Settlement construction in the West Bank has historically served four main
objectives: greater security, a stronger connection to ancient biblical lands, a
better way of life for residents and pressure on the Palestinians to accept the
reality of Israel’s existence. Today, each of these goals has been largely met.
The settlement enterprise has therefore run its course. It now represents an
albatross that threatens to thwart the chance to achieve lasting peace and
Israelis have long argued that settlement construction has
enhanced security. Indeed, in areas surrounding Jerusalem, construction
has expanded Jewish settlement, providing a buffer of security against attacks.
Similarly, settlement construction in the West Bank was intended to broaden the
border eastward to provide greater area and security, particularly along the
central coast, where the distance between the Mediterranean Sea and the West
Bank measures approximately only eight miles.
However, the security
rationale for settlements is no longer valid. The combination of the
construction of the security fence and the strengthening of Palestinian security
forces in the West Bank has significantly enhanced Israel’s
security. Furthermore, the long-range rocket fire of Hizbullah has shown
that incremental appropriations of land will not significantly enhance security
against short or long-range threats.
THE SETTLEMENTS have also been
created and expanded with the support and fervor of religious nationalists
seeking to settle the biblical lands of Judea and Samaria. Driven by messianic
fervor, these settlers believe that the messiah will come when Jews have
returned to the biblical lands. In this regard, they have been successful in
advancing understandings that major settlement blocs, including environs
surrounding Jerusalem, will ultimately be incorporated into Israel. Having done
so, however, religious nationalists must now begin to question whether God
intended for the land to be characterized by dominance and submission, or by
prosperity and peace. In this regard, instead of calling for exclusive Israeli
control over holy areas in ancient Judea and Samaria, religious nationalists
should come to realize the need to create a Palestinian state to preserve secure
access for both Jews and Muslims to such sites.
The settlements have also
been expanded to provide greater livelihoods for Israeli citizens. An estimated
one-third of the West Bank settlers have moved to these areas because of
economic incentives provided at times by the government and advocacy
organizations. However, today, widespread settlement activity simply does not
make economic sense – for individual citizens or the
government. Settlements beyond the major blocs are likely to be
evacuated. Any investment in continuing to build beyond the blocs amounts to
wasted resources that should be allocated to strengthening the core of Israeli
society, and preparing for the reintegration of settlers who must inevitably
return to Israel proper as part of a peace agreement.
settlements have served to pressure Palestinians to accept Israeli control of
the land, and ultimately accept the permanence of the Jewish state. Toward this
end, Israel has also succeeded. Today, the Palestinian Authority in the West
Bank has accepted Israel’s right to exist, the principle of land for peace and a
two-state solution in which Israel and a Palestinian state would live
side-by-side in peace and security. To be sure, extremist elements devoted to
Israel’s destruction remain – notably Hamas in Gaza – yet a majority of
Palestinians polled consistently support the notion of a two-state
WITH THESE core objectives achieved, efforts to continue to
rapidly extend the settlement enterprise across the West Bank, upon the
conclusion of the settlement moratorium on September 26, would serve to
undermine the security of the state and must be abandoned. Continuing
construction beyond the core settlement blocs would send the international
community a clear and distinct message: Israel is not serious about a two-state
It has long been estimated in various negotiation rounds that
more than 80 percent, representing more than 300,000 West Bank settlers, are
likely to stay in their homes following a twostate agreement. These settlers
represent those in the settlement blocs and Jerusalem environs that Israel will
not abandon due to strong biblical and political beliefs. Israel cannot claim to
desire peace on the one hand, and build in areas known to be a part of future
Palestinian state on the other.
Not extending the freeze beyond the blocs
will harm national security, further international isolation and boost efforts
to delegitimize the Jewish state.
Through continued settlement building,
Israel is sending a message that it is not serious about peace, and is
inadvertently providing fuel to radical extremists who are seeking to recruit
terrorists to commit violent acts and thwart any semblance of the peace
Renewed tensions with the US could also emerge, and positive
gestures by the Arab states – including the Arab League’s endorsement of direct
negotiations – could be reversed. Furthermore, the international campaign to
delegitimize Israel’s right to exist would be intensified as a result of
continued settlement expansion.
To avoid such a scenario, Prime Minister
Binyamin Netanyahu must place national interests above his coalition concerns.
In this respect, he is being tested: Does he have the conviction and leadership
qualities necessary to achieve a two-state solution, or will he be held hostage
by domestic politics?
He should show leadership now by communicating Israel’s
position clearly, which should include a land swap that would incorporate the
vast majority of settlers in the major blocs into Israel proper, an option for
some of the religious settlers to stay within a Palestinian state through an
agreement with the Palestinians and for the negotiations to begin to immediately
address the issue of borders. Negotiating the borders now is particularly
important as it would eliminate the questions as to which lands will belong to
Israel and which to the Palestinian state. Moreover, it will allow the continued
expansion of settlements that will be incorporated into Israel proper early in
the process, before settling every other issue.
Netanyahu has the
political strength to present such a platform; with Kadima waiting in the wings
as a potential coalition partner, he should demonstrate such leadership to
achieve a two-state solution. The only question now is which path he will
Critics argue that the Palestinians rejected Israel’s 10-month
moratorium and only now are raising its importance. This argument
suggests that as Israel makes concessions – like freezing construction – it has
received little to nothing in return, with the Palestinians staying out of
negotiations for months before being coaxed by the US to participate in direct
talks. Others argue that Israel has not had to freeze construction in the past
for peace talks to be advanced – so why now? The answer is simple: to show that
this time Israel is committed to doing all it can to create an environment
conducive to achieving a lasting agreement.
Furthermore, after years of
negotiating with Israel while it simultaneously settled land in the West Bank,
the Palestinians must show their people – who are as skeptical as Israelis about
the current peace talks – that this time is indeed different.
objectives of the settlement enterprise have generally been
achieved. Today, its continuation in areas which will inevitably be part
of a Palestinian state would place Israel’s security, and the nascent peace
process, in jeopardy. The US and the international community are watching
closely to see how Netanyahu reacts to this test of his leadership. He has the
tools to succeed—now he must show that he has the conviction.
is professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU.
He teaches international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.