One must first acknowledge the fact that the scene was somewhat surreal: a barrage of Gazan rockets was still raining down on southern Israel, and we were sitting at a nice hotel in breezy New York City, speaking calmly about the possible voluntary evacuation of settlers from the West Bank. Have we forgotten the lessons of the Gaza evacuation? Not so, says Orni Petruschka, high tech entrepreneur, former air force pilot and a founder of Blue White Future, an Israeli organization aimed at keeping Israel “Jewish and democratic”. And more specifically: convince the settlers that it is time to relocate back into Israel. The settlers – but not the military. That is to say, the rockets from Gaza following Israel’s full disengagement are irrelevant to our discussion.
The reason for the New York gathering is a new survey that the organization is releasing today. Like all other polls commissioned by organizations with an agenda, this poll should be treated suspiciously. It should also be treated without too much fanfare, as the results aren’t very different from similar previous polls taken in 2008 and in 2012. The bottom line: some settlers would be willing to evacuate as soon as an offer is made by the government for them to move, in exchange for proper compensation. The survey has about 30% of the settlers willing to accept such an offer. Is that a lot or a little? Petruschka seems to think it is a number worthy of attention, but even he doesn’t pretend it is really a large percentage. The willing thirty percent are mostly settlers from the Jordan Valley and from the town of Ariel. The hardcore communities seem more resistant to the temptations of a possible evacuation.
The fact that Ariel is part of the survey is itself a reason for further inquiry. The poll is supposed to deal with settlers “east of the security fence” – settlers in areas more likely to be included in a deal with the Palestinians, if such deal materializes, or to be under discussion if Israel decides to unilaterally withdraw from certain areas in the West Bank. So including Ariel in such a poll isn’t an obvious decision. It means that Petruschka’s organization doesn’t consider the Ariel area a settlement bloc that Israel should insist on keeping (the other two blocs, Ma'ale Adumim and Gush Etzion are not in the survey). But in fact, an Israeli government which has always considered Ariel as part of the “blocs” would undermine its own position by proposing the evacuation of its residents. That is not likely to happen.
Petruschka believes that Israel has a “moral obligation” to the settlers. Those of them who whish to move - as they realize that there is no future for Israelis in the West Bank - should be encouraged and compensated. Of course, that’s not necessarily a position one has to accept. I asked him what if residents of Sderot would express a similar wish to leave, because they are tired of rocket attacks – does the government owe them a similar relocation offer. He says he “resents” the comparison. Sderot is a part of Israel, the settlements are places to which Israelis were sent to live outside of Israel. If it does not intend to stay in this area, keeping the settlers as hostages of the negotiation process is problematic.
Of course, the inclusion of Ariel in the survey has an impact on the outcome. It means that while there are settlers that are willing to evacuate, many of them aren’t the settlers that Israel might want to evacuate. In fact, almost half of the respondents to the new survey believe that their settlement will be “annexed to Israel” following an agreement (the exact number is 47.6%). This means that half the respondents believe they will never have to evacuate, yet here they are, answering questions about a possible evacuation. Dr. Roby Nathanson, who conducted the survey, kindly informed me following a query that “10.2% of the people who believe that their settlement will be annexed are certain they are willing to evacuate voluntarily, another 12.0% think they will be willing to evacuate”. So we have about 22% who are willing to leave while understanding that their settlement is likely to stay. That’s like asking me if I’d like to leave Tel Aviv for proper compensation.
In fact, I might be mocking the survey more than it deserves. Some of the numbers presented by the group are interesting, even if they are not necessarily reassuring. Close to forty percent of the respondents would not agree to evacuate – not even in case there is an agreement, and not even if the agreement is approved by a referendum. 28.8% would “certainly” not agree to evacuate. That’s a significant number of people (I guess if it is a third of the settlers who live east of the fence, we are talking about 30-40 thousand people). In fact, 20% of the respondents, when asked about “legitimate” means of reaching a “significant” political decision, wouldn’t agree to any of the options proposed. Namely, they believe that there is no legitimate way of deciding to evacuate the settlements.
Yet, Petruschka believes (and I agree) that the settlers will “not be such a great impediment” to a peace agreement. His survey proves that even now, without an agreement, many of them are ready to leave. In the case of an agreement, the number will grow, from 28.8% to 48.8%. And clearly, when half the population leaves there will be an erosion of the will of others to stay. If the preschool teacher leaves, Petruschka says, the preschool can’t function, and the family with children has to reconsider whether staying is still a reasonable decision. Of course, his assessment can persuade some that there is no point in waiting for the inevitable to happen – settlers should be offered a way out even today. Others might reach the opposite conclusion: if settlers aren’t going to be “a great impediment” for peace, why the need to deal with them now?
Here are some more numbers from the survey:
Willing to evacuate with no Israeli-Palestinian agreement: 15.4% for sure; 13.4% “think I will agree”. Willing to leave from the Jordan Valley: 43.1%, from Ariel: 32.6%, from Samaria: 19.4%. Age group most willing to leave: 50-59, with 46.9% who would agree to leave; least willing: 18-29, with 10.2%. The religious are the least willing to leave, with 12.6% agreeing to evacuate; the secular are more willing, with 45.4% agreeing to evacuate .
Willing to evacuate in case of an agreement: 24.5% are certain they would agree to leave, 24.3% “think" they might, 28.8% would certainly not agree, 11.3% “think” they won't. Willing to evacuate following an agreement, by area: Ariel- 52.6%, Jordan Valley- 67%, Judea- 36.5%, Samaria- 38.5%.
What factors increase the chance of willingness to evacuate: compensation- 42.6%, employment-training- 35.6%, “peace you can trust”- 31.6%. The numbers are of the total sample, including those who say they will not evacuate.
A significant political decision – such as evacuation, even though the question didn’t specify that, which might be significant – would be considered legitimate if there is a referendum (54.7%), a super-majority in the Knesset (38.6%), or elections (33.2%). 20.3% answered that none of the above would make such a decision legitimate.