Gilead Sher, former chief of staff and policy coordinator for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and co-chief negotiator from 1999-2001 at the Camp David and Taba Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, is a co-founder and board member of Blue White Future. The nonpartisan Israeli group, which formed two years ago, calls for Israel to take constructive unilateral steps to advance the concept of two states, Israeli and Palestinian, living peacefully side by side. The Jewish Week spoke with him last week about his provocative proposal.
Q: What constructive unilateral steps are you calling for?
A: First, resume Israeli-Palestinian negotiations with a clear goal of reaching an agreement based the principle of two states for two people. Second, encourage Israeli settlers who currently reside in remote areas that clearly would not be within Israel’s final borders to move back to within Israel’s bounder.
What are you asking the Palestinians to do?
We are disregarding what the Palestinians will or will not do. We are encouraging the Israeli government to take unilateral steps, such as a halt to the expansion of settlements east of the security fence and in the Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem. The subtext here is that construction could continue west of the security fence in a manner that does not threaten the viability of a two-state solution.
We believe Israel should transfer areas east of the security fence to full Palestinian control in a gradual, cautious and supervised manner. More importantly, we believe the Israeli government should signal its deep commitment to the settler community whose mission has been completed, and then Israel should promote a voluntary relocation, compensation and absorption law that would encourage the return of settlers who wish to come back to Israel before the signing of an agreement. We have already prepared the draft of such a law. All this should be done throughout an empathetic, genuine and candid dialogue with the settler community.
Why is it important to do this now?
We have to prevent the reality of a bi-national state and ensure a Jewish majority within a democratic Israel under Israeli sovereignty. This cannot be done without disengaging from the Palestinians. There has been no advancement towards a negotiated peace in the last decade, so Israel must take unilateral steps to ensure the reality of two states before the point of no return.
Are we reaching that point?
There are 5.7 million Jews and 5.5 million Arabs between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. Some people talk of a few years or as many as 10 years [before the Arabs will outnumber the Jews]. At that point, Israel loses its character as a Jewish state and its character as a democratic state.
What needs to be done to put this proposal in motion?
You need to legitimize it in the public opinion — first the concerns and then the solution. Then, for Israel to disengage from the Palestinians unilaterally, we need time to plan in terms of housing, employment, the relocation of communities — we need to produce a significantly better absorption plan than the one in 2005 from Gaza. All of this requires two to three years of planning and governmental inter-ministerial action. We cannot do it at the last moment when an agreement is signed or when we are close to the point of no return.
Does this mean it has to be done within the next year?
I believe so. We have reached out to central and centrist figures in the Israeli political arena. We are not dictating; it would be presumptuous to do that. We are simply pointing out that Israel has to get its act together and disregard what happens with the Palestinians. Of course it would be better to have a common understanding [with the Palestinians] of what needs to be done, but I am concerned with the future of my country, my people.
How many Israelis will have to be relocated?
About 100,000 people. And 4 to 6 percent of the West Bank would have to be annexed to incorporate the major settlement blocs. Those blocs already include about 75 percent of the settlers. In return, Israel would swap land in compensation.
You believe that about 20,000 people would move voluntarily. What would be the cost?
About $2 billion. And for all 100,000, it would be $10 billion. This number includes compensation, absorption and new housing but it does not include compensation for businesses, agriculture, industrial plants and public institutions. Remember, Israel absorbed more than 3 million immigrants since its inception, of whom 1 million came from the former Soviet Union in the ‘90s. And I believe the cost of evacuation and relocation will be deducted from the savings in the national budget that is allocated for maintaining these settlements.
What will be the role of the international community?
Led by the U.S., it should encourage, support and fund this genuine attempt at to bring closer the reality of a two-state solution. We don’t believe the Israel Defense Forces should withdraw with the settlers but rather remain and at a later stage transfer security to a multinational force under a clear and defined mandate so that it would be another buffer that would secure and keep peace.
This is an edited transcript.