The objectives behind settlements have mostly 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.

September 24, 2010 15:48
Building at Beitar Illit settlement

311_Beitar Illit. (photo credit: Associated Press)

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 security.

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.

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However, the security rationale for settlements is no longer valid.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.

Finally, the 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 solution.

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 solution.

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 process.

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 choose?

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.

The 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.

The writer is professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.

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