You can call the recent onslaught of Palestinian violence against Israelis—six attacks on Wednesday and eight on Thursday, adding to the wave of bloodshed earlier this week—whatever you’d like. You can call it a new Intifada or the same old holy war; it hardly matters. What is obvious is that the situation demands resolution.
Where to begin? Not, sadly, with yet another round of negotiations. Even those who are, for some reason, still inclined to trust the despotic, corrupt, obfuscating and deeply illegitimate regime of Mahmoud Abbas would begrudgingly admit that bilateral talks can only work when there’s someone at hand to guarantee any agreement. The theater of carrots and sticks used to be an American production, which is why the Oslo Accords, having begun in secret in a chilly European capital, could only be made official with a handshake on the sunny White House lawn. But now that President Barack Obama has handed off regional hegemony to Iran and handed over Syria to Russia, no one in his or her right mind would pay a nickel for American guarantees. Vladimir Putin seems more trustworthy, in a horrible way, but with no strategic assets to be gained—the recent oil strike in the Golan notwithstanding—Putin has no conceivable interest in stepping in. The EU? The UN? Please.
Which leaves us with the players on the ground. The Palestinian Authority, despite being the recipient of many Marshall Plans worth of foreign aid, is a limping kleptocracy that is widely hated by the people it rules and is incapable even of holding a presidential election, a feat last achieved in 2005. Palestinian officialdom may fan and even fund sporadic violent attacks against Israelis, but try imagining anyone truly wanting to die for the PA. Hamas, on the other hand, has no shortage of homocidal maniacs —it was its men who murdered Eitam and Na’ama Henkin in front of their children—and no shortage of incentives with which to recruit more. There is also the prospect of Iranian patronage, now that Tehran stands to receive $100 billion in sanctions money from Obama in return for signing on for a strict regime of nuclear self-inspection. But Hamas can’t get too cozy with Iran, or else it will risk alienating its Sunni patrons in the Gulf, who see Tehran as a mortal enemy, and are currently fighting Iran and Russia in Syria. In turn, the Iranians need to worry about the Russians, whose help they need in order to keep Assad in power. The Russians need to worry about the Iranians, while the Islamic State worries everyone. In a climate of such wild uncertainly, the only one thing that is assured is more and even uglier violence.
The Israelis have their own mind-bending dissonances to contend with. Some still believe that the conflict is primarily about the settlements, or the Occupation, or any number of mantras that have been mumbled in the cafes and public parks of Tel Aviv since the late 1970s. Yet even the most devoted mantra-chanters realize that if the Palestinians have any real historical grievance, it began not in 1967 but in 1948 or, even, in 1882, with the first wave of Zionist immigration. If you truly believe the Zionists to be colonialist occupiers—and the secular Palestinian leadership clearly does, just as Hamas does, and just as some Europeans gladly and hypocritically do—why is northern Tel Aviv, erected on the ruins of Sheikh Munis, any different from Ariel or Efrat, or any other Jewish community in the West Bank? It isn’t.
Most Israelis grasp this point instinctively, which is why they have refrained, since the outbreak of the second intifada, from giving their support to political parties that so much as hint that Israel’s primal sin began when Jews returned to Hebron. Most Israelis also understand that the Despair Defense—arguing that Palestinians are driven to violence because they can no longer see any possibility of peaceful coexistence, which is all Israel’s fault, because the Israelis are so relentlessly cruel and oppressive, and uproot so many centuries-old olive trees—is pure hokum. This argument may still be peddled by high-ranking Israeli doves and Palestinian propagandists alike, but it has relatively little to do with Israeli behavior in the West Bank: the despair that most ordinary Palestinians feel ought to be, and often is, directed toward Abbas and the others who purloined their future. Had the billions the PA received in foreign aid been directed toward schools, jobs, and the other staples of a healthy society, Palestinians might be easily able to imagine a robust future for themselves, regardless of whether Jewish bee-keepers and Torah scholars chose to also live in the West Bank, and spend their money there.
These realizations lead to a strange sense of clarity. If you believe that Israel ought to remain a democratic Jewish homeland and not some fantastical one-state monstrosity or the newest province of the Islamic State, you realize that this seemingly complex conflict has only two simple, practical solutions.
The first is to agree with Abbas that Oslo is dead, and act swiftly and mercilessly against the terrorist cells that launch or inspire those who stab, shoot, and blow up Jews. Israel has undertaken such operations before. Now, it ought to bulk up its list of targets to include anyone implicated in homicidal violence, and keep at it until the vile gunmen and martyr-manufacturers and terrorist paymasters who have robbed so many Israelis—and Palestinians—of life and limb and hope are brought to justice.
