I overheard the conversation on a home-buyers' tour of West Bank settlements. No, I was not thinking of buying anything. It was May 1992, a few weeks before the Israeli election in which Yitzhak Rabin was expected—correctly—to defeat Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir. In a bid to preserve its policies, Shamir's government was trying to sell every house available in the settlements, at incredibly low prices. Big newspaper ads announced free bus tours to see the offerings. I decided to slip onto a bus, listen, and watch.
At one stop, a young guy posed a question to the guide. “What if they give it all back?” he demanded. He had his arm around his wife, who looked even younger and was noticeably pregnant. They were the definition of people who needed an inexpensive home they could count on keeping.
“We don't build here to give it back,” the guide answered.
“What if Rabin wins?” the young guy pressed him. “What if they give it back?”
I bring this dialogue up now as necessary commentary on the video just released by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The clip is slickly produced, strangely mistargeted and absurd in its argument: that Palestinian demands to remove Israeli settlements as part of a two-state agreement amounts to “ethnic cleansing.” Nonetheless, the clip has value. It suggests a valuable strategy for promoting the agreement that Netanyahu wants to prevent: Offer an option for letting settlers stay put, as citizens of the new State of Palestine.
I'll get back to that 1992 conversation. First about the video. The WhatsApp message announcing it came from Netanyahu's foreign media adviser on Friday afternoon. That's a terrible time if the prime minister wanted domestic coverage. Israeli newspapers don't come out on Saturday, and a significant piece of Netanyahu's right-wing constituency turns off electronic media at sundown Friday for the Sabbath.
But then, the video—the polished text, the over-rehearsed performance—is in English. Netanyahu opens by saying that he is “perplexed” by the idea that “Jewish communities in Judea Samaria, the West Bank, are an obstacle to peace.” Israel has a large Arab minority, he says. “Yet the Palestinian leadership actually demands a Palestinian state with one pre-condition: No Jews. There's a phrase for that: It's called ethnic cleansing. And this demand is outrageous.” (The emphasis is in the histrionic original.)
Since the beginning of Netanyahu's political career, his declared strategy has been to use salesmanship to reach the public of foreign powers in order to influence their governments. At some recent brainstorming session, Netanyahu and his advisers apparently thought that the ethnic cleansing accusation would convince liberal opinion abroad that Palestinians who seek a two-state outcome are acting in bad faith. Those suddenly enlightened liberals would press the American administration and European governments to lay off Israel. This is one of those brainstorms that reveals that its creators are totally cut off from the people whom they want to influence.
But let's stop and look at the fictions on which Netanyahu rests his argument: He portrays Jews living in the West Bank as part of “Jewish communities,” as if those communities were in Belgium or suburban New Jersey—as if they've existed a long time or sprang up because people just decided to move there on their own. Then he implies that he'd be fine with a two-state arrangement as long as Jews who wanted to stay put in sovereign Palestinian territory could do so.
Here's where that 1992 conversation is illuminating. Israeli Jews didn't move to the West Bank after 1967 because they found cheap houses in Ramallah. They moved to settlements established as part of government policy. Prices were low because of government funding.
The guide on that tour was an honest salesman when he said, “We don't build here to give it back.” I've been through declassified government papers on settlement plans dating back to 1967. Settlements were always built with the intention that they'd be permanent and would remain under Israeli rule. Their purpose has always been to change Israel's borders.
Yet the worried young man was also right to point out that every settlement has been a gamble—for the state and for the homebuyer. There has always been the possibility that political choices could lead Israel to evacuate settlements—as happened in Sinai and later in Gaza. Every Israeli who has moved to a settlement has known on some level that her residence there is intrinsically uncertain. If settlers have to leave under a peace agreement, it's not “ethnic cleansing.” It's the realization of a condition of living in a settlement.
If there's an audience for whom Netanyahu's argument resonates, it's at home—among settlers, but also among Israeli centrists. The latter would say: We object to the racist idea of expelling Israeli Arabs, so what's the deal with Jews in the West Bank? Why couldn't they stay put?
The best response—by an American administration and by a Palestinian leader—would be to call the bluff. Fine, settlers can stay if they want. In fact, there's no reason to make border changes to keep them under Israeli rule. Like other residents of newly independent Palestine, settlers who decide to stay put will become Palestinian citizens. Their position will be the mirror image of that of Israel's Arab citizens.
Just as Israel will make clear that the State of Palestine does not represent Arabs living in Israel, so too Israel will not represent Jews living in Palestine. They will pay taxes to the State of Palestine, which will almost certainly spend part of the money on absorbing members of the Palestinian diaspora who return to the homeland.
The former settlers will live under Palestinian law and the authority of Palestinian courts. They should be prepared for lawsuits by Palestinians with very strong claims to ownership of the land on which large parts of the settlements stand. Where they don't have such legal problems, they should know that Palestinians will be moving in next door, into homes that belonged to Israelis who chose to return to Israel.
The number of settlers who would stay under those conditions could meet in a small cafe in Ramallah, perhaps at one table. All the rest would do the Zionist thing and move to the state of Israel.
The first advantage of making this offer is that it would eliminate Netanyahu's false claim of inequality. The second is that if a peace agreement were made on this basis, it would eliminate the need for the Israeli government to evacuate any settlers forcibly, and would put the government in a much better position to negotiate compensation. The government's stance would be, “If you don't like our offer, you can stay where you are.” A real part of Israeli anxiety about a two-state agreement, even among Israelis who support it in principle, is concern about the potentially insane cost of compensation and about a near civil war between settlers and soldiers coming to evacuate them.
The rub is that Palestinian public support is also essential to making a peace deal. After 50 years of Israeli occupation and settlement, it would take a particularly brave, persuasive, and charismatic Palestinian leader to tell his public, “Let's make this offer because it will help get us independence.” Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas is not that leader, and there's no potential heir who seems capable of the gambit.
Still, it's an idea for a future American mediator to keep in her arsenal. And just playing out the scenario now, in theory, shows that the argument in Netanyahu's video is not worth buying.