Back in the 1880s, Yehuda Leib Pinsker thought the Jews could cure the non-Jews of antisemitism by rectifying the abnormality of Jewish existence as a nation without a homeland. He was an important theorist of the first wave of what would later become Zionist settlement. 15 years later Theodore Herzl had the same idea, but given his position as a prominent journalist in Vienna (an important town in those long-past days), and his indefatigable energy, he was able to launch more than a small wave of settlers.
Both men were wrong. There's nothing the Jews can do to cure the non-Jews who hate them. Yet their efforts resulted in something vastly better than a cure for Jew hatred. They contributed to the creation of a world in which the Jews can live a full national life, without having to bow scrape and grovel before their enemies. The hatred is still there, but to a certain extent, Jews needn't care any longer. They can get on with life - and they do.
Moreover, in spite of the bloody violence directed at the Jews in their homeland, it's nowhere as bad as what Pinsker and Herzl saw, not to mention what came after them, between 1918 and 1945. Remember, in the forgotten pogroms of the early 1920s vastly more Jews were murdered than have been killed in a century of war between the Zionists and their neighbors.
Israel is not going to enjoy normality with the Arab world anytime soon, nor will it have peace with the Palestinians. However, this does not preclude living a vibrant and creative national life in Israel. It hasn't so far, and won't henceforth. Nor does it necessarily mean there will be permanent violence. It's probably not a coincidence that after reaching for its nuclear sword in 1973 (according to foreign sources) no Arab army ever again attacked Israel. Instead, the Arabs moved to wars of civilians against civilians, or at least wars of irregulars embedded amongst civilians against Israeli civilians. Yet even those have not proven effective, and once Israel figured out how to beat them, they tapered off. Israel defeated the 2nd Intifada (the first, too), and it frightened both HizbAllah and Hamas, in 2006 and 2009, enough to make them mostly desist from violence. For the time being, of course, until they change their mind, obviously, but nevertheless.
In the meantime we get on with all the things we wish to do. Jewish life in the early 21 century is richer, more diverse and more vibrant than at any time since Herod the Great, and even the parts that aren't happening in Israel wouldn't be the same were it not for the return of the Jewish nation to the political realm.
None of this success is predicated on settling the West Bank, nor need it be harmed were that settlement to be dismantled (or left outside the border of Israel, which is a far less likely scenario). So why is Israel there?
Between 1967 and the beginning of the 1st Intifada 20 years later, Israeli society held a raucous conversation about the importance of settling Jews in the Biblical heartland. (It is significant that the non-Israeli part of the Jewish people didn't have much input one way or the other: Jewish national discussions, it appears, happen essentially in the Jewish national state). The positions and the arguments went back and forth, but by the end of the 1980s the Jews of Israel had decided, as a community, that settling Judea and Samaria was not important enough, and it was abandoned as a national project - if it ever had been one. No matter what might have been the case in, say, 1978 or 1980, for the past 25 years the Israeli consensus has been that someday, in the fullness of time and in the correct international context, Israel will hand over most of the West Bank so as to enable the creation of a Palestinian state.
From that moment on, every addition to the settlements, any investments and construction of infrastructures must be regarded as a strategic waste of effort, even if in some cases the creation of better roads, say, or security measures, were essential. For a while the supporters of the settlement project could tell themselves the conversation was not yet over and could yet be tilted back to their position, but not after decades.
The reason the Israeli majority never made the effort to halt the settlers was because of considerations relating to the Palestinians. There was the plausible, perhaps even correct assumption that it was the settlements alone which would eventually convince the Palestinians to start negotiating for a two state solution to the conflict, before there was no room left to have Palestine. (The Palestinians made this decision, slowly, impartially, and if they ever really made it, between 1989-1992). There was the assumption that dismantling settlements would be a major negotiation chip for which the Palestinians would play some chip of their own. There was the assumption that the decision to dismantle many settlements was going to be traumatic for Israeli society, and should happen once, in the context of an end-of-conflict peace agreement with the Palestinians, at which point it would enjoy sweeping support and be less painful than in any conceivable other context. Or, as any settler will tell you if you steer the conversation deftly: we've been repeatedly saved by the Palestinians.
Since late 2000 and the collapse of the Oslo negotiations at the latest - some would say, it should have been many years earlier - it has become obvious to a very large majority of Israelis that peace with the Palestinians is not to be had. At best, the Palestinians are willing to accept partition only if it's done in a way that leaves open the possibility of an eventual disintegration of Jewish Israel, while the Israelis insist on an end-of-conflict agreement which blocks any conceivable future Palestinian moves or claims. During the 2nd Intifada Israel reconquered sections of the West Bank which had been handed over to the Palestinian Authority, because this was essential to militarily defeating the Palestinians.
