Secretary of State John Kerry deserves enormous praise for getting Israeli and Palestinian officials to sit at the negotiating table together for preliminary talks this week in Washington – and for even getting in the game of Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking at all.
But for these talks to succeed, Israel must make a bold move that would help move negotiations forward, protect Israel’s security, and promote stability in the region. Given the upheaval in the Middle East and Israel’s hopes for a secure future, we cannot afford to wait for moves by the Palestinians or see whether negotiations succeed.
Mr. Kerry has been playing his cards with great skill and determination, even though the deck is stacked against him: a weakened Palestinian Authority; a divided Israeli coalition government beholden to West Bank settlers; and upheaval in neighboring countries where one of the only unifying elements is the populations’ support of the Palestinian cause.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wants to offer less to Palestinians than his predecessor, Ehud Olmert, did in 2008, while Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas cannot be more flexible than he was when he did not accept Mr. Olmert’s offer.
That’s why a bold move must be made now – one that will increase the chances of the negotiation track succeeding while also providing a fallback plan that will prevent the situation from collapsing into the abyss should negotiations fail.
Mr. Netanyahu has already agreed to release dozens of Palestinian prisoners, most of them convicted terrorists, and press reports allege that he implicitly agreed to halt settlement construction outside the major settlement blocks. These are genuine confidence building measures that removed obstacles toward resuming the dialogue.
But more will be needed. Netanyahu should further declare that Israel has no sovereignty claims over West Bank areas east of the security fence. (This is the fence erected by Israel around the main West Bank settlement blocks and Jewish parts of Jerusalem in order to counter Palestinian suicide bombers, terrorists and hostilities.) Then Netanyahu should announce a voluntary evacuation, compensation, and absorption plan for those settlers who live east of the fence and who choose to relocate to Israel proper, thereby allowing for the two-state notion to become reality.
We at the Israeli non-profit organization Blue White Future, who are striving to secure the future of our country as the democratic nation state of the Jewish people, call these constructive independent steps. They do not create obstacles to reaching an agreement. To the contrary, they improve the prospects for achieving it.
According to a 2012 poll, nearly 30 percent of the 100,000 West Bank settlers who live outside of the main settlement blocs would voluntarily accept compensation and quickly relocate within the green line or to the main settlement blocs, creating a trend in the right direction without the need for any Israeli enforcement. The future of those settlers who decide to stay east of the fence will be determined only when a permanent agreement is signed between Israel and the Palestinians.
This dramatic move of enabling voluntary relocation of settlers would demonstrate Israel’s sincerity by allowing space for a viable Palestinian state. Furthermore, seeing thousands of settlers moving back to Israel proper will go a long way toward convincing Palestinians that Israel means business. That, in turn, could encourage Palestinians to reciprocate with their own constructive steps.
But if, as many predict, these talks break down – and we fervently hope they don’t – these constructive, independent measures by Israel would still create tangible progress on the ground toward the reality of two states for two peoples, therefore securing our country as the democratic nation-state of the Jewish people – even without a comprehensive agreement.
In addition, this approach could become a key component of Kerry’s plan B – which supplies a safety net for a failed negotiation process through a series of coordinated, constructive steps and transitional agreements and understandings.
Israel does not have the luxury of waiting to see how these talks turn out. The approach we propose would enable Israel to take control of its own destiny, without regard to what the Palestinians do and despite the regional upheaval. Such a move by Israel would also make it difficult for Mr. Abbas to justify spiteful moves against Israel, such as suing it in international courts and inflaming the world’s opinion against Israel. And it would bring a measure of stability to the Middle East.
If Israel moves independently to allow voluntary settler relocation in the West Bank, it would not be repeating the failures of its 2005 unilateral withdrawal from Gaza. This time, the Israel Defense Forces would maintain control in the areas being voluntarily evacuated in the West Bank until there is a mutual agreement. Israel would not coerce the evacuation of settlers, but there would be proper advance planning for their future absorption into Israel proper.
Secretary Kerry should urge the Israeli government to take constructive measures such as these, and embrace these steps if and when they are taken. As he stated during his most recent visit to our region, “we need to be showing some kind of progress in some way.” This is a very practical and feasible way to do just that – and potentially achieve much more.
Ami Ayalon is a former director of the Israeli Security Agency (Shin Bet). Gilead Sher, a former Israeli chief negotiator, is a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. Orni Petruschka is a high-tech entrepreneur in Israel. They are co-founders of the Israeli non-partisan organization Blue White Future.