Monday, September 24, 2012

The Barak Disengagement Plan

Israel's defense minister Ehud Barak has come out with a new plan that is spurring a new debate about Israel's role in the West Bank. Ehud Barak is part of the government coalition under Binyamin Netanyahu, but he's also the leader of his own political party and has aspirations to once again be Prime Minister of Israel.

That means that his comments need to be framed both as an internal political issue within the Israeli electorate and as a wider Israeli policy vis-a-vis the Palestinians.

Barak's plan? A disengagement from large portions of the West Bank, including uprooting settlements and using financial incentives to get Israel's to move back inside the Green Line. However, the Etzion and Ariel settlement blocs would not be included in the disengagement:
Defense Minister Ehud Barak is urging the government to examine a plan for unilateral withdrawal from Judea and Samaria. Under the plan, secluded settlements and outposts in Judea and Samaria would be evacuated by the state, and any Jews wishing to remain in the region would be permitted to live there under Palestinian rule.

In a special interview with Israel Hayom, to be published in full on Tuesday, Barak outlined the details of his plan and explained the logic behind it. Under Barak's plan, the settlement blocs of Gush Etzion, Maaleh Adumim and Ariel would remain intact. These blocs house some 90 percent of Judea and Samaria's Jewish population. Strategic areas (such as the Samarian hills overlooking Ben-Gurion International Airport) would similarly remain under Israeli control, and an Israeli military presence in the Jordan Valley would be ensured. The remainder of the territory would be handed over to the Palestinians to establish a state. Dozens of small Jewish communities would have to be evacuated.

Barak's plan elicited a harsh response from the right on Monday, with Likud Minister Yuli Edelstein saying that "this is not a disengagement plan we are talking about. This is our survival. Ehud Barak is continuing to make rookie mistakes. After supporting the disastrous Oslo Accords, orchestrating the escape from Lebanon and advancing the withdrawal from Gaza, which put a million Israelis in bomb shelters, Barak is now willing to put millions more in harms way just to get more votes."
There has been no visible movement on the peace process in the past couple of years as Hamas has solidified its hold on Gaza while Fatah continues running the show in the West Bank autonomous areas where Palestinians have civil administrative control. Pursuant to the Oslo Accords, the Palestinian Authority has full civil administrative control over certain portions, shared security arrangements in other areas, and Israel controls the remaining areas. The ultimate disposition of the West Bank would be determined in an agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. But since Hamas has remained steadfast in its refusal to recognize Israel's very right to exist and has no interest in holding to already signed deals between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, there's been no movement. Israel can't work on a peace deal when it doesn't have a partner in peace.

Elections are likely in the next year, and Barak thinks he's got a shot at winning the opportunity to forge a coalition government rather than Netenyahu. Disengagement isn't likely to sit well with many Israelis after the Gaza experiment, though there are significant differences between the two scenarios. For one, Hamas had a greater presence in Gaza than in the West Bank, and Fatah has been more willing to coordinate security with Israel. That isn't to say that disengagement is without risk to Israel's security.

So, this is where Barak's proposal comes into play. It would seem to be a version of Ariel Sharon's Gaza disengagement plan. It would take into account the demographic problems that face Israel with a growing Palestinian population that would threaten the very character of Israel's Jewishness.

Critics of Barak's plan in Israel point to the problems resulting from the Gaza disengagement. Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor notes that the disengagement from Gaza allowed Hamas to overrun and take control of the area and turned Gaza into a rocket and terrorist haven. Thousands of terror attacks have been launched against Israel - in the form of mortars, kassams, and grad rocket/missile attacks against Israel from Ashkelon and Ashdod through Sderot. Meridor points out that something similar would likely occur if Israel unilaterally withdraws from areas in the West Bank.
"We saw what happened in Gaza," Meridor told Israel Radio, expressing his belief that unilateral withdrawal from settlements is "not a good idea."

"We all want to reach an agreement," he said, "but since Olmert's proposal (in 2006) we haven't had real negotiations, and they [the Palestinians] don't seem to want it."

Meridor stressed that Israel should make an effort to reach an agreement and that the current situation must not continue, but he added that the army must remain in the West Bank for the time being.

Meanwhile, Vice Premier Silvan Shalom all but dismissed the proposal, predicting that Barak will not have sway on government action in the settlements, following elections scheduled for 2013.
The view that Israelis are the ones blocking a path to a peace deal ignore the reality on the ground unless the goal is to establish not a two-state solution, but a three state solution. One for Hamas in Gaza, one for Fatah in the West Bank territories, and Israel. If that's the path to take, then we need to eliminate the fiction that the Palestinian Authority has any actual authority, that the votes the Palestinians took, and their civil war that led to the current situation but that would also mean that Palestinian self-determination in those elections wasn't determinative.

The problem with the three-state solution is that the Palestinians themselves don't appear to want that - they still hold fast to 2-state solution that ultimately leads to a 1-state solution in overruning Israel.

Fatah's Abbas isn't willing to make concessions on right of return or other critical issues that would lead to a new peace deal. And housing and settlements are a non-factor since Israel has repeatedly shown that Israel is willing to uproot settlers from housing to have an opportunity for peace.

They did it in Sinai.

They did it in Gaza.

And they'd do so in the West Bank if there was a peace deal to be had. Without a partner in peace though, the Israelis aren't going to warm up to another unilateral disengagement plan.

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