Israel should retain settlements as a deterrence strategy

Israel must make it understood that it will continue to forfeit territory to those who embrace peace, but conversely those who attack it will pay the price of losing territories.

jp fron 1967 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
jp fron 1967
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
One of the tenets of current conventional wisdom has been that “the settlements are obstacles to peace