A Solution for the West Bank Settlements

Elsewhere I describe my solution for Jerusalem – how it can be apportioned into cantons without physically dividing the City, and both states (Israel and Palestine) can have their capitals there.  The other main territorial issue between Israel and the Palestinians is the West Bank settlements.  It is a larger issue geographically, but paradoxically easier to solve.

The West Bank settlements are only a difficult problem because Israelis deliberately made them so, intentionally creating “facts on the ground” that now impede Israel’s orderly withdrawal.  Seeding this territory with Jewish settlers began soon after the 1967 occupation of the West Bank, intensified in 1977 under the Likud government of Menahem Begin, and has continued to this day. The settlers were ideologically committed to the idea of Greater Israel and a Jewish right to Judea and Samaria, the ancient names by which they called these territories.  For political reasons successive Israeli governments supported the settlements, both financially and politically.  And their support was military as well, because these settlements could not have survived as Jewish enclaves, surrounded by a hostile Palestinian population that outnumbered them overwhelmingly, without Israeli military guarantees.

As a result the West Bank is now honeycombed with Jewish settlements, settled by a Jewish population both materially and ideologically committed to their perpetuation.  But their continued presence under Israeli military protection is obviously incompatible with a two-state solution, which is the only practical solution imaginable to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  For many reasons – economic, political, military – Israel needs a permanent settlement of the conflict.  But by their refusal to leave in aid of a solution, the settlers are in effect making themselves hostages to prevent any permanent settlement.1

When Israel decided to withdraw from Sinai, the government invited Jewish settlers there to return to Israel and gave them material inducements to resettle within Israel.  Those who did not accept were eventually removed by force, the last in 1982.  The same thing happened in Gaza in 2005, with an even larger cadre of Jewish settlers.  But the number of Jewish settlers in the West Bank makes a forcible solution impossible, and it would be undesirable even if it were possible.

The main problem is not the settlers, though – the problem is the Israeli commitment to protect them from the surrounding Arab population.  Once this is understood, the solution becomes obvious – after careful preparation, and ample notice, and liberal compensation and inducements to remove to Israel, Israel should withdraw the commitment to protect these outposts, which are indefensible outside the context of a military occupation of the entire area.

At the moment (September 2013) there are approximately 350,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank, excluding East Jerusalem (where settlements would presumably come within the new border of Israel).  I base this number on Wikipedia’s spreadsheet using a 2011 figure of 328,423, rounding up substantially, adding the 1000 or so Nahal military settlers not included in this census, but not including illegal settlements or those in the Golan.   

In December 2011 the Palestinian Authority proposed a land swap that would exchange 1.9% of the West Bank for a comparable cession by Israel.  Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had earlier suggested a swap of 6.3%.  David Makovsky, writing in the New York Times, shows that in a compromise swap of about 4%, with the parts going to Israel strategically located in the suburbs of East Jerusalem and elsewhere where Jewish settlements are more or less contiguous with Israel, up to 80% of the Jewish settlers would come within the new boundary of Israel without having to move.2 

These figures are of course both approximate and speculative – who knows if there will be any land swap, or if there is whether it will be 4%, and whether 80% will really fit there?  But they will do for purposes of discussion – my conclusion does not depend upon exact numbers.  Using these figures for now, that would leave 20% of the settlers (70,000 people) deep in what will have to become Palestinian territory. 

Israel does not wish to rule over a hostile alien population if its security can be guaranteed any other way.  It has been shown beyond all doubt that doing so is damaging to Israel’s democracy, its military, its economy, and its position in the world.  A two-state solution based on a Palestinian state in the West Bank is in everyone’s interest except the diehards on both sides – those who want the West Bank to be part of a Jewish Greater Israel, and those who want Israel destroyed and replaced by an enhanced Palestine.  Since no territorial compromise would satisfy those elements on either side, their positions cannot be considered in forming a genuine solution.

