Yesterday, perhaps in a bid to distance himself from Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak called for a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from parts of the West Bank. It's not exactly a new offer—Barak would evacuate 10 to 20 percent of settlements and keep Israeli military forces near Ben Gurion airport and in the Jordan Valley—but it does raise some of the same old poignant questions, chief among them: Would Israeli unilateralism pose an existential threat to Israel?
The answer is no. More and more Israelis seem to realize this, but it hasn't quite penetrated the American discourse yet. Just ask Mitt Romney, who, in a tape revealed last week, suggested that all Palestinians are "committed to the destruction and elimination of Israel." This blatantly misleading statement—"Opinion polling has shown consistently over the past decade that a strong majority of Palestinians, ranging from 60-70 percent, are in favor of a two-state solution to the conflict"—gives the impression that a peace deal, let alone unilateral moves, would spell doom for Israel, its "destruction and elimination." It's not going to happen.
Israel will always have enemies who want to destroy it, but their aim is a quixotic one, and should be treated as such. The focus needs to be on mitigating the inherent (and relatively limited) security risks. Discussing them as if they might destroy Israel doesn't reflect reality.
Even while deriding the overall thrust of Romney's remarks—continuing the occupation in perpetuity—some nodded in agreement that Palestinian rejectionism is a real phenomenon, even if Romney exaggerated its breadth. They're right that rejectionism exists, but that doesn't mean it should play a determinative role in Israel or any one else's calculations. Zvika Krieger engaged in a similar question, acknowledging that some of the issues raised by Romney were "serious concerns," while responding to them one by one. But this, like Barak's formulation, also misses the point. The issue of the Jordan Valley, for instance, is a red herring: most of the Israeli troops stationed there now engage in administering the occupation, not defending Israel from external threats from across the river. (I wrote earlier that Romney's objections to a two-state deal are mostly features of a Palestinian state, so rejecting them means rejecting a deal altogether.)
Israel is a strong nation with a dominant military, and it's not going anywhere. A unilateral Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank would not change either of those conditions. The most concise rendering of what withdrawal would mean came two years ago from the Israeli military historian Martin Van Creveld—no dove—who runs down the potential threats: ballistic missiles, invading foreign armies, and suicide bombers. He shows Israel has already demonstrated it can overcome these risks:
Keeping all these facts in mind—and provided that Israel maintains its military strength and builds a wall to stop suicide bombers—it is crystal-clear that Israel can easily afford to give up the West Bank. Strategically speaking, the risk of doing so is negligible.
Creveld concludes that the real risk run by Israel is not getting rid of the West Bank, but keeping it. "To save itself from such a fate," he writes, "Israel should rid itself of the West Bank, most of Arab Jerusalem specifically included." And do it unilaterally if it must (and with the moribund peace process, it must). His assessment of "negligible" risk strikes me as a bit strong: while the threat of an invading Arab army (or armies) is exceeding unlikely, Israel may well face rocket attacks from the West Bank amid the chaos that ensues from Israeli withdrawal. But, as Creveld points out, Israel already faces the threat of rockets from Gaza, Lebanon and, potentially, from the other side of the West Bank too. A closer launching ground alters this dynamic, but only slightly.
The only true peace Israel can hope for must come from some sort of negotiated deal between the parties that can produce a viable and responsible Palestinian state, accountable for potential extra-governmental attacks launched against Israel from its territory. Unilateralism is not a substitute, but could help that process along by disentangling Israel from the West Bank. Barak's plan is a conservative one, but it nonetheless shows that even among hawkish Israeli thinkers, few really believe unilateralism will spell the end of the Jewish state. It's your move, Israel.