George Mitchell is in town this week, along with many senior Obama administration officials. An agreement will have to be reached between Israel and the US on the settlement freeze, an issue which has created serious tensions between the two countries. Israeli officials have argued that verbal agreements were reached with the previous US administration allowing for the continued construction of housing for natural growth within existing settlements. This has been denied by US officials and regardless, a new administration is entitled to have a new policy.
There is probably no single factor which characterizes the continued occupation of the West Bank more than the settlement network.
Excluding east Jerusalem, there are approximately 300,000 residents of this region - a population which has grown through a mixture of migration from within Israel and rapid natural growth among a young, largely religious population. Since the late 1970s, there has been continued settlement expansion, regardless of whether the government in power was right-wing or left-wing.
As far back as the Oslo agreements in the mid-1990s, it was clear that the boundaries of two states with compact and contiguous territories could not be drawn without mass evacuation of the settlements. This has little to do with morality or legality, but with simple cartographic logic. The future existence of settlements in the West Bank under Israeli control would bring about territorial discontinuity, exclaves and enclaves, bypass roads for the exclusive use of either Palestinians and Israelis - in short a totally unworkable map, as the Oslo agreements proved beyond doubt.
Even a redrawing of the Israel-Palestine boundary to include many of the settlements close to the Green Line, while the Palestinian state would receive parcels of empty land in exchange, does not solve the problem. Whatever the extent of potential territorial exchange, there would always remain a hard core of the settlement network deep inside the West Bank which would have to be evacuated. These include some of the earliest and most ideological hard-core of the settlement movement - tens of thousands of settlers who would resist forced evacuation by whatever means possible, and in a more violent manner than took place during the evacuation of the Gaza settlements in 2005.
THE IDEA of a settlement freeze has been part of the political discourse for well over 20 years. It first surfaced in the mid 1980s as part of negotiations to establish a coalition government in Israel under the rotating premiership of the Likud's Yitzhak Shamir and the then head of the Labor Party, and now president, Shimon Peres. It followed a period during which a large number of new settlements had been established by the Gush Emunim movement throughout the West Bank, ever since the rise to power of the right-wing Begin administration in 1977.
The coalition agreement allowed for the continued consolidation and expansion of existing settlements, while forbidding - for the time being - the establishment of new ones. While the settler proponents opposed this freeze in public, in retrospect it proved to be the action which allowed for the many new settlements of the time to reach a reasonable threshold and economic viability.
And settlements continue to grow. This week's civil administration report shows the settler population to have passed 300,000, with the latest contribution being that of the haredi settlers - a group which had not traditionally been part of the settlement network - most of them in Betar Illit. It is not Land of Israel ideology that has attracted the haredim, but cheap housing. They would be prepared to evacuate for the right economic compensation, but given their location right next to the Green Line it is likely that future boundary redrawing would enable them to remain in situ.
The term "settlement freeze" has since been inserted into numerous government coalition agreements, but it has never hindered rapid population growth and infrastructural expansion. Some of the most rapid expansion, ironically, took place during Yitzhak Rabin's tenure in the early 1990s. Freeze has always been applied, in Israeli terminology, to the establishment of new settlements, never to the expansion of existing communities. The fact that the Obama administration has finally cottoned on to this is the main reason behind the current political tension. The myth has been exposed.
ANOTHER MYTH is the concept of "illegal outposts." The small prefabricated huts set up on hilltops throughout the region by a young, even more radical group of settler activists are now differentiated from the main settlement network. These are "illegal," while the existing permanent communities are "legal." Not only is this a convenient way around the prevention of new settlements being established (because of the so-called settlement freeze) but it also provides convenient locations for the Israeli government, every so often, to demonstrate its determination to forcefully remove these few huts under the eyes of the international media, while not touching the main settlement network.
If the government goes ahead in the next few weeks with its plans to remove a number of these outposts, it will be accompanied by much media coverage and violent opposition from the hilltop settlers and their supporters, who will be bused in from other settlements and the national religious yeshivot. It is almost certain that once the media has departed, the huts will be reestablished, or that their removal will be compensated for by the 11 new outposts being planned by the settler radicals to mark the visit of American politicians.
The settler movement has not realized its dream of Jewish sovereignty as far as the Jordan River, and it has not prevented the world - or for that matter the majority of the Israeli public - from accepting the inevitability of a Palestinian state. But it has
succeeded in making the implementation of the two-state solution as difficult as it has ever been. Obama's is the first US administration to see it for what it is, rather than be blinkered by the "freeze" terminology sold to it by Israeli officialdom.
The writer is professor of political geography at Ben-Gurion University and editor of the
International Journal of Geopolitics. He is an expert on settlement policy in the West Bank.
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