View from
The Center

Buy Out the Settlers

(Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty Images)

The United States can offer a very innovative solution to a seemingly intractable conflict: Pay Israel to withdraw its settlers.”

In his 1949 classic, The Vital Center, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. joins the debate on the unfolding Cold War. His advice is pertinent to how we should approach the Israeli-Palestinian conflict today. When discussing European powers’ oppressive land policies in their African and Asian colonies, and the famines that resulted from the Soviet Union’s crude policy of land expropriation, he offered an alternative to both. He proposed that the United States intervene peacefully to help redistribute land to local farmers and help those farmers thrive. He writes: 

“American funds can buy out landlords; American methods of scientific farming and of land rehabilitation can increase production; American study of village sociology could help us to understand how we may most effectively release the energies so long pent up in the villages of Asia.”

American funds can buy out landlords. While this proposed use of American economic power did not come to pass during the Cold War, the United States has an opportunity to enact something similar in the long-lasting, highly contentious fight over the West Bank. The United States can offer a very innovative solution to a seemingly intractable conflict: Pay Israel to withdraw its settlers.

An American-funded withdrawal would have three elements. First, the United States would pay the monetary cost (or at least part of it) of moving settlers from the West Bank to Israel proper. Second, it would increase its military aid to Israel, particularly aid that funds defensive weapons systems. Third, it would upgrade the American-Israel defense relationship from an informal partnership to a mutual defense treaty, making Israel an ally on par with the United States’ fellow North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) members and Pacific allies, like Japan and South Korea. Together, these measures can increase Israel’s security (and its citizens’ sense of security) while taking a large step in the direction of an eventual peace.

While it is difficult to separate the question of West Bank settlements entirely from Israel’s conflicts with Hamas and other militant groups in the Gaza Strip, it is worth an attempt to move closer to a resolution of the West Bank question without addressing Gaza. Trying to resolve both questions simultaneously increases the chance of remaining at loggerheads on both. The conflict has gone on for so long—and trust between the two sides is so low—that any meaningful step from either side is worth taking.

Importantly, the United States should make this offer to Israel without any reference to the concerns of the Palestinians. Regardless of whether any specific Palestinian reaction to Israeli policies is justified, no withdrawal of settlers is likely if Israelis see reasons to worry that it will make them less secure. Looking at it through the lens of political realism, rather than any question of justice, is more promising than indulging the question of which side “started” the conflict or which is more responsible for it continuing, or has more blood on its hands.

It is fair to ask why the United States should offer to bear the cost of withdrawal.

It is reasonable for Israelis to be skeptical about giving up land for the sake of eventual peace. In 2000, Israel withdrew its troops from southern Lebanon, and the thanks it got was repeated attacks from Hezbollah. In 2005, it removed its settlers from the Gaza Strip. Since then, Hamas and other groups have repeatedly used the territory to launch missiles at Israeli civilians. Even if Israel were to withdraw from the West Bank, it would still face a security threat from Iran and its allies. What is more, it is certainly possible that withdrawal of settlers will leave a power vacuum in the West Bank, one that could be exploited by Israel’s enemies. All of these are valid concerns.

This is precisely why the United States should present a withdrawal to Israelis entirely in the context of their security, without concern for Palestinians. Washington should approach Jerusalem not as an indignant lecturer but as a close friend, a friend who cares about Israel’s security and is willing to make a large investment to help end a conflict (or at least a major portion of it) that has made Israel reviled in so many eyes. Better the impetus for dismantling settlements come from a trusted ally than from any number of people Israelis can accuse—fairly or not—of not understanding or caring about them.

It is fair to ask why the United States should offer to bear the cost of withdrawal. With Americans weary of two decades of war in the greater Middle East and anxious to address many political and economic concerns at home, why should they be happy to see their taxes poured into a generations-long conflict between two peoples who often seem incapable of making peace? In a word: democracy.

The Biden administration placed democracy among its major foreign policy interests in its Interim National Security Strategic Guidance. In an era of massive cynicism about political institutions in many countries, the more countries have stable, democratic institutions that are widely respected by their populations, the better. While Washington for generations has been extremely inconsistent in its support for democratization (there are any number of American-backed coups around the world one could point to), if it wants to make friends and build trust in as many countries as it can, it ought to come down squarely on the side of democracy. It need not use force to democratize any country, but it ought to make clear that it respects every people’s right to choose their own government.

Contrary to the assertions of some of its defenders, Israel is not the only democracy in the Middle East. Tunisians, a decade after toppling their autocratic ruler, have turned their country into a full-fledged democracy, with levels of rights and freedoms that, according to Freedom House, are as great as those enjoyed by Israelis. Iraqis form political organizations and elect governments under conditions that are largely free and fair. Even Turkey, for all the authoritarianism of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his party AKP, is not hopeless: Istanbul, the country’s largest city, is governed by a mayor from the opposition CHP, elected in 2019 despite the AKP cynically annulling his previous victory.

Democracy in the Middle East is worth supporting, even if the winners of free and fair elections are hostile to Israel. Rached Ghannouchi, Speaker of the Tunisian parliament and co-founder of the Islamist party Ennahda, criticized Morocco in 2020 for normalizing relations with Israel and argued against Tunisia following suit. Ennahda is currently the largest party in Tunisia’s parliament and leads its government. So be it: Better for people to express their views openly and democratically, however, much Americans and Israelis may dislike them, than for an autocrat to keep them down in the name of “stability.”