Once a territorial swap has been agreed on that will move the border of Israel to include most of the settlers where they are now, inducements to resettle, the end of the prospect of a Jewish Greater Israel, and the obvious tendency of events will lead many of those remaining outside to relocate voluntarily to Israel.  Israel can offer resettlement aid, new housing or housing subsidies, and other material incentives to settlers not to be left behind.  Just how effective these will be among settlers who have established themselves deep in the West Bank cannot be known in advance.  They will include many of those most ideologically motivated to stay, and who have made commitments of energy and money (sometimes over many years) that will be hard to give up.  But let us say for the purpose of illustration that of the 20% left outside Israel by the territorial swap, half would accept the inducements and relocate.  That would still leave 10%, or about 35,000 people, adamantly insisting on staying put.

At that point, when the contours and transfer date of the rebordered West Bank are known, the government of Israel should announce publicly, and loudly, and repeatedly, and very firmly, that Jewish settlers who wish to remain in what will become Palestine may do so without interference from Israel, but that Israel will not be bound to protect them militarily any more than it would be bound to protect Jews in any other foreign country.  The holdouts who have decided to live in an independent Arab Palestine will have to accept the consequences of that decision.  They will of course continue to be Jews, and most of them Israeli citizens also, so they can return to Israel at any time.  But Israel will not intervene forcibly on their behalf in an independent Palestine.3 

Then the settlements will cease to be a barrier to peace, without Israel having had to force their dissolution.  Jews who expect peaceful coexistence as a religious minority in Palestine will have a chance to see how that works out.  Those who believe that G-d has given them the land on the West Bank will have an opportunity to test that belief against events.  Good luck to them – perhaps a sovereign Palestine and its overwhelmingly Arab population will treat Jewish settlers with respect and forbearance.  And if not, if things get too difficult, the settlers can come back to Israel, which will always welcome them.  But Israel cannot afford any longer to allow them to place themselves and their families between the two parties – Israel and Palestine – as an obstacle to peace.

It will doubtless be a complicated question whether the resettlement inducements should be time-limited or not.  If the offer of help will lapse on a certain date, that should lead many to take the deal while it is still available.  On the other hand, even after the deadline Israel will still want these people to return to Israel, out of danger.  The danger to those remaining in Palestine, and their consciousness of their isolation, can be expected to grow, and many who decided to stay will change their minds after a while.   No doubt a formula can be worked out that places a premium on pre-deadline decisions, without foreclosing help even after the date.4

Obviously the catastrophic results that followed from the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, which transformed it into a forward attack area and rocket base, cannot be repeated.  So I emphasize that I do not argue here whether Israel should withdraw from the West Bank, or what precautions would have to be taken to prevent Gaza II – only how to deal with the settlements if withdrawal is the decision, as it will have to be for there to be a two-state solution at all.  Also not part of this solution: what sort of military apparatus, if any, Palestine should be allowed to have, and what Israeli security presence, if any, should be permitted in the Jordan Valley.  This essay addresses only the issue of the West Bank settlements, and how to prevent them from remaining an obstacle to peace.

September 2013

Note: I see that Prime Minister Netanyahu is coming around to my view on this.  See this Reuters article from January 26, 2014.  DFP


  1. Not only have these settlements been an obstacle to peace, they have contributed significantly to the strains on Israel’s military and to Israel’s isolation in the world.  They have also have placed Israel in a legal position difficult to defend, as Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which Israel signed in 1951, provides that the “the Occupying Power shall not … transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.” As I show elsewhere, there is little doubt that Israeli military occupation of the West Bank (as opposed to its settlement by civilians) is quite legal.
  2. True mavens may also consult the Baker Institute’s 108-page white paper Getting to the Territorial Endgame of an Israeli-Palestinian Peace Settlement (2010).
  3. Except maybe, in an extreme case not to be committed to in advance, to rescue them and bring them out, as Israel might do for threatened Jews elsewhere.
  4. The same procedure about settlements should be adopted in the Golan Heights when the time comes (if it ever does) to return the Heights to Syria.