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Analysis: The old-new fight over Israeli unilateralism

Speaking at a media-friendly photo opportunity in occupied East Jerusalem this month, Israeli Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog declared the need for a “disengagement” between Israelis and the Palestinians, “not by withdrawing from the territories, but by separating us physically”.

Two months earlier, Herzog had announced a new plan “to separate from as many Palestinians as possible, as fast as possible”, describing the two-state solution asimpossible under current conditions. The opposition leader’s proposal: to complete the separation wall around so-called “settlement blocs” in the West Bank, and to cut off major Palestinian neighbourhoods in East Jerusalem from the rest of the city. The Labor Party has officially approved the plan.

But is this approach really new? Not according to Diana Buttu, a lawyer and former adviser to Palestine Liberation Organization negotiators, who described the current proposals as “Kadima part two” – a reference to the party founded by Ariel Sharon before the 2005 Israeli disengagement from the Gaza Strip.

Indeed, there are similarities between the discourse and proposals being advanced by Herzog today, and the platform on which Ehud Olmert won the 2006 election for Kadima. Back then, the Israeli government looked set to follow up the withdrawal from Gaza with a wider, unilateral removal of isolated settlers in the West Bank, and a consolidation of settlements included within the separation wall.

“This is simply rehashing Labor slogans from the 1990s, when [former Prime Minister] Ehud Barak used the electoral slogan, ‘Us here, them over there’, with the addition of the apartheid wall and a revamping of Kadima’s plan,” Buttu told Al Jazeera.

Meanwhile, another recent initiative – the brainchild of former Labor and Kadima minister Haim Ramon – calls for 28 Palestinian villages in occupied East Jerusalem to be walled off and handed over to the Palestinian Authority, their 200,000 inhabitants stripped of permanent residency. “It’s impossible to expel Arabs, but it’s possible to build a wall,” Ramon said last week. 

According to Israeli commentator Akiva Eldar, the Labor Party’s new platform is a direct adoption of this plan, known as “Saving Jewish Jerusalem”. Advocates of Israeli unilateral separation moves can also be found at the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies; it was at one of the think-tank’s conferences that Herzog announced his new plan in January.

While the notion of unilateral separation may not be original, is it plausible? From the point of view of the Israeli public, Herzog’s plan would be a hard sell. For Orly Noy, a left-leaning editor at Israeli news site Local Call, Herzog’s plan amounts to little more than political posturing. “It is a PR move,” he said. “For Israeli politicians to talk about Jerusalem is to show that you’re dealing with the big issues.” 

Israeli journalist Noam Sheizaf believes Herzog’s plan “is closer to a trial balloon than to an actual working plan” at the moment.

“Right now, there is not a strong incentive to do anything on the Israeli side,” Sheizaf told Al Jazeera. Should violence continue and intensify, however, “people will start searching for new ideas, and this plan might actually have its moment”. 

For Sheizaf, “the Israeli centre is gradually gravitating towards unilateralism again, simply because it is politically cheaper and easier to carry out – even if the results are as disastrous as they were in Gaza.” 

The Gaza precedent overshadows any suggestions of new unilateral withdrawals. “The concept became a very negative one in the collective Israeli memory,” Noy told Al Jazeera. Without coordination with the Palestinians, “no wall is going to provide security”.

It is unclear which settlement blocs – areas where multiple settlements have been established in close proximity to one another, often clustered around one major colony – Herzog intends to keep. On the campaign trail in March 2015, he named Gush Etzion, Maaleh Adumim and Ariel. Other observers have identified a further three or four.

Another major problem facing the proponents of unilateral separation is that the settler population outside the separation wall stands at more than 80,000 and is rising. If the Ariel settlement bloc, which lies deep inside the occupied West Bank, is included, the figure reaches 100,000. Relocation would be a colossal undertaking, and tens of thousands of people would probably have to be forcibly removed.

Moves along the lines of what Herzog’s Labor Party is now promoting would also face significant opposition in the international community, and would not end Israel’s status as an occupying power in the West Bank.

For Palestinians, the old-new suggestions of Israeli unilateralism are unacceptable. “It is absolutely illegal under international law, and it is vital that such plans are not viewed as temporary,” Buttu said. “All of this is designed to cement Israel’s presence in the West Bank, and legitimate the wall and settlements.” 

Herzog, meanwhile, is facing internal opposition within a Labor Party that, as part of the Zionist Camp or going it alone, looks a long way from power, let alone from implementing a separation plan. When faced with a choice between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and an imitation brand, most Israelis seem to prefer the original.

At the moment, an alternative to Netanyahu, who recently completed a combined total of 10 years as Israel’s prime minister, looks most likely to emerge from the right or centre-right. 

But regardless of who forms the next Israeli government, a large-scale unilateral withdrawal is unlikely to be on the cards. The right would object to concessions to “terrorists”, while the left would stress the need to negotiate with a Palestinian partner. The status quo shows no signs of changing any time soon.

Published first by Al Jazeera English.

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