Should Israel stay or withdraw from the West Bank?


Originally published in The Miami Herald

Sixty years ago the Algerians revolted against the French who had ruled them for more than 120 years. On November 1, 1954, the National Liberation Front (FLN), the leading Algerian underground, issued a proclamation calling upon the French government to enter negotiations which would eventually lead to the creation of an independent Algeria.

The French made a tragic mistake by dismissing it, and subsequently a bloody war erupted, which historian Alistair Horne, in his seminal book, called A Savage War of Peace. For eight years France fought the rebels, paying heavy tolls: suffering great numbers of casualties (even if they paled in comparison to the Algerian ones), being torn apart internally and becoming a pariah country abroad. Finally, in the summer of 1962, France pulled out of Algeria.

Charles de Gaulle, the French president who extracted France out of the Algerian quagmire, wrote in his memoirs that “In 1962, France has rejuvenated itself. Our country faced a civil war; it was on the brink of bankruptcy; the world has forgotten its voice. Now it is out of danger”.

It is tempting to make an analogy between France’s Algerian problem then and Israel’s dilemma vis-à-vis its settlements in the West Bank today. The French kept one million settlers (nicknamed pieds noirs, black feet) among eight million Muslim and Berber Algerians, roughly the same ratio as in the West Bank: 300,000 Jews among 2.5 million Arabs. Sustaining this national settlement project against the local population’s rise for independence, puts Israel — as it has put France before — under grave internal and external pressures. The instinctive urge is to learn from the French lesson in Algeria, pull out of the West Bank and save Israel from a bleak future.

There are, however, significant differences. Unlike Judea and Samaria, as the West Bank is called by the Israelis, Algeria has never been the cradle of the French nation. On the other hand, anyone who has ever read the Bible knows that it is in Judea and Samaria where the judges, kings and prophets of the Jewish people lived and operated. Leaving these areas is like tearing an organ from our body.

Furthermore, once France left Algeria, the Mediterranean became a formidable buffer zone between the two countries. But when Israel left Gaza in 2005, what it got in return was a terror base next door. Daring to repeat that in the West Bank, which is even closer to the center of Israel, is extremely dangerous.

These differences notwithstanding, I would still pull out of most of the West Bank, because ruling millions of Palestinians will eventually bring about the loss of the Jewish essence of Israel, or its democracy, or both. And while we can handle the emotional loss involved in giving away part of Biblical Israel, and we know how to defend ourselves when attacked, letting Israel lose its Jewish or democratic nature might be an irreversible calamity.

Still, I would favor pulling out — with or without an agreement — but with a heavy heart, and the reason for my reluctance being the third difference between the French chapter in Algeria and Israel’s settlement question: Once France left Algeria, that was the end of the conflict. The Algerians had no claims whatsoever on France proper.

Not so with the Palestinians. Forget about the Charter of Hamas — now a partner of President Mahmoud Abbas — which calls for the destruction of Israel. It is Mahmoud Abbas himself who refuses to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, thus generating even among moderate Israelis the suspicion that after the Palestinians establish a state in the pre-1967 borders, they will go on to the next stage, of demanding that the refugees of 1948 return to their originals homes, which, again, means the destruction of Israel.

Mahmoud Abbas is working hard to mobilize the world community to recognize a Palestinian state. He could have gained a lot more by soothing the concerns and fears of the Israelis, who are basically supporting a two-state solution, had he recognized Israel as a Jewish state. For in the long run, it is with the Israeli neighbors that the Palestinians will have to coexist, not with the Swedes or the Brits, who are giving them declamatory support.

The Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) always prided itself that in fighting for independence, it has been following in the footsteps of the Algerian FLN. In that case, the Palestinians should have better borrowed a page from the aforementioned FLN proclamation of 1954: “All Frenchmen wishing to remain in Algeria will have the choice between their nationality of origin, in which case they will be considered foreigners vis a vis the laws in place, or they will opt for Algerian nationality, in which case they will be considered such in rights and obligations.”

Had Mahmoud Abbas added to a recognition of Israel as a Jewish state a proclamation that in any future settlement of the conflict, Jews who wish to do so would be allowed to stay in the West Bank, along the guidelines of the Algerian proposal, that could have opened quite surprising opportunities for future coexistence. After all, if Arabs can live peacefully in Israel, why shouldn’t Jews have the same right in Palestine?

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