President Obama distinguished himself in the Middle East. It is early, grasping at straws, and probably insane to make this point, but as of now, only ten weeks into it, Mr. Obama is the first president since James Monroe to be having a better second term than he had a first term. In the Middle East, beyond all the obligatory claptrap about the virtues of all sides (and all sides do have a strong case, up to a point — otherwise not even the paroxysms of perversity regularly attained in that region would generate the intractable problems there), he subtly but clearly shed his former and long-standing adherence to the settlements myth, emancipated himself from the philistine terror of Tom Friedman, and declared the settlements issue to be the red herring, the outright fraud, that it always has been.
As Charles Krauthammer remarked with his usual acuity, the president achieved this by implicitly rebutting the long-held view of the Palestinian leadership that Jewish settlements in the West Bank are the decisive bar to a lasting agreement. Obama stated that Palestinian sovereignty and Israeli security are the keys, and did not need to lead his listeners further into the obvious. When Palestine has a state, there will be no Israeli settlements in it. There may now be such settlements in what will ultimately be part of a Palestinian state, but they will, in the event of agreement, be repurposed as residences for returning Palestinians, or demolished, but not left as sitting ducks of clustered Jewish residents in the jaws of a new Palestinian state.
Israel demonstrated, in giving up Sinai and Gaza, that it would uproot settlers for peace, though admittedly on a scale vastly inferior to the incursions settlements have made on the West Bank. There are 350,000 Jewish settlers in over 100 settlements on the West Bank. They occupy less than 5 percent of the territory of the West Bank, but connecting roads and adjoining military installations raise the built-upon portion of the West Bank to about 40 percent.
This appears to be an absolute bar to a viable Palestinian state, but it isn’t. In the first place, Israel was never going to offer an exact return to the pre-1967 borders, and Israel can never accept a severely divided Jerusalem or a country only nine miles wide at its narrowest, as it was for the first 20 years of its history. The offer Ehud Barak made to Mahmoud Abbas in 2008 was the whole West Bank with territorial swaps, and the capitals of both countries in a shared Jerusalem. The West Bank would be narrower and the Gaza Strip deeper. Abbas walked out, as Arafat had in 2000 and 2001. If a genuine peace could be arranged and agreed, and not just another tentative Palestinian cease-fire in exchange for irreversible cessions of land on the Oslo model, Israel would happily yield some of the settlements and build new accommodations for the displaced settlers elsewhere. If Israel and the Palestinians can reach agreement on a division between them of the territory the British effectively promised to both simultaneously in the Balfour Declaration of 1917, Palestine will effectively acknowledge the right to exist of the Jewish state, Israel will be satisfied that its security can be maintained, and the settlers who are in the way will be moved. The infrastructure left behind will either be donated to the new Palestinian state or be razed, depending on the ambiance at the end of the negotiations.
Building settlements was the only high card Israel could play in its contest with the Palestinians. The Arabs endlessly stated that they had the numbers, and therefore the time. But Israel had the land and the ability to occupy the land and build on it, and it is running out more quickly than the time. It has all been a game of chicken that the Palestinians mistakenly imagined they would win.
The key has always been Palestinian acceptance of the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state, and this has never been conceded by the Arab powers, apart from by the Sadat-Mubarak government of Egypt and the Hussein-Abdullah government of Jordan. At each stage, the Palestinians have treated agreements as a step toward their objective of reclaiming the entire territory of the Palestine Mandate. Abbas recently told a visiting Western foreign minister, who said that the Security Council had recognized Israel as a Jewish state in 1948, that this was not the case — and produced a photocopy of a document in which President Truman recognized the State of Israel but had allegedly personally put a line through the word “Jewish” in front of the words “State of Israel.” Abbas represented this as meaning that Truman and the United States did not recognize Israel at its birth as a Jewish state. Of course, as the visitor pointed out, all it meant was that Truman recognized that the correct title of the country is “State of Israel,” as Ben-Gurion and Weizmann had proclaimed it, not that it was anything other than a homeland for the Jews.