Even if such an operation miraculously succeeds with few Israeli casualties, however, it would still leave Israel intertwined with the Palestinians, which is very bad news for the Jews. As their leaders proved again and again and again, the real Palestinian project isn’t the establishment of an independent nation state living side-by-side with Israel in peace. That goal, which American Presidents liked to celebrate, and Arabs paid occasional lip-service to, could’ve been accomplished dozens of times in the past 21 years. But that would’ve meant making the kind of painful concessions that every grown-up routinely has to make, as well as doing boring stuff like building houses and roads and schools, which in turn might suggest that the half-loaf of “Palestine” was really the end of the game.
Instead, the Palestinian leadership has chosen to let its people waste their lives in squalid camps and prison while squandering the cash and the goodwill it has received for decades, squirreling away hundreds of millions of dollars in stolen aid money in foreign bank accounts, and throwing lavish weddings for their children—and then using pictures of the suffering they nurture to reinforce the narrative of Palestinian victimhood and Israeli guilt before an endlessly indulgent global community that apparently couldn’t give one fig about what actually happens to a single Israeli or a single Palestinian child. The entire purpose of “Palestine” as imagined by Arafat and Abbas and the other Brahmins of Ramallah is to serve as a gangrenous limb that will eventually kill the Israeli body to which it is attached.
Which brings me to the second practical solution: the unilateral disengagement plan that Ariel Sharon was working to accomplish before he suffered a massive brain aneurysm. Look at a map of Judea and Samaria, as Sharon did several times a day, and you’ll notice that the lion’s share of Jewish communities are neatly aligned in a way that allows them all to remain a part of Israel should Israel decide to unilaterally annex a thin strip of the West Bank. Annex it, and annex the Jordan Valley, too, a very thinly unpopulated area that is essential to maintaining Israel’s security if the neighboring Kingdom of Jordan falls, or the Islamic State makes further gains in Iraq—both of which seem at the moment like better than even bets. Israel could then erect a large wall—a practice that has proven successful over the past decade in stopping some of the most murderous Palestinian terrorists from reaching their targets inside Israel—escort all Palestinian prisoners currently held in Israel to the other side of that barrier, and wait.
If the Palestinians choose to celebrate their disentanglement from Israel by building a functioning democratic state with literary festivals, protections for religious minorities, decent colleges, and well-paved streets, Israel should be the first to massively support it, financially as well as diplomatically. If they opt for another Gaza and celebrate the Israeli withdrawal with missiles and terror tunnels, Israel should forcefully act against such aggressions the same way any other sane nation would.
Using bulldozers to effect a clear physical separation between Israelis and Palestinians is no one’s fantasy of peaceful co-existence. But it could be a start—and it’s certainly better than what Israelis and Palestinians have now. The fact that it doesn’t conform to what anyone imagined circa 1993 seems about as relevant to the situation as the rest of what people imagined back in those halcyon years right after the Cold War ended: a beneficent Pax Americana, the end of history, many more Nirvana albums, and other wishes that never came to pass.
Unilateral separation might also help end the confusion that some people on both sides of the conflict feel when contemplating their fidelities. Israeli Arabs who deeply resent living in a Jewish state—like the scum who sipped his soft drink as innocents were being stabbed in front of his eyes in Jerusalem the other day, or the shopkeepers who laughed and spat at a wounded Jewish woman seeking shelter for herself and her toddler—could opt to move to the other side of the fence, where they can live without a single Jew anywhere in sight. And those Jews who live in communities that would have to be abandoned—a tragedy, to be sure, but one that’s nearly impossible to avoid—would similarly have to decide if they’d rather remain in Hebron under Palestinian rule or abandon their daily communion with the ancient stones of the holy city of Abraham and Sarah for the safety and sustainability of life in a thriving, modern State of Israel.
These are difficult choices. And neither scenario I suggest is without major risks. But the current situation is risky as well, and it isn’t likely to get any better. Ideally, Israel could opt for option one followed by option two: Fight terror without compromise, and then disengage from the Palestinians while retaining as many of the Jewish communities in the West Bank as is humanly possible. Neither of these solutions would bring anything truly deserving of the word “peace”—which is an untenable goal unless both sides want it and probably unreachable right now even if they did. But either one would likely make walking down the street in Ashdod or Jerusalem or Petach Tikva a bit safer than it is right now, which is the kind of hard-headed practical achievement that Zionism once celebrated. And in a region where artificial states are collapsing into what is likely to be a decades-long series of wars fueled by religious hatred and manias and paid for with a seemingly endless supply of petro-dollars, which are used to buy still more powerful weapons, the value of small victories should not be easily dismissed.
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Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.