With the crisis over West Bank settlements currently dominating Israeli-Palestinian peace process headlines, less attention has been given to how the settlers will be convinced to relocate in a post-peace scenario. Getting domestic buy-in will be necessary in order for Israel to carry out its obligations under any final peace deal.
With 500,000 Israelis living in the West Bank (including in East Jerusalem), the task of uprooting the settlements seems well-nigh impossible. But more pragmatic estimates of the actual number of settlers likely to be relocated hovers around 70,000. (The remaining settlements would most likely be annexed to Israel.)
Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005 saw some 8,000 settlers brought back across the Green Line. Most Israelis believe these settlers were neglected, with lack of meaningful employment and proper housing opportunities afforded them. West Bank settlers are necessarily wary of feeling similarly abandoned.
We can assume that the Israeli government, having learned its lessons, will lay out strong financial incentives for West Bank settlers. But equally important is whether the settlers can envision a meaningful life in pre-1967 Israel. This is especially germane to the many settlers who conceive of their identity as directly connected to the land comprising what they call Judea and Samaria. The government would be well served to start thinking creatively about how to connect with the frontier settler identity on the other side of the Green Line.
We suggest three ways this can be done.
Telling the History of Place
Part of what made the post-1967 settlement project so intoxicating was the historical and biblical significance of the West Bank. Shoring up such symbols within Israel can help ease this transition. The City of David lies outside the Old City walls, and is considered to be the site from which King David ruled -- indeed, it predates the Old City. West Jerusalem boasts many neighborhoods that evoke not only the serenity that some settlers associate with their vicinities in the West Bank, but also dynamic mixed commercial-residential areas.
Tel Aviv, for its part, is considered the first Hebrew city since the Roman expulsion, and already has a rich intellectual and artistic history. In 2003 UNESCO declared Tel Aviv's Bauhaus-inspired "White City" a World Heritage Site. It has a lively and diverse social scene, and its position on the Mediterranean adds a more Levantine atmosphere to the city.
Taming the Zionist Frontier
The West Bank settler ethos echoes that of the Wild West in important ways. Settlers view themselves as carrying out a frontier version of Jewish nationalism, particularly in the outlying settlements. Settlers will need to be shown that there are pioneering-like opportunities on the other side of the Green Line. A likely target area is the Negev Desert: an open, wild space where Judah and Simeon, two of the twelve ancient tribes of Israel, are thought to have resided. The Negev can be viewed as a parallel region to be "tamed."
A second frontier is less territorial: as a world leader in a number of advanced high technology areas, including biomedical research, communications technology, diamond processing, military equipment, and water conservation, the vibrant and free-wheeling economic sector calls out to the pioneering spirit.
Leading Public Lives in Private Spaces
There is also a less lofty aspect to the story. With many settlers commuting to jobs across the Green Line, settler existence resembles the urban-suburban divide.
Suburban life is known for its emphasis on private space. At the same time, many settlements have become village-like enclaves where settlers find common cause in a siege mentality against a government that may uproot them, and against hostile Palestinian neighbors.
Settlers can be made to experience similar communal identities in intimate residential communities within the Green Line, including Israel's many kibbutzim and moshavim, as well as the relatively recent gated "communal neighborhoods." For those more inclined to head to the cities, the town squares in the major urban centers need to be the target of focus and investment. These sites are rife for communal engagement against a background of national symbolism.
Deeply-rooted identities and passionately-held narratives can be stubborn roadblocks on the path to peace. But they can also be wisely harnessed by governments. The settlers' sense of place in the national project needs to be honored in a deliberate strategy of recasting existing symbols. Such a process promises to be more enduring in helping settlers adapt to new roles in pre-1967 Israel.
Without these domestic efforts -- harder to do than writing a check, but perhaps more important -- the best laid plans are doomed to become buried in the sand.
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