Let it be that the settlement of Ariel becomes part of Israel’s sovereign lands. Let it be no longer considered illegal and subjected to international boycotts. Let it be that its 18,000 residents don’t have to move out in the future. Let it be that it prosper and even become a highly desired tourist attraction. The Ariel of today, however, cannot be any of these things.

It is, at the very least, located on “disputed territories.” Some – and by some I mean the entire international community – call it “occupied territories.” In any case, it should be clear to decision makers in Israel that my wishes for the future of Ariel may only be realized within the framework and aftermath of serious negotiations, which would finally delineate the borders between the State of Israel and the State of Palestine.

Ariel was founded in 1978 in the heart of the West Bank. The Ariel College was established in 1982.

This was a time when no member of the government considered the twostate solution an option. Since then, thousands of new immigrants were settled there by successive governments.

That, along with immigration from cities within Israel, made it the settlement it is today, with roughly 18,000 Jewish inhabitants.

Everything changed, however, between 1988 and 1994, a period in which the Palestine Liberation Organization adopted the two-state solution and recognized the State of Israel. In turn the Israeli government accepted that a Palestinian state would be established in the West Bank and Gaza. This marked the beginning of a race of extremists on both sides, who aim at undermining this change. On the Israeli side, the campaign against the two-state solution was championed by the Yesha Council of settlers. The focal point of this body has been to tirelessly create negative facts on the ground.

THESE EFFORTS, most notably including settlement expansion, are aimed at bypassing the stated strategy of Israel to make peace with its neighbors, or making it increasingly harder to follow through. When the government gives in to these sorts of pressures, it unilaterally changes the status quo in the West Bank. This erodes the minimal level of trust needed on both sides to return to the negotiations table.

We all recognize today that these negotiations are stuck: more than 90 percent of Palestinians don’t trust Netanyahu’s 2009 speech at Bar-Ilan University, in which he expressed support for the two-state solution for the first time, while over 70% of Israelis don’t believe the other side wants peace. Restoring confidence thus becomes a top Israeli and Palestinian interest.

Yet confidence building becomes a mission impossible when the Yesha Council calls the shots. A good example is its recent campaign to upgrade the status of Ariel College to that of a university. Unfortunately, and despite open opposition from Israel’s Council for Higher Education and numerous other groups, the pressure worked. Ariel is now recognized as a university. For the extremists, this sort of unilateral action means success. However, for the moderate majority in the region, which favors an end to the conflict, this decision means failure.

Failure, not because Ariel will be evacuated as a result of any negotiated agreement, but rather because the opposite can neither be assumed. Speaking from my personal experience in talks with a lot of Palestinians, I try to explain to them how hard, even tragic, the dissolution of large settlements such as Ariel would be for Israel. They, in turn, tell me how hard, even irreconcilable, it would be to keep those settlements in place while leaving sufficient land for a viable and contiguous Palestinian state.

In the desired but uncertain case that Ariel remains under Israeli control in the future, or even becomes a fully legitimate part of the State of Israel, unilaterally changing the facts on the ground is playing into the hands of the extremists. By granting the college university status we are causing unnecessary agitation, and are moving further away from the vision of the two-state solution.

The writer is executive director of OneVoice Israel. The OneVoice Movement leads parallel grassroots efforts in Israel and Palestine toward achieving two states for two peoples.

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