In 2005 Ariel Sharon began the project of unilateral disengagement from the Palestinians. The strategic idea, never publicly spelled out for obvious reasons but quite explicit nonetheless, was to end the occupation even without agreement with the Palestinians. Perhaps even, some might say, precisely without agreement with the Palestinians, who had demonstrated that their terms for peace would be unacceptable to Israel. The novelty of Sharon's positions in 2004-2005 was the understanding that the occupation itself had become a millstone, a weapon the Palestinians were wielding with tremendous effectiveness against Israel so as force concessions that otherwise would not be offered.
If one assumes the Palestinians and Israelis really and profoundly understand each other, an assumption that a century of conflict and cohabitation and enmity and daily collaboration make plausible, the events of 2004-2006 take on a meaning never presented in the Western media. By 2004 both sides knew they weren't moving towards peace. Both recognized how the Israeli occupation of the Palestinians had become the main weapon against Israel. Both knew that the outcome of the unilateral Israeli departure from Gaza would determine the next step. Both knew Sharon's move was a sign of Israeli weariness, though the Palestinian side may have seen it as existential weariness, while the Israelis saw it as tactical weariness with dominating Palestinians. The Palestinian election of Hamas was therefore the result of two considerations. First, that since Israel was wearying, the Palestinian response should be to strengthen their hawkish side. Second, that post-disengagement violence would serve the Palestinian interests, by further weakening Israeli resolve but also by thwarting the next stage of Israeli disengagement, from the West Bank. The Israelis, on the other hand, elected Ehud Olmert in the Spring of 2006 on the explicit platform of continuing the disengagement.
The war in Lebanon and the violence from Gaza derailed the unilateral disengagement from the West Bank. Instead, Olmert (and his foreign minister, Zippi Livni) did their best to reach an agreement with the Palestinians, and offered them even more than previous Israeli negotiators ever had, but predictably they were rebuffed. The Palestinians have no interest in an end-of-conflict agreement.
Netanyahu, elected in 2009, tried his hand at improving the daily lives of the Palestinians by lifting much of the weight of the occupation, but this has failed: individual Palestinians may benefit, but the leadership, and the people as a nation, need the pressure on Israel to continue until someday it caves in, which is the context for the current policy of having the UN give the Palestinians a state, or - since the UN can't do that, only Israel can - having the UN lay the ground for international sanctions against Israel.
These are unlikely to work, for reasons I may write about elsewhere, but the Palestinians see no downside in trying.
Which brings us back to the Israeli control of the Palestinians. The attempt to have Greater Israel is long over. The settlements have been dismantled in Gaza, and the electorate has voted to dismantle them in the West Bank. The only reason Israel still controls the West Bank, and still blockades Gaza (ever less efficiently, since Egypt has now opened its border) is because of the Israeli assumption that it must control the Palestinians to fend off their violence. Should Israel leave the West Bank or remove the blockade of Gaza, so the logic, the Palestinians will immediately rain down destruction on Israel, as they did after the departure from Gaza.
And well they may. The Palestinians will have the motive and the means, and the international community will shield them from Israel's wrath. But only for a while. Actually, assuming they'll be aiming at Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and the airport, rather than far-away Sderot, I don't expect the Israelis to hold their wrath very long. For there's a second lesson of the past decade, and that is that in each case where Arab enemies of Israel goaded it, be it Palestinians or Hizballah, the Israelis were eventually goaded and the enemies backed off. In other words, full-blooded Israeli wrath (I use the word blooded advisedly) is not something people enjoy provoking. Moreover, since the Palestinians already provoked it once, in 2002, and watched from close up as others provoked it (2006, 2009), perhaps they might even refrain from trying, at least for a while.
My position, to be clear, is that Israel needs to end as much of the occupation as possible, by moving out of the West Bank till the security fence, so as to continue the conflict from a vastly better starting point. Before that, Israel should lift the blockade of Gaza, right now. (This is what Shlomo Avineri says in his column today). This doesn't mean major moves need to be done carelessly. Moving out of the West Bank will take a few years in any scenario, and these could be calibrated: first, stop all construction in settlements, and offer financial encouragement to individuals who wish to move (there will be many thousands of them). Then clarify to the Palestinians that the disengagement may have serious consequences for them, such as severing economic ties, or cutting off supplies of water and electricity, as part of a true end of Israeli engagement - unless the Palestinians wish to negotiate otherwise. Later on, dismantling settlements doesn't have to include pulling back IDF forces, until Israel decides it is safe to do so. Yet the overarching policy should be clear: Israel intends to leave, to let the Palestinians live their own lives, and in return expects the Palestinians to get on with their lives, not attack Israel.
Peace will come some other day. But Israel will be a better place, with better international relations. It will still need the most lethal military possible, and it will need to confront many enemies that surround it, but its fundamental situation will be healthier. Most important of all, its internal cohesion and determination will be strengthened. The whole society will know it needs to defend its existence, not an occupation many of us don't want.
Update: I've done my best to respond to the many thoughtful comments, here.