There has been lots of buzz in Israel lately about the idea of a unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank. Ami Ayalon and his colleagues at Blue White Future wrote an op-ed in the New York Times in April arguing that a unilateral approach would lay the groundwork for a two state solution by allowing settlers to voluntarily relocate west of the Green Line and reducing tension on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides while establishing a preliminary border based on the security fence. Then yesterday at the annual Institute for National Security Studies conference, which draws nearly every important Israeli politician and defense heavyweight, Ehud Barak said that a unilateral withdrawal must be considered by the government if negotiations with the Palestinians remain at an impasse. Barak immediately came under fire from the Palestinian Authority, which said that a unilateral Israeli withdrawal would destroy any hopes for a negotiated two state solution, and from other Israeli government ministers such as Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar, who called Barak’s suggestion a dangerous idea and accused him of naivete. The prime minister’s office also distanced itself from Barak’s remarks and made it clear that Barak was speaking for himself rather than for the government.
There are two major objections to a unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank, one from the left and one from the right. The one from the left is that Israel has committed itself to negotiations with the Palestinians on the contours of a Palestinian state, and any moves to sidestep a negotiated solution are a violation of the Oslo Accords. I find this argument to be unpersuasive for two reasons. First, the Palestinian Authority has itself embraced unilateralism when it finds it to be convenient, such as its efforts to have the UN recognize an independent state of Palestine outside any negotiating framework with Israel. If unilateralism is ok for one side, then it is ok for the other. Second, and more importantly, the party that is currently refusing to return to the negotiating table is not the Israelis but the Palestinians. I have written before about the strategic foolishness of setting negotiating preconditions but the additional problem here is that whatever one may think of Bibi Netanyahu’s policy on settlements or his actual desires regarding an independent Palestinian state, he is not currently the obstacle to restarting negotiations. If the Palestinians were willing to sit down tomorrow, the Israelis would meet with them immediately, so the PA blasting unilateral moves as an unwillingness to negotiate when they themselves are refusing to hold talks smacks of hypocrisy of the highest order. There simply cannot be a negotiation when one side refuses to enter the room.
The objection to a unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank from the right is that the Gaza withdrawal was a terrible mistake that created a terrorist enclave, emboldened Hamas, and subjected Israel to a constant barrage of rockets raining down on southern Israeli towns. These are all valid concerns, but I think the comparison to the Gaza withdrawal is not the correct one to make since the circumstances are different in a few important ways. To begin with, Israel withdrew from Gaza completely and not entirely on its own terms. In contrast, an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank would still leave Israeli soldiers in the Jordan Valley and Israel has determined the precise spot to which it would withdraw by constructing the security fence. Furthermore, while Gaza was a Hamas stronghold before Israel pulled out, the West Bank is under the firm control of the Palestinian Authority and that control has only increased in recent months as Mahmoud Abbas has cracked down on dissenters. The Palestinian Authority is far from perfect, but no serious observer would suggest that there is not a large qualitative difference between the PA and Hamas, both in terms of temperament and willingness to coexist with Israel. In addition, while Hamas has been able to smuggle rocket parts and weapons into Gaza through the Rafah tunnels along the border with Egypt, a tunnel system in the West Bank would be impossible since it shares a border with Israel and the Jordan River. Even if Hamas were to come to power in the West Bank or the Palestinian Authority reversed course and decided to launch a rocket war, the means to do so would be extremely limited as any smuggling taking place would be above ground and far easier for Israel to detect and stop.
There is also an important difference between Gaza and the West Bank in terms of environment and incentives. Gaza has always been more crowded and impoverished than the West Bank, and when Israel withdrew there was an argument embraced by many that there was little left to lose by taking the fight to Israel. There was also the fact that Israel wasn’t holding any more cards; it had withdrawn completely and Hamas was not interested in any negotiating toward a state anyway, so until Israel carried out Operation Cast Lead, there was little incentive for Hamas not to shoot rockets over the border. The West Bank, however, is not Gaza. The economy is much better, the quality of life is much higher, and Palestinians in the West Bank have a lot more to lose by risking a large scale Israeli military incursion. In addition, a unilateral Israeli withdrawal does not mean that the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank has nothing left to gain through negotiations. There will still be an IDF presence in the Jordan Valley, and the Palestinians will still not have a state along the borders that they desire and certainly will not have any part of East Jerusalem as their capital (and unlike Hamas, the PA’s stated goal is establishing a viable state). In short, the incentive structure for West Bank Palestinians following a hypothetical Israel withdrawal is vastly different than it was for Gazan Palestinians following the Israeli disengagement in 2005.
An Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank certainly is fraught with dangers both known and unknown. That does not, however, mean that it will automatically carry with it the same consequences as the Gaza withdrawal did. Barak is right in noting that Israel at some point is going to have to do something, since holding onto the West Bank indefinitely is not a real option and Palestinian intransigence in negotiating needs to be met with some sort of response. The immediate PA attack on the idea itself gives you a good idea of whether Palestinian officials think that a unilateral withdrawal is in their best interests, and perhaps the credible threat of withdrawal will give them the kick they need to resume negotiations. In any event, the idea of unilateral withdrawal should not be so casually dismissed with facile comparisons to Gaza.