A series of new data and new decisions have been dribbling out of Israel recently on settlement expansion. The tarmac had barely cooled off from Secretary Rice’s departure earlier in the week and the Israeli government was already announcing plans to build 600 new apartments in the Givat Ze’ev settlement and the approval of 800 new units in Betar Illit. This news came in the wake of new construction plans for Har Homa in East Jerusalem and rumors that Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak was in negotiations with the settler leadership to simply relocate (rather than dismantle) the Migron outpost to a more convenient area in the West Bank. The Israeli NGO Peace Now has a settlement watch project which just released a new report looking at 4 months of settlement expansion since the Annapolis conference, the headline finding of which was that at least 1,900 new settlement homes would be built in 2008—a record number for the last 10 years.
At this stage the temptation is to yawn and move on. After 15 years of a peace process which has been paralleled by the ongoing creation of settlement facts on the ground, that undermine the apparent goal of a two state solution, the questions raised are old ones. But it might be worth trying to eek out some new answers. In the light of this old/new development of Annapolis and settlement growth going hand in hand, here is an attempt to look afresh at 5 of those questions.
What drives settlement expansion? Obviously there is a core of ideologically driven Israelis for whom life in the hills of Judea and Samaria is the fulfillment of a biblical injunction. Them and groups they established, led by Gush Emunim (the bloc of the faithful) led the move to establish permanent civilian communities in the territories occupied in 1967. But their task could not have been achieved without a combination of acquiescence and active facilitation by the various organs of the Israeli governmental bureaucracy and defense establishments. They cooperated for reasons that ranged from sharing the ideology to security-based arguments, for some it was establishing bargaining chips for future negotiations and for others just a question of the political inconvenience of confronting the settlers. And the settlers have been strategic. When settlements started being built in the vicinity of Jerusalem for the ultra-Orthodox communities (until then settlements were mainly modern or national Orthodox, or economically-driven as opposed to ultra-Orthodox) the settler movement won a new ally in the political representatives of the ultra-Orthodox community—the Shas and United Torah Judaism parties. In the current governing coalition the Shas party makes the growth of the settlements serving their community one of their key political demands. Today the network of enablers that the settlers have throughout the system translates into a reality whereby the gravity or inertia of Israeli state bureaucracy in itself drives settlement expansion. Recognizing that what drives settlement growth goes deeper than the supposed nefarious schemes of any given Israeli Prime Minister is important for devising a strategy to counter this phenomenon.
It is perfectly plausible (and I for one would argue) that the current Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, is sincere in his professed intention to reach a two state solution and to withdraw from at least the vast majority of the West Bank. He may even be genuine when arguing that the current settlement growth is anyway in areas that will feature in a future land swap and is a necessary coalition bargain that is cut in order to sustain a government that is negotiating the end of the occupation and therefore of the settlement project. In a simple cost-benefit calculation, for an Israeli Prime Minister the price of freezing settlements is higher than what is paid for continuing them. Which brings us to our next question.
Given the continued settlement drive, is a two state solution still realistic? First there is a question here of the need for a viable Palestinian state. One could carve out any piece of territory, put a flag on it, and call it the ‘Palestinian Free State’. But if the borders, the conditions and nature of that state, its credibility and legitimacy have no traction with the Palestinians, then it becomes almost an irrelevance in its ability to change the Israeli-Palestinian reality. Obviously any additional Israeli presence beyond the ’67 line creates further obstacles to address in the negotiations and to remove as part of any bargain. Is it possible to remove 90 settlements but not 100? Probably not. This is not an exact science. The continued relevance of the two-state solution may have less to do with the physical fact of an additional 1900 housing units and more to do with the cognitive perceptions and spatial maps created in people’s minds by the physical structures on the ground. This is a point that is paid to little attention to. The announcement of more building in a given settlement has a devastating impact on the Palestinian belief that a real two state solution will happen. It dramatically undermines those advocating such a solution or involved in negotiations to that end, and it also of course sends a signal to the Israeli public. The two state solution is likely to be labeled RIP in people’s heads long before it becomes technically unfeasible on the ground. That is the challenge.
So what can the U.S. and the international community do about it? 40 years after the 1967 war (and 120 settlements later, 105 outposts, and 267,000 Israelis living beyond the green line), it is abundantly clear at this stage that the U.S. and international response has not been a robust one, and it has not sufficiently affected the ledger of the Israeli cost-benefit calculation in a way that prohibits settlement expansion. That this is unfortunate is something that even most Israelis would probably now accept given the regret now voiced regarding the investments made in the territories and the intention expressed to withdraw. Three options remain. One would be to pursue policies that try to re-balance that basic Israeli calculation. To raise this suggestion is hardly a eureka moment. It has been considered. That leverage has not been easy to summon in the past, nor will it be in the future. A second option is to be more effective at the preventive stage. If more consistent, persistent and higher level U.S. attention is paid to this issue then new plans can be caught while they’re still in the process of decision making within the Israeli system. It is much more difficult to affect the process once an announcement has been made. The final option is to make good on the second half of the equation that is consistently heard from the Israeli side. Namely, ‘we cannot both freeze settlements and continue negotiations, because of domestic politics, turn a blind eye to the former so we can pursue the latter.’ The response might be, ‘Ok, so let’s finish those negotiations now’.
What about the Palestinians? Do they have a role? In part this relates to the previous question. Third parties cannot be more Palestinian than the Palestinians. And if the PLO agrees to continue negotiating with Israel while settlements are being expanded in contravention of agreements reached, then why would others take a harder line. This has been the reality since the beginning of the Oslo process. One senior PLO figure, its Secretary General Yasser Abed Rabbo, has just called for a halt in the talks and for the Palestinians to generate a crisis over the settlement issue. This tool has been deployed rarely and even then unsuccessfully in the past, and many Palestinians would respond that they are not doing anyone a favor by negotiating but simply trying to advance their own national interest, and that it would be an own goal to walk away from the talks. Suspending talks might also encourage Israelis to do the same over any number of issues and perhaps also ignores the power disequilibrium between the two parties.
An alternative course of action was recently suggested by Israeli Housing Minister Ze’ev Boim. In explaining why he was re-launching new settlement construction in Givat Ze’ev he noted that the work was suspended due to the outbreak of violence in the second intifida, but now that violence had ebbed, building could resume. Ipso facto, if there is enough Palestinian violence, work will be abandoned. The point was not lost on former Palestinian minister Kadura Fares in this powerful recent Ha’aretz op-ed which ended: “Mr. Boim, we got the message. Will anyone in Israel yet accuse you of incitement to rebellion and resistance?”
But Kadura Fares did not advocate violence and other Palestinian have suggested that a civil disobedience or non violent resistance campaign targeting the settlements would be the most effective course of action. That strategy has appeared fleetingly in response to the separation barrier at Bi’lin and elsewhere, but has yet to be deployed more broadly. Such an approach might have an effect on Israeli actions just as the negotiations walk-out might interestingly impact the actions of the U.S. and Quartet.
Finally, is there a bottom line? Settlements may in the end scupper the two state project, but it is too early to know and if anything, the fact that Israel evacuated all settlements in Gaza and 4 in the Northern West Bank suggests otherwise. More can be done to affect the pace and extent of settlement expansion, obviously by Israel, but also by the U.S. and Palestinians themselves. But ultimately, absent a permanent agreed border this problem will fester and frustrate. Ending the occupation will end the issue of settlements. Trying to limit or freeze settlements under conditions of an ongoing occupation has been and continues to be a thankless task.