Whoever it was in the Prime Minister’s Office that decided on the 10-month
moratorium clearly did not check his calendar. Otherwise he would have noticed
that the 10 months would end in the middle of Succot, and immediately following
the annual meeting of the UN General Assembly.
For the settlers, it could
not have been a more opportune moment. The middle of Succot is a time when they
always arrange large events. This year, festivities will focus on the renewal –
both symbolic and practical – of settlement construction. Sunday’s events at
Gush Etzion in the morning, and in the West Bank settlement of Revava in the
afternoon attended by settlement leaders and members of the government
coalition, underscored the significance of the timing. It even had a double
significance for those of us who remember the original Gush Emunim march to
Sebastiya during Succot 1974.
For the government, it could not have come
at a worse time – shortly after the US-sponsored peace talks commenced, and just
two days after the meeting of the General Assembly and the public call – seen
and heard around the globe – by President Barack Obama for a continuation of
the settlement freeze. Just sitting back and doing nothing, as has been the
policy of the Netanyahu government this past week, has been interpreted as a
clear indication that Israel is not interested in extending the
Binyamin Netanyahu was in a tough position. Personally and
ideologically, he has always been in favor of settlement expansion. Tactically,
he was also concerned about holding his coalition together and retaining the
support of an already angry settler population. But as prime minister he wanted
to remain in the good books of the international community and the American
administration by at least pretending he wants to reach a peace agreement with
WHAT EXACTLY do we mean when we talk about a settlement
freeze? Anyone who drives regularly through the West Bank will be aware that a
great deal of construction continued unhampered during the past 10 months. The
settlers made a great show at those sites where construction indeed ground to a
halt, but for every such site there were other places, off the beaten media
track, which developed at a steady pace.
The idea of a settlement freeze
has been a constant theme since the first coalition agreements between Shimon
Peres and Yitzhak Shamir in the mid-1980s. Whenever there was a coalition
government – of which there have been many – the Labor Party always insisted on
a clause which would at least limit the continued construction of settlements.
This always proved to be fiction, as during that same period the Jewish
population of the West Bank (not including east Jerusalem) increased from tens
of thousands in the 1980s to over 300,000, with one of the most rapid periods of
growth taking place during the tenure of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, at the
same time the Oslo Accords were signed.
There has been an important
change in the way the settler population, along with many Israelis, views the
role of settlements in a peace agreement. It is clear that the critical mass,
the number that would make it almost impossible for any government – even one on
the extreme Left – to evacuate the entire population has been long passed. Even
allowing for a redrawing of the border involving the swap of territories and the
inclusion of large settlement blocs within Israel, there will still be between
60,000 and 100,000 settlers on the Palestinian side of the line. Not only is
this number significantly larger than the mere 7,000 of Gush Katif who were
evacuated in 2005, it also comprises the ideological hard core of settlers in
such places as Kedumim, Elon Moreh, Shiloh, Eli and Ofra (to name but a few),
whose opposition to evacuation will be much stronger than those living in larger
urban settlements close to the Green Line, such as Betar Illit, Alfei Menashe
and perhaps even Ariel, who could have been bought out for adequate
More significantly, there has been a change in the way many
now view the time factor. In the past, time was always perceived as being on the
side of the Palestinians.
They could simply play the waiting game while
their own population, spurred by natural growth, increased much more rapidly
than that of the settlers.
In demographic terms, this is still true. But
the settlers have realized that if, since the signing of the Oslo agreements,
their own population has more than doubled, it is no longer the demographic
ratio between the two populations (which will always be in favor of the
Palestinians), but the absolute numbers that make it increasingly difficult for
a government to implement another forced evacuation.
They understand that
every additional house, family and road make a peace agreement less
THE LABOR party will remain in the government. It will argue,
as it always does, that it is better to have a restraining influence from within
than to remain powerless from outside. But it is clear that it has absolutely no
influence, and that its silence has been purchased for the price of a few
relatively minor government positions. Its leader Ehud Barak will continue to
sacrifice anything and everything so long as he can continue as defense
The West Bank residents will now ensure that construction
resumes at an even faster pace than before.
Peace talks will, at best,
continue without any real substance.
Alternately, the Palestinian
leadership will decide, given the non-renewal of the settlement freeze, to end
the charade altogether, and will conveniently be blamed by the Israeli
government (whose media spin doctors are ready and waiting) for destroying yet
another opportunity for peace.
Our prime minister could have demonstrated
true leadership and made the necessary decisions. But despite the fact that a
renewal of the freeze would have greatly improved his international standing,
Netanyahu chose to remain silent – a silence which can only be interpreted as an
acquiescence to the demands of his right-wing coalition and the settler
Israel is the stronger side in this ongoing conflict and, as
such, is the one able to make the critical concessions and lead the way. They
should be seen as concessions from a position of strength and not, as the right
wing argues, a sign of surrender.
Life will continue as normal.
Settlements will expand. Palestinians will, once again, seek violent forms of
resistance. The government will clamp down and pursue stronger security measures
Back to square one. No settlement freeze, no significant
peace talks. All of us, Israelis and Palestinians alike, will suffer the
consequences.The writer is professor of political geography at
Ben-Gurion University and editor of the International Journal of Geopolitics.