The Settlement Snarl

Talia Sasson’s revisiting of her scathing exposé on the establishment of unauthorized West Bank outposts seems eminently relevant today.

Talia Sasson (photo credit: COURTESY KETER BOOKS)
Talia Sasson
(photo credit: COURTESY KETER BOOKS)
TALIA SASSON, a former senior official in the State Attorney’s office, wants to revive discussion of the subject of a scathing report she authored 10 years ago, exposing alleged shady maneuvering of government officials behind the establishment of more than 100 unauthorized settlement outposts across the West Bank.
Sasson now revisits the report, which led nowhere, in a 310-page book at a time when, she feels, an upsurge in violence with the Palestinians lends new urgency to the sore topic of settlements built on occupied land – a major obstacle to failed peace efforts past.
She maintains that Palestinian opposition to the settlements is a major factor behind the violent upsurge of the past few months.
Published in November in Hebrew, the volume titled “On the Brink of the Abyss: Is the triumph of the settlements the end of Israeli democracy?” recaps Sasson’s experience mapping the outposts, which were spreading by leaps and bounds, for then prime minister Ariel Sharon. She believes that what she learned in the process of writing the report seems all the more applicable now.
Sharon had commissioned Sasson in 2004 to issue the report at a time when the United States was asking uncomfortable questions about signs of settlement expansion that would have contradicted Israel’s undertakings for a so-called peace “road map,” which ultimately led nowhere.
It turned out that the signs of settlement expansion detected by officials of the Bush Administration were due to the spread of outposts that the government never authorized, but officials were permitting settler activists to establish anyway.
The Sasson Report, issued in March 2005, found that 105 settler outposts had been built until that time since the 1990s ‒ the post-Oslo peace process agreement era when Israel stopped establishing new settlements, but continued to expand existing enclaves.
The report found government officials had in essence illegally helped the unauthorized outposts to be built. The only concrete results of her inquiry were the implementation of regulations giving the military better control to prevent the creation of more outposts, which in effect prevented more of them from being built. But most of the illegally established outposts remain in place to this day, and larger settlements have expanded in size.
Sharon, for whom the Sasson report helped satisfy queries from Washington, opted for a unilateral Gaza withdrawal instead of tackling the issue of the outposts.
The prime minister had a stroke and fell comatose only a few months after the Gaza pullout, so it’s hard to say whether or not he eventually would have tackled the West Bank issue, Sasson tells The Jerusalem Report.
The reason she’s written the book isn’t really to philosophize about paths not taken, but rather to remind the country that settlements are still a hot button issue, not only from a Palestinian perspective but from Israel’s, as well, Sasson says over coffee at a Jerusalem-area café.
The latest wave of violent confrontation only underscores how urgent it is to secure peace and how the hundreds of thousands of Israelis living in occupied territory pose a huge obstacle to securing a peace agreement that could put an end to all the hostilities, the recently named president of the left-leaning New Israel Fund asserts.
Jewish enclaves dotting much of the occupied territory, on hilltops surrounded by Palestinian cities and towns, also risk undermining the country’s future as a democracy, Sasson says. As she sees it, voicing a widely held center-left view in Israel, the threat to democracy stems from the fact that more than 2.5 million Palestinians living in the West Bank don’t enjoy the citizenship rights held by the half million or so settlers living there.
According to Sasson, no matter which side you blame for the impasse in decades of failed peace efforts, at the end of the day, Israel is sacrificing its own future by continuing to exercise control over millions of people living in an unequal status to its own citizens, who are living in what most of the world views as illegal enclaves.
“I wrote the book to hold up a mirror to the Israeli public and tell them: People, it’s time to stop, we must change direction, it’s for our own sake,” she says.
The current Israeli government doesn’t really want to give up land, namely settlements, for peace, despite Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s stated support for a two-state solution, Sasson contends.
“What exactly he thinks I don’t know, I only know what he says. A man that says he is in favor of two states for two peoples but favors the settlement enterprise is saying two contradictory things. It doesn’t go together.”
Sasson hopes her analysis will inspire Israelis to seek different leaders, though she cannot put her finger on any specific candidate.
“I think we are going to such a bad place that somebody will arise,” she says.
Sasson believes that previous Israeli leaders seemed to regard settlements more as bargaining chips for peace negotiations, rather than an end in themselves.
But national priorities seem to have shifted to a greater reluctance to giving up settlements, even if military personnel deem it smarter strategically to do so, as increasing numbers of settlers and supporters land powerful political positions, she says.
“As long as Israel controls this land as a civilian goal, not a military goal, there won’t be peace. We cannot achieve peace because both sides, the Israelis and the Palestinians, want to hold onto all of the territory.”
