A deplorable decision

The government remains committed to building settlements rather than peace.

Arab construction workers atop a building in the Tekoa settlement. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Arab construction workers atop a building in the Tekoa settlement.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
THE GOVERNMENT’S late August decision to declare 1,000 acres in the Etzion Bloc area “state land” could not have come at a worse time. It has left the Palestinians furious, dismayed cabinet ministers on the center left and incurred wall-to- wall international condemnation.
None of this is surprising. It is clear to everyone that the move is dramatic and will have far-reaching implications. For starters, it undermines plans to restart peace negotiations between Israel and the moderate forces in the Palestinian Authority.
Worse: The location and size of the land in question makes prospects for a future two-state solution even more remote than they already are.
Not since the 1980s has such a great swath been declared state land. Despite Israel’s clear interest in bolstering its ties with the international community and strengthening Palestinian moderates, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seems ready to bow to the dictates of the powerful settler lobby and to satisfy its ever growing appetite – at Israel’s expense.
For the past 20 years, Israel has studiously refrained from taking action of this kind. Now, when what is needed is a political initiative to boost PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s public standing and offset Hamas efforts to portray itself as the savior of the Palestinian people in the wake of the Gaza war, Netanyahu makes a land grab. Already facing harsh Palestinian criticism for being too soft on Israel, how is Abbas supposed to explain this latest manifestation of the Netanyahu government’s aggression and disregard? While Abbas tries to moderate his constituency, Netanyahu humiliates him in public. This is almost certain to drive Abbas away from dialogue with Israel and toward unilateral international action, like joining international conventions and organizations, hoping to force Israel to freeze settlement construction and withdraw from the territories within a specified time frame.
According to international law, declaring an area “state land” requires the sovereign power to allocate the land for the common good – in other words, for the benefit of the entire population in the designated area. But it’s no secret that when it comes to the territories in the West Bank, the only ones to benefit from state land are settlers. The Palestinians won’t get a single acre.
For Palestinians to use the land they would have to prove private ownership; the settlers won’t have to prove anything. The default situation from now on is that they can settle and build wherever they like in the new area. And this time the land in question is equal to the size of an entire Israeli town.
Government spokes - people claim the state land declaration won’t impinge on any future peace deal with the Palestinians because the area is in one of the large settlement blocs that would remain part of Israel in any conceivable agreement.
This is misleading. The land in question is in dispute and both sides lay claim to it.
Although it is close to Israeli settlements in the Etzion Bloc, most of it is uninhabited and there are also Palestinian villages in the vicinity.
The right way to proceed would have been through negotiations, not unilateral annexationist steps. The Palestinians proposed negotiating a territorial agreement within four months, after which each party would be free to build in all the areas within its putative borders.
Many in Israel and across the world hoped the Gaza war would change things and drive home the need for Israelis and Palestinians to open a new chapter and prevent the next war by launching a meaningful peace process.
For a few fleeting moments, there was even a sense that Netanyahu understood this and was ready to explore new diplomatic openings. But the land grab proves that in Jerusalem, at least, nothing has changed and the government remains committed to building settlements rather than peace.
The ball is in the international community’s court. Only international pressure will prevent another “state land” declaration soon.