Is ‘separation’ a step toward peace?

Is ‘separation’ a step toward peace?

Will a wall around Palestinian neighborhoods of Jerusalem help protect Jewish Israelis from the violence that has plagued the city since last fall? Haim Ramon, a former government minister who spent much of his career in the Labor Party and later joined the Kadima Party, made that assertion on a tour of the city recently with several defense officials and politicians.

While not officially sanctioned, Ramon’s initiative dovetails with a proposal by Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog for a unilateral “separation” from the Palestinians until a peace process is possible and the two sides can hammer out the details of a negotiated two-state solution.

In Herzog’s separation plan, which Labor endorsed last month, Israel would retain the settlement blocs close to the Green Line; 28 Palestinian villages on the north and east sides of Jerusalem would be separated “physically and politically” from the city; Israel would stop settlement activities and turn daily control of the West Bank to the Palestinian Authority; and a regional conference would bring Israel together with Arab countries to eventually work on Israeli-Palestinian peace.

Herzog promotes his plan as a way to do something while there is no movement in bilateral peace talks, which he blames on the intransigence of both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. But there are elements of Herzog’s plan that make some Israelis nervous. While Israelis have grown tired of peace proposals that bear no fruit, they are also distrustful of unilateral withdrawals. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 indirectly led to Hamas coming to power in that territory and the rockets that have rained down on Israel in the years since. It is therefore understandable if some look askance at Herzog’s proposal.

Yet, the status quo is not the answer. A binational state with Jews either not in charge of their destiny or being in charge at the expense of the Palestinians is not an acceptable solution. What everyone agrees on is that there must be some confidence-building measures put in place. But there is disagreement on what those measures should be.

Israel could go a long way by stopping  expansion of those settlements that are unlikely to be within Israel after a negotiated peace deal with the Palestinians. It won’t bring peace the next day. But it will be a big first step.