Prize-winning Harvard essay urges relocating settlers en masse to new Israeli towns

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Ari Ben Goldberg

Times of Israel

f you had unlimited resources, how would you bridge the gap between Israeli and Palestinian societies?

By answering that question in less than 500 words, an iconoclastic Harvard graduate student from London won the first Avi Schaefer Peace Innovation essay contest. Joel Braunold, a 26-year-old whose background includes a stint at a hesder (Modern Orthodox) yeshiva in Israel and as a leader of the international pro-peace group One Voice, argues that Palestinians and Israelis should “unilaterally take steps that are in their own self-interest that further the chances of a Two-State Solution, rather than lessens them.”

Braunold proposes that Israel build empty towns in the north and south of the country – with housing, schools, and rail lines to reach major population centers – into which the approximately 30,000 West Bank settlers who will likely be left out of a final peace deal can be relocated.

He says what sets this idea apart from other peace plans is the notion of transferring whole communities intact.

“It’s easier to cope with trauma as a community than as an individual,” says Braunold. “Compare this to the way the evacuation from Gaza was handled. People were handed cash as individuals. If settlers were simply offered individual compensation, it would put a tremendous strain on the housing market and probably crash the Israeli economy.”

David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy says Braunold’s essay “is in keeping with other grassroots initiatives which call for early compensation for those settlers who seek to relocate away from non-bloc locations in the West Bank.”

But he says that, despite the fact that some parts of the newly reconfigured coalition may be sympathetic to this idea, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would likely view this “as leading to a confrontation with part of his base.”

But Braunold believes the idea of moving whole communities may be something Netanyahu can sell to his constituents as “a more compassionate solution than what happened with Gaza.”

As for the Palestinians, the Harvard graduate student believes they need to remain focused on the building of state institutions and infrastructure.

“Building a state is not a gift to the Israelis – it’s purely in the Palestinian self-interest,” he says. “But a positive side benefit of it is that it demonstrates to Israelis that they have neighbors who are serious about building a sustainable civil society.”

Makovsky calls this “a good idea that creates a sense for the Palestinians that the occupation is shrinking.”

However, the head of a hawkish pro-Israel DC think tank calls Braunold’s essay “hopelessly naïve and one-sided.”

“Although it is true that there is a lack of trust on both sides, the Palestinians have received something very real and tangible – land — from the Israelis, in exchange for the same old, recycled empty promises to recognize Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state and to end the incitement to hate and to kill,” says Sarah Stern, president and founder of the Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET).

“Why uproot Jewish settlers and go back to the pre-1967 indefensible borders (which Abba Eban of the Labor Party once dubbed “The Auschwitz Lines”), when the Palestinians have continuously fed their population a steady diet of propaganda, teaching them the virtues of becoming suicide bombers and martyrs and that one day, all of pre-1967 Israel will be theirs?” she asks.

Stern says Israel needs strategic depth to survive and calls Braunold’s ideas “pie-in-the-sky thinking.”

But Yoav Schaefer, a 24 year-old sophomore at Harvard who was one of the organizers of the essay competition, praises Braunold’s “fresh thinking about the conflict” and says the Avi Schaefer Fund is committed to exactly that – “finding new and novel ways to support Israel and pursue honest conversations about peace.”
Avi Schaefer served in the IDF before his death in 2010. (photo credit: Courtesy Avi Schaefer Foundation)

Avi Schaefer served in the IDF before his death in 2010. (photo credit: Courtesy Avi Schaefer Foundation)

The fund is named after Yoav’s identical twin brother and former Israel Defense Forces soldier, Avi, whose life was tragically cut short at age 21 when a drunk driver struck and killed him as he was walking to his dormitory at Brown University in February 2010.

“Avi was not only an IDF soldier – he was a soldier for peace,” says Yoav. “He was involved in a variety of projects aimed at working toward peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Avi believed deeply in the idea that a true and lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians is critical to upholding Jewish values and to ensuring the security of both Israel and Jews around the world.”

At the age of 18, Avi and Yoav left their Southern California home and moved to Israel to serve in the IDF. Avi was accepted into a Special Forces combat unit and later served as a counter-terrorism instructor and trainer of Israeli’s most elite military units.

In honor of their son and brother, who Yoav described as “a generous spirit whose open heart shaped him into a compassionate and empathetic human being,” the Schaefer family created the Avi Schaefer Fund to support projects that work toward the fulfillment of Avi’s dream of peace.

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About the Author

Kyle Shideler
Kyle Shideler is the Director of Research and Communications for the Endowment for Middle East Truth

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