The establishment of diplomatic relations in the last year between Israel and several Arab countries is a welcome development. However, the fact the governments recognizing Israel are either very authoritarian (Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates), ruled by a monarch with only modest democratic input (Morocco), or slowly transitioning to democracy (Sudan) does not bode well in the long term for democracy in Arab countries. The more states make peace with Israel, the more incentive the United States will have to believe that Israel will be fine if left to its own devices. However, if those states are repressive—and their populations associate friendliness to Zionists with domestic repression—democratic sentiment in the Arab world may become inextricably linked to hostility to the Jewish state. If the United States is committed—as it should be—to democracy in Arab countries, it must give these countries’ populations a strong disincentive to be staunchly anti-Israel.

Furthermore, an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank can improve democracy, both there and in Israel. If the conflict is ever to end completely, there must be a Palestinian state and a democratic one. The Palestinian territories have not had legislative elections since 2006; Palestinian National Authority President Mahmoud Abbas postponed elections that were supposed to take place this year. While he blamed Israeli actions, he likely also feared that his party, Fatah, would be defeated by Hamas. Whatever the reason, the sooner Palestinians experience something close to stable democracy, the better.

Meanwhile, Benjamin Netanyahu is still Prime Minister of Israel despite being indicted in 2019 on charges including bribery and fraud. He has kept himself in power since 2009 in no small part by stoking Israeli Jews’ fears of Arabs; in the 2015 election campaign, he stated there would never be a Palestinian state on his watch. His tenure has consisted of steps backward for Israeli democracy, including passage of a controversial 2018 law that proclaims Israel the “nation-state of the Jewish people,” which critics inside and outside the country have called incendiary, racist, and undemocratic.

One of the many tragedies of the latest outburst of violence is that, following Israel’s 2021 election (the fourth in two years), it seemed on the verge of having its first government formed with support from an Israeli Arab party. While the various opponents of Prime Minister Netanyahu span the length and breadth of the Israeli political spectrum (from right-wing nationalists to secular liberals to leftists to parties dedicated to Arab and Muslim rights and interests), nearly all agreed on the need to oust a corrupt man from power, even if there was support for some of his hardline policies. The fact that such negotiations have collapsed under Hamas rocket fire and Israeli airstrikes in Gaza is utterly tragic.

A forcible removal of settlers (of whom there were over 427,000 in 2019) runs a high risk of violence, not only of settlers against Israeli security forces but also of settlers against Palestinians. Israel’s 2005 withdrawal from the Gaza Strip was largely peaceful, but that was on a much smaller scale (8,000 settlers removed). The United States and Israel must be well prepared to stamp out any settler violence; Washington should be prepared to deploy American troops to the West Bank to assist in removal, suppress violence, and help Palestinian security forces stabilize the territory after removal. This should not, however, include any attempt to force any particular form of government on Palestinians once the settlers are gone.

If settlers choose to destroy their homes out of spite to prevent Palestinians from using them, so be it. Whatever the questions of justice involved in removal, it is understandable for anyone to be angry at being compelled to leave their home, and they should be offered an opportunity to vent their frustrations without violence against human beings. There could even be long-term benefits from such destruction: If Palestinians were later employed in building their own homes—thanks perhaps to a jobs and development program funded by international donors (whoever they may be)—they could rightly take pride in building new communities, key parts of a new country, for themselves with their own hands.

While the two countries are already close allies in practice, making the alliance official can make Israelis more confident in leaving the West Bank.

When it comes to increased American military assistance, the top priority should be defensive weapons systems, especially missile defenses. Israel’s vaunted Iron Dome has, according to Israeli reports, destroyed approximately 90% of the missiles Hamas and other militants have fired from the Gaza Strip in their latest conflict with Israel. The higher American assistance can raise that percentage, the more secure Israelis will feel as they dismantle West Bank settlements; they will be more confident in their ability to face missiles not only from Gaza but also from Hezbollah and other allies of Iran in Lebanon and Syria. American funds could also go towards more comprehensive efforts to destroy the weaponry of Iranian proxies in Syria, which Israel has undertaken throughout the Syrian civil war of the last ten years.

Finally, it is time for Washington and Jerusalem to upgrade their de facto military alliance to a formal one. A bilateral mutual defense treaty, in which the United States and Israel are formally bound to come to one another’s aid when under attack, is the highest form of security commitment that the United States can provide. It would place Israel’s defense on the same level of American foreign policy priorities as defense of NATO members against Russia, of Japan against China, and of South Korea against North Korea. It is the ultimate counter to worries Israelis might have that giving up land will increase the danger they face. While the two countries are already close allies in practice, making the alliance official can make Israelis more confident in leaving the West Bank. Any added sense of security is worth aiming for in a tense situation like this one.

A formal alliance could include coordination and mutual assistance in efforts to degrade Iran’s nuclear program. It could also include coordination of nuclear strategy and efforts to deter an Iranian first strike, should the Islamic Republic obtain a nuclear weapon. However long it persists in formally denying it, the world is well aware that Israel possesses a nuclear arsenal. Better for Israel to acknowledge this, and to be on the same page as its nuclear-armed close ally when it comes to public discussions of what the best reaction would be to a nuclear-armed Iran.

The fact that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has bedeviled the world for generations does not mean it is completely intractable. Even if, as appears likely, there is no hope of a negotiated two-state solution in the foreseeable future, there are still ways to help a Palestinian state come into being. An American-supported Israeli withdrawal, coupled with rock-solid American guarantees of Israeli security, is one such way.

Michael D. Purzycki is a staff writer at Charged Affairs, the journal of Young Professionals in Foreign Policy.

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