Then Israel’s government will be forced to make a choice: Give up the settlements, or give up the idea of a democratic Jewish homeland. A decision that could have been made gradually and responsibly will have to be made in a crisis — and in a crisis Middle Eastern countries tend to act in stupid and self-destructive ways.
It doesn’t take special powers of discernment to understand that the time isn’t ripe for a comprehensive peace treaty. Palestine is divided into two warring camps — one led by Hamas, the other by Fatah — that continually threaten to unite, and then fail to do so. The more moderate Fatah, led by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, is weak and corrupt, and Abbas recently walked away from negotiations with Israel, according to Jordanian officials who helped organize the talks. Hamas is devoted to Israel’s physical destruction -- not ideal for a negotiating partner.
On the Israeli side, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is preoccupied with the threat of a nuclear Iran. He is a powerful prime minister, but his right-leaning coalition, still dependent on the settlers and their supporters, could thwart even modest compromise, especially in the absence of a compelling Palestinian partner.
Still, there is something Netanyahu can do: He can have an honest conversation with the Israeli people about the consequences — military, moral and demographic — of the settlements. And he can contemplate a notion advanced by a growing number of the country’s security experts: a unilateral pullout of some settlers from the most distant reaches of the West Bank.
“Unilateralism” has a bad name in Israel, given that the country’s pullout of settlers and soldiers from the Gaza Strip in 2005 led to a Hamas takeover. But a unilateral departure from the West Bank could be carried out in slow motion, and in a way that leaves the Israeli army in place until negotiations resume in earnest.
A pullout of settlers would signal to the Palestinians that the Netanyahu government is serious about compromise. It would show the world that Israel is not interested in being an occupying power forever. And it would show Israelis that their government is interested in finally winning the Six-Day War.
Jeffrey Goldberg is a Bloomberg View columnist and a national correspondent for The Atlantic.