Sasson questions whether a majority of Israelis have actually chosen to give such high priority to settlements as have their governments. She feels that many worry more about how to afford the country’s high living costs than whether a bunch of far flung enclaves surrounded by Palestinians wind up being included within the country’s borders.
As Sasson sees it, although Israelis have opted at the polls for right-leaning parties for most of the past few decades, the country has never held a referendum per se on the settlements issue.
“Have Israeli citizens ever determined at any ballot box that the best thing for them is to have a state stretching from the Jordan to the sea, and they will rule over another people? Was a decision like that ever made? I tell you that such a decision was never made. And we are there, in a place where we have been maneuvered,” Sasson says.
She feels the entire issue of settlements has turned into an issue of domestic policy, survival of the government. “We have to distinguish clearly between the desire to control the territory of the West Bank and Israel’s security situation. I’m a patriotic Israeli, I long for security like everyone else. I don’t suggest that any government sign a peace agreement with the Palestinians and pull the army out the next morning,” she says.
Sasson envisages a peace deal with land swaps that may even allow a majority of settlers to stay in place, but for such an agreement to come about, negotiations stalled since mid-2014 must somehow be relaunched. The settlements issue has long been a key sticking point in the decades of failed US-mediated talks.
“As I see it, Israel needs, for the sake of its own interests, a Palestinian state to be established in the West Bank and Gaza Strip ‒ an entity with effective control over its territory ‒ as a way to ensure Israeli security. It’s much better than for Hamas to be there as a terrorist organization, ISIS, Islamic jihad or any other machination.
“People believe what is broadcast to them. People are showing despair over the situation [and] the ability to achieve peace with the Palestinians,” says Sasson.
REALISTICALLY SPEAKING, achieving a peace deal would only be a first step toward resolving the conflict, and may not put a quick end to the violence, though it would very likely “turn down the flame” of what is going on now, she adds.
So many years have passed since the Six Day War in 1967 when Israel captured the West Bank and Gaza, and so many settlements have been built there – around 200 – that many younger-generation Israelis are barely cognizant of the fact that Israel never annexed these territories and they’re not a part of the sovereign state.
Sasson believes a good leader could change that picture, and she feels it’s essential to do so for the sake of Israel’s own survival.
“Huge portions of the public feel that something is wrong. When you turn on the radio each morning, you hear about another Israeli who’s been stabbed to death. People ask themselves is this the vision we want? “I have hope because I see from where I sit a group of people in Israel who are ready to fight for our democracy,” says Sasson, pointing at Israelis active with human rights groups.
She slams the government for advancing a bill, promoted by Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, to rein in left-wing NGOs receiving funds from Europe, a measure that could take a bite out of funding for the New Israel Fund. Shaked has been quoted as suggesting that such NGO representatives wear tags labeling themselves as foreign agents when they’re at the Knesset.
Sasson, who took office as president of the NIF in July, the country’s largest umbrella group for left-wing organizations, called Shaked’s legislation “a terrible thing,” part of a process of “shaming” leftwing groups.
Sasson wondered why foreign donations to settlements will not be monitored as closely by the government as funding to groups that disagree with its policies.
She acknowledges that the series of violent confrontations between Hamas and the IDF since the Gaza pullout have played a major role in making Israelis more hesitant to contemplate a similar withdrawal from the West Bank, regardless of the perpetual conflict with Palestinians seeking to establish an independent state there.
“It certainly dealt a difficult blow to the readiness of the Israeli public for peace, because the public thought, ‘Look what we gave them and what happened as a result,’” she says of the Gaza disengagement.
The kibbutz-bred Sasson, 64, ran for the Knesset in 2009 with the left-wing Meretz party but didn’t win a seat. She is a descendant of Russian immigrants, who arrived in the 1920s and were among the founders of Kibbutz Kiryat Anavim on the outskirts of Jerusalem.
At the NIF, she oversees what she calls “strategic change,” aimed at sharpening the organization’s efforts to influence social change and democracy. Its goals are “to strengthen civil life in Israel, the principle of equality” among all ethnic groups ‒ Jews and Arabs, as well as among the disparate Jewish groups in Israel, including immigrant populations such as the Russians and Ethiopians ‒ and helping people in the weaker peripheral areas.
Her organization’s goals, Sasson says, are to “wipe out racism and defend Jewish- Arab cooperation, against the negative phenomena that lead to violence, hatred and fear.”
Lately, the NIF has also provided legal aid to demonstrators against such issues as the government’s controversial natural gas policy. Sasson insists NIF has no position on the natural gas issue, but only works in favor of supporting citizens’ rights to criticize and protest government policy in any domain.
“We see changes that are hurting democracy, and we want to strengthen democracy. That is what we are doing,” Sasson says.