, both Israel and the Palestinians will have moved one step closer to a viable peace agreement.
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