Should Israel unilaterally withdraw from the West Bank?
January 24th, 2014
02:25 PM ET

Should Israel unilaterally withdraw from the West Bank?

By Frida Ghitis, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review. A former CNN producer and correspondent, she is the author of "The End of Revolution: A Changing World in the Age of Live Television." Follow her on Twitter@FridaGhitis. The views expressed are her own.

What will happen if the current round of peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians ends in failure? If the two sides cannot come to an agreement is there another option for solving the conflict?

As the talks continue with scant visible evidence of progress, a few prominent Israelis have started reviving talk of a third way: unilateral withdrawal of Israel from most of the West Bank – even without a peace deal.

The notion that Israelis could voluntarily withdraw from territories claimed by Palestinians without securing an agreement is nothing new. In fact, the term “unilateral disengagement” was coined by the recently-deceased former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who removed all Jewish settlers and military forces from Gaza in 2005. He ordered the withdrawal after saying he had concluded that peace with Palestinians was not possible, but that he also believed Israel should not rule over millions of Palestinians.

Sharon hinted strongly that he was preparing to unilaterally remove settlers from the West Bank as well, but he suffered a devastating stroke before being able to reveal details of any plan.

The idea did not die with him. Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who tried unsuccessfully to make a deal with Yasser Arafat, has advocated it publicly on many occasions.

Sharon’s death has brought new attention to this possible course of action. Writing for CNN.com, former Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren reaffirmed the widely accepted view that a negotiated solution would be preferable, however, “If that proves unattainable,” he said, “then Israel can still end the occupation of the Palestinians, preserve its security, and perhaps lay new foundations for peace” by withdrawing from much of the West Bank unilaterally.

The withdrawal envisioned for the West Bank – known in Israel by the biblical names Judea and Samaria – would essentially put into place some of the basic outlines of negotiations with the Palestinians.

If talks failed, the idea goes, Israel would move forward on a part of the “Clinton Parameters” – named because during negotiations mediated by President Clinton in 2000 they became the foundation of a potential deal, and they have remained so ever since.

If conducted unilaterally, Israel would hold on to three, perhaps as many as four major settlement blocs, which occupy approximately 5 percent of the land in the West Bank but are home to some 80 percent of the Jewish settlers. Those settlements would become part of Israel. Palestinians would gain control of about 95 percent of the land, where the remaining 20 percent of the settlers live. Those Jewish settlers would then have to leave the West Bank, removed either by force or through economic inducements. Israeli forces would still patrol the Jordan Valley and key borders.

A unilateral withdrawal would almost certainly leave Jerusalem, including the areas captured in the 1967 war, under Israeli control. Palestinians want the eastern part of Jerusalem as their future capital.

The negotiating parameters call for Israel to retain major settlement blocs and in exchange give a future Palestinian state an equivalent amount of land on what today is Israeli territory. If Israel withdraws unilaterally, the Palestinians would presumably not receive territorial compensation, at least not before a deal is reached perhaps some time in the future.

Most importantly, the unilateral move would deprive Israel of its most important goal in talks with Palestinians: a final and definitive resolution to the conflict.

For Palestinians, a unilaterally Israeli move might produce a state, but it would leave not only Jerusalem, but also the issue of what happens to Palestinian refugees, unresolved.

Israel was able to withdraw from Gaza in 2005. But the prospects for withdrawal from the West Bank are much more problematic. A unilateral withdrawal would present enormous political, tactical and strategic challenges for many of the same reasons that a negotiated solution is so difficult.

Sharon’s Gaza withdrawal has produced decidedly mixed results. Some Israelis are happy to be done with the territory, but others view the move as a strategic disaster.

Not long after the settlers were removed, the militants of Hamas overthrew the Palestinian Authority, and took control of the territory. The group rejects Israel’s right to exist and, as critics of disengagement warned would happen, Gaza became a launch pad for attacks against Israel. Israelis view their occupation of Gaza as a thing of the past, but many around the world remain harshly critical of Israel’s handling of the conflict with Gaza’s Hamas rulers.

Twice since leaving Gaza, Israel has gone to war against Hamas when civilian populations demanded action from the government in the face of sharp escalations in rocket attacks from the Strip. And Israel, along with Egypt, sharply limits the supplies that enter the Strip.

As recently as last week, Palestinians in Gaza fired missiles towards towns in southern Israel. Those rockets, however, were shot down by Israel’s new high tech defense systems. The technological advances in missile defense are the only reason unilateral disengagement can be realistically considered for the West Bank. That’s because while rockets from Gaza are disruptive, traumatic, and occasionally deadly, rockets from the West Bank could cripple Israel. After all, the West Bank lies within a stone’s throw of Israel’s only major international airport and is adjacent to the country’s main population centers, including Tel Aviv.

If Israel withdraws from the West Bank after a collapse of negotiations with Palestinians, it could conceivably empower extremists at the expense of moderates in the West Bank and spark an escalation of hostilities.

Politically, a unilateral disengagement would prove a hard sell in Israel. The departure from Gaza brought emotional scenes of Israeli soldiers scuffling with Jewish settlers forced to leave their homes. A total of 8,500 were removed from Gaza. The numbers that might have to leave the West Bank are perhaps ten times larger. To many of them, tearing themselves away from Judea and Samaria, the ancient land of the Jews, is unthinkable.

Withdrawing with a peace deal in hand will be politically difficult. Doing it without one could prove impossible.

There is a reason why even those who urge consideration of a unilateral withdrawal always say it is not the best option. A peace deal and the establishment of a Palestinian state by mutual agreement offers the only possibility of lasting peace. And even that route presents enormous political and strategic challenges. A unilateral move is at best a very questionable last resort.

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Topics: Israel • Middle East

soundoff (20 Responses)
  1. Patrick

    I wouldn't recommend it. Muslims are bloodthirsty. Maybe they should send in tanks.

    January 24, 2014 at 3:48 pm | Reply
    • Shaopiri

      You need to stop taking what is ours.

      January 24, 2014 at 6:31 pm | Reply
      • Dan

        You need to stop claiming things that aren't yours...

        January 31, 2014 at 12:27 pm |
  2. chrissy

    To want more than you have and are willing to work for it is an endearing quality! To want what OTHERS have, and are willing to take lives for it, is an evil thing! Big difference!

    January 24, 2014 at 4:54 pm | Reply
    • Abe

      Yeh Chrissy ! Tel that to the Israelis ! Israel was founded on stolen land and they continue to kill and steal Palestinian land !!

      January 25, 2014 at 10:48 am | Reply
      • Paul II

        Israel has returned more land (e.g., the Sinai) than makes up the entire land of Israel! But that was done in exchange
        for *peace*. When the 'Palestinians' are not ready to declare they conflict with Israel to be over.

        January 25, 2014 at 11:21 am |
      • Paul II

        Bad CNN. Trying again. Israel has returned more land (e.g., the Sinai) than makes up the entire land of Israel! But that was done in exchange for *peace*. The 'Palestinians' are not ready to declare they conflict with Israel to be over so they should not be given free-rein on any territory. Look what happened in Gaza when Israel withdrew.

        January 25, 2014 at 11:23 am |
      • yannis cohen

        Abe, you are misguided by the pals propaganda.First ,was never yours to claim,second you lost it when declared war on the newly created state of Israel.You gamble and you lost.And if you try again you might loose more territory.By the way ,i forgot to tell you that you are ignorant of the areas history.

        January 25, 2014 at 11:23 am |
  3. Ted

    Even if the Israelis and Palestinians make a peace deal, when Abbas goes, Hamas which is more powerful than Fattah may take over, or at the very least roam free and do as they please in West Bank. And what they do please is to keep hurting Israel for ideological reasons and because Khameni and Qatar pay the bills.

    January 24, 2014 at 5:21 pm | Reply
  4. david delaria

    Any negotiation by Israel with this hostile Muslim force which uses the Koran's teaching and Sharia Law to destroy the State of Israel, the Jewish tribes, and kill as many men, women, and children as they can to annihilation, as Mohammad did in his lifetime and wrote with glee about those "triumphs", this cultural/religious mindset, primitive in in its origins, history, and objectives, to this day, cannot, should not, will not ever be tolerated by any Western culture except by the very ignorant or foolish political revisionists we are forced to hear in our public media.

    January 25, 2014 at 11:51 am | Reply
  5. Matt

    Don't you go cold on me.

    January 26, 2014 at 9:31 am | Reply
  6. chrissy

    @ Abe, yes i know, thats why i said what i said.

    January 26, 2014 at 11:31 am | Reply
  7. j. von hettlingen

    Sharon had shaped the current state of the West Bank by promoting the construction of Jewish settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories and he initiated the construction of the controversial West Bank barrier, after a wave of deadly attacks by Palestinian militants who were able to get into Israel. Was he trying to correct his mistake by withdrawing from the area?

    January 26, 2014 at 11:39 am | Reply
  8. SM Einhorn

    Throughout history this rule has prevailed. You take the Land by Force of Arms, You hold the Land by Force of Arms, and by Force of Arms You destroy all those who come against you. Simple and timeless. If the Jordian citizens of the West Bank want it back, let them take it back.

    January 26, 2014 at 3:35 pm | Reply
  9. chrissy

    @ SM Einhorn, the times are changing!

    January 26, 2014 at 3:55 pm | Reply
  10. Thinker23

    Considering tat the Palestinians are unable and/or unwilling to NEGOTIATE a peace agreement it seems that a unilateral withdrawal to the prepared in advance fortified lines (the security wall/fence is a good candidate) is the best way for Israel to proceed. In my opinion, Israel should unilaterally withdraw to these lines and declare that from the Israeli standpoint the lands on the other side are the Palestinian State. This will make everyone happy: Palestinians will get a state with no settlements. Israel will get the end of accusations in "occupation", "oppression" and the like. The settlers willing to continue to live among the Arabs in the newborn Palestinian state will be given this opportunity.

    Finally, if the Palestinians will not like it they will always have the opportunity to negotiate a better deal... and if they will prefer a war they will get it as well.

    January 27, 2014 at 11:51 am | Reply
  11. Dan

    The world should back a unilateral withdrawal. Israel gets to keep 80%of the settlements which are all built on Jewish land anyway, Israel keeps Jerusalem, all of it, and the Palestinians get the rest with possible land swaps and a highway connecting Gaza and the West Bank. Then if either side starts trouble they need bombed into silence.

    January 31, 2014 at 12:32 pm | Reply
    • Mikie

      Your solution is far from fair, much like many of the other proposals the PA has dismissed, then the pro-Israelis try to slander the PA claiming they backed away from peace, yet this one sided proposals are hardly a near fair step towards peace.

      February 3, 2014 at 2:22 pm | Reply
  12. AngryJew

    Israel will have to return the Palestinian land that it has stolen. This will happen willingly or by force. The BDS movement is growing and there is talk of even more boycotts. FREE PALESTINE!

    February 7, 2014 at 3:56 am | Reply
  13. politicalconnection

    Should America withdraw from the United States that she took from the native Indians? ... and many other such questions are fairly provocative, are they not? I like this article that lays it out: http://politicalconnection.wordpress.com/2014/04/18/jews-prophecy_miracles_closed-embassies

    April 21, 2014 at 4:40 pm | Reply

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