Obama-era diplomat questions if all settlements are an obstacle to peace

US President Trump has characterized Israel’s settlement activity as “unhelpful” to the pursuit of peace, and asked Israeli PM Netanyahu to “hold off” on their growth last spring.

November 30, 2017 14:18
3 minute read.
Netanyahu and Obama

US PRESIDENT Barack Obama meets Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office of the White House in November 2015.. (photo credit: KEVIN LAMARQUE/REUTERS)


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TAKAYAMA, Japan – Settlement growth is a solvable issue in negotiations toward a twostate solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and does not represent the obstacle to peace that many have portrayed, an expert and former US diplomat under the Obama administration said this week.

Unveiling a project two years in the making titled “Settlements and Solutions,” David Makovsky, director for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s project on the Middle East peace process, argued that maps are our best guide to a comprehensive solution to the conflict. Accompanying an interactive website detailing population trends along Israel’s security barrier and throughout the West Bank, Makovsky adds context and numbers that outline precisely who lives where, and what it means.

His project sheds light on the subtleties of a story often told in black-and-white terms. He explains that growth is sporadic and disjointed, and notes that the politics of those pockets of settlement with the highest birth rates are more pragmatic than some might assume.

It’s an argument he made consistently as a senior adviser on former secretary of state John Kerry’s Mideast peace team, during its push for peace talks in 2013 and 2014. That push ended in failure. But in the process, the “Makovsky maps” became known to Israeli officials – maps that have now been made public through the Washington think tank.

The goal of the project is to spur a “more differentiated settlement conversation,” Makovsky said in an interview with The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday.

“They’re not evenly distributed,” Makovsky said of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. “Right now, people look at settlements in this absolutist way.”

“Once you understand that, you understand there’s a way,” he added. “I’m not saying there’s political will. But there’s a way.”

Makovsky will be meeting with US officials to discuss his findings. But more generally, his goal is to challenge the current conversation dynamic.

“I don’t see the basis for a grand deal between these leaders – the Venn diagram doesn’t overlap sufficiently,” he said. “What’s required is to get into the gut fears of the two sides. For the Israeli side, it’s about incitement and terrorism. On the Arab side, it’s about land.”

“The whole idea of maps is basically to give people a sense of how you maintain a settlements policy while maintaining the viability of a peace agreement in the future,” he added.

Kerry, Makovsky’s former boss, did not buy his argument, warning in his final address as secretary of state that continued settlement growth was the death knell to a two-state solution – and noting that leaders of the settler movement themselves acknowledge this as their goal. Since leaving office, Kerry has claimed that Israel is on the road to becoming an apartheid state, in which an ethnic minority undemocratically rules the minority.

But the study found that out of 139 Israeli settlements in the West Bank, just two – Modi’in Illit and Beitar Illit, with populations of 69,000 and 56,000, respectively, as of June 2017 – now account for almost 30% of all West Bank settlers and 46% of the growth over the last year.” Makovsky writes in his findings that the most “minimalist” proposals put forth by the Palestinian leadership cede these two blocs – both adjacent the 1967-era Green Line – to Israeli control.

He further notes that these two growing settlements are inhabited mostly by the ultra-Orthodox – not by religious Zionists who claim West Bank land as their own by biblical right. “Settlers are not a monolith,” Makovsky writes, noting that the political implications of their growth are nuanced: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, for example, performs markedly better at the polls with those inside the security barrier compared with those across it.

Makovsky suggests the Trump administration embrace these demographics by pushing the Israeli government to take a harsher line against settlers further out into the West Bank who support outright annexation of the land, in exchange for US acceptance of those settlement blocs that will ultimately be “swapped” into Israel along the Green Line.

Trump has characterized Israel’s settlement activity as “unhelpful” to the pursuit of peace, and last spring asked Netanyahu to “hold off” on their growth. His team is currently formulating specific policy proposals for its own peace initiative to be rolled out over the coming months. But they have not specifically condemned each housing development announced in Jerusalem, as the Obama administration had.

“This is an effort not to prescribe a solution,” he said, “but to try to understand that not all settlers are the same.”

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