The attack on an Israeli military base in the West Bank by hard-line Jewish
settlers must not be seen as an isolated incident that can be dealt with simply
by punishing the perpetrators, as Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said in the
This dangerous and most deplorable incident is a byproduct of
the hypocritical settlement policies Netanyahu and his hard-core coalition
partners have zealously been pursuing for the past three years. Netanyahu
condemns the attacks on settlers while such policies continue to focus on the
rapid expansion of the settlements, further strengthening the settlers’
movement, which, for all intents and purposes, has acquired de facto veto power
over policies affecting the future disposition of the West Bank.
will not be the last such incident and is bound to escalate to the detriment of
Israel’s very existence as long as the settlement issue remains the most
contentious issue between Israel and the Palestinians.
Any future peace
agreement will require the evacuation of scores of settlements scattered
throughout the West Bank. Here is why: Far more than a manifestation of the
territorial dispute between Israel and the Palestinians, the settlement problem
is intertwined with Israeli and Palestinian identities.
unit built beyond the 1967 Green Line has physical, psychological and political
ramifications, making the issue a formidable obstacle to overcome if a twostate
solution is to be achieved.
From the Palestinian perspective, the
settlement issue is the albatross that undermines any prospect for a viable
Palestinian state. Since the Oslo signing of the Declaration of Principles in
September 1993, the number of Israeli settlers in the West Bank has nearly
tripled, from approximately 116,000 in 1993 to over 300,000 today. This number
does not include more than 200,000 settlers in east Jerusalem, where
Palestinians seek to establish a capital for their state, and where the
Netanyahu government continues to build thousands of new housing
Physically, settlement construction confiscates land that
Palestinians seek for their future state, bit by painstaking bit.
Psychologically, construction sends the Palestinians a clear message: that
Israel does not accept their claim to the land or their national aspirations,
and has no interest in a two-state solution. Herein lies the rationale for the
continued Palestinian insistence on a complete Israeli settlement freeze in both
the West Bank and east Jerusalem prior to their entering into
From the Palestinian view, if Israel were truly willing to
accept a Palestinian state, it would cease its construction that encroaches
further into would-be Palestinian territory.
Prime Minister Netanyahu and
his cabinet ministers reinforce the Palestinian assertions that Israel is not
interested in accepting a Palestinian state by continually invoking Israel’s
historic connection to the West Bank by referring to its biblical Hebrew name,
“Judea and Samaria,” a position that strengthens the fervent nationalist
settlers who believe they have biblical birthright to live wherever they choose
in the West Bank.
Politically, continued settlement construction has
moved Palestinian leaders further away from compromise with Israel. For any
Palestinian leader to enter into negotiations without a construction freeze
would amount to political suicide. As more Palestinians question whether
negotiations can truly lead to a Palestinian state, compromising on an issue
that contradicts the very notion of the creation of their state has become a
From Netanyahu’s perspective, settlement
construction is linked with national identity.
He has repeatedly placed
the idea of Palestinians accepting Israel “as a Jewish state” at the center of
the deliberations over renewing peace talks. From his perspective, until the
Palestinians and the Arab world accept the legitimacy of this claim, peace will
Furthermore, Netanyahu can easily point to his 10-month
construction freeze, during which time Abbas failed to enter into negotiations,
as a justification for his refusal to accept another freeze, especially if it
includes east Jerusalem.
NETANYAHU FUNDAMENTALLY differs from his
predecessors, Ehud Olmert, Ariel Sharon and Ehud Barak, who used the word
“occupation” to describe Israel’s continued hold on the West Bank. Netanyahu
does not view the ancient Jewish lands of “Judea and Samaria” (and certainly not
east Jerusalem) as occupied and thus does not believe them to be off-limits to
Jewish construction. This explains why he has expended so much political capital
in opposing a settlement freeze, despite continued pressure from Washington and
the international community.
Netanyahu hypocritically condemns the
attacks against settlers while simultaneously justifying his refusal to freeze
construction by linking the settlements to Israel’s national security, which an
increasing number of Israelis accept at face value.
repeatedly claimed that Israel cannot accept “indefensible borders,” based on
the 1967 lines. He highlights that Israel would be only nine miles wide if it
were to relinquish its territory in the West Bank. However, this security
argument is undermined by the reality that for any agreement to be reached,
Israel will have to relinquish land.
Unless Netanyahu claims that a 12-
or 15- mile width is more “defensible” with today’s missile technology than a
nine-mile width, it is difficult to comprehend what Netanyahu’s “defensible
borders” look like without a continued, substantial Israeli military presence in
the West Bank.
If the dispute over settlements was solely based on
security or political issues, it could be reconciled through good-faith
However, the settlements represent more than a security and
The issue is viewed as a matter of the inherent
historical rights and existence of each side. This is what makes this conflict
so intractable and this is precisely why the hard-line settlers feel that no one
can impede their activities, including the military, which is stationed there
for their protection.
All of this begs the question: Will the Netanyahu
government recognize that its blind policy on the settlements has set the stage
for further escalation of violent confrontations not only between the settlers
and the Palestinians but between the settlers and the Israeli military? There is
no doubt that Jews will kill other Jews in the name of a messianic mission.
Those who think that this simply is unthinkable, better think again. Nothing
will stop the zealot settlers as long as they believe that they are pursuing
God’s mission and that the Almighty is testing their resolve, tenacity and
willingness to sacrifice before He once again grants them the Promised
This is no longer just a small group of criminals and vandals who
are out to burn or daub inflammatory graffiti on the walls of Palestinian
mosques or vandalize an Israeli military base. This is a clear manifestation of
a movement determined to control any future political agenda in the West Bank
and will not be, as Netanyahu seems to believe, easily
Notwithstanding the Netanyahu’s government “revulsion” at the
settlers’ criminal acts, these settlers know where Netanyahu and his cohorts
really stand as long as the government continues to authorize construction of a
new housing in the heart of Palestinian neighborhoods. What is needed here are
fundamental policy changes that must first cease construction and secondly
commit in deeds (and not in empty rhetoric) to a two-state solution, or the
Netanyahu government runs the risk of the settlements becoming a self-consuming
The behavior of these radical settlers must be condemned in the
strongest possible terms, but the real culprits are not the settlers but the
Netanyahu government, which was committed from day one to defying the
Palestinian reality and the international community and has, above all, engaged
in excessive self-denial to the detriment of Israel’s future. No one but
Netanyahu is to blame for this horrifying development. If he has one ounce of
integrity left in him he should resign.The writer is professor of
international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches
international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.