Is Israel Any Closer to Peace?

Israel swept through the West Bank and severely damaged the terrorist infrastructure, but the suicide bombings have not stopped, though they have dramatically declined in number. Yasser Arafat has made some noises about reforms, but backtracks as quickly as he hints at change, and little evidence exists that he is prepared to give up power, despite the unprecedented public displays of dissatisfaction with his leadership.

Still believing it lacks a peace partner, Israel remains focused on improving its security, continuing operations in the territories and beginning the construction of a fence. While as recently as a few weeks ago, many American Jews thought a fence inconceivable or unreasonable, it is now a fait accompli and the questions are more specifically about where it will finally be constructed, what it will look like, and whether it is going to demarcate a final border or an interim step until negotiations can be resumed.

It is clearly a difficult time and Israel has no options that will solve its security problems. Though most people prefer a negotiated settlement between Israel and the Palestinians, virtually everyone outside the State Department recognizes Israel currently has no one to negotiate with. Israel offered the Palestinians a state on 95% of the West Bank and it didn’t satisfy Arafat’s ambition to have a Palestinian state that replaces Israel instead of one that lives in peace beside it.

A large majority of Israelis now believe that absent a partner, the best solution is to unilaterally withdraw from the territories and establish a secure border behind the fence. Critics object that this will not bring Israel perfect security — a reality that must be faced regardless of the option chosen — and that it reinforces the “Lebanon precedent” that convinced the Palestinians that they could force Israel to give up territory by inflicting sufficient pain through terror.

The Lebanon model doesn’t apply because it really doesn’t matter what the Palestinians believe, Israel will stand its ground and not allow terrorism to force it beyond a secure border. This was the message of Operation Defensive Shield. Second, while a wall isn’t perfect, it is far more secure than the current situation or even a negotiated settlement where the border remained open and peace depended on the goodwill of all Palestinians and Arafat’s promises to stop terror. And yes it is true missiles can travel over fences, but missiles have an amazing property — they go in both directions. Incidentally, Israel has bigger and more accurate missiles.

Another difficulty is what to do about Jews living in settlements on the wrong side of the fence. The most sensitive of these is Hebron because of the long Jewish connection to the city and its biblical significance. Given its location, it’s hard to see how Hebron does not eventually wind up in Palestine and a showdown with the Jews there and in the nearby settlements could get very ugly.

It is also possible to argue that Jews have every right to live in Judea and Samaria, where they have lived for centuries, in fact longer than the Palestinians have been there. Since unilateral withdrawal is dangerous — putting the terrorists even closer to Israel’s heartland — and negotiations are unlikely, why not stay put? This is only acceptable if you believe the status quo is tolerable in which suicide bombers continue their murderous attacks, Israeli forces must repeatedly be sent in to root out terrorists, soldiers and settlers are daily targets, young Jewish soldiers are sent to do very necessary but unpleasant tasks to protect the settlers and other Israeli citizens, and the army is distracted from the mission of training for war with its principal enemies because it has to police the territories and protect small numbers of Jews who have chosen to live on the Land of Israel rather than in the State of Israel.

A handful of people believe the only solution is to expel the Arabs. Practically, this would be nearly impossible and would only move the problem a few miles away rather than eliminate it. Morally, it is inconceivable. Just picture turning on CNN and watching pictures of Jewish soldiers loading Palestinian women and children carrying rucksacks onto trucks or trains.

The opposite tack would be to annex the territories. Notice that for all the talk of “Greater Israel,” and all the Arab complaints about Israeli “expansionism,” Israel has withdrawn from the West Bank and Gaza, not extended its border into them. The so-called hardliners — Begin, Shamir, Netanyahu, Sharon — have all eschewed this option because it would mean incorporating roughly three million Palestinians into Israel. The population of Israel would then be approximately 9 million and the Jewish proportion would be less than 50%. If all the Palestinians are made full citizens, they can erode the Jewish character of the state and, given their higher birth rate, eventually turn Israel into a Palestinian state. The only way to prevent this would be to deny the Palestinians their democratic rights and then Israel would be an apartheid state.

Now it’s your turn to pick your poison. If you were Prime Minister, what option would you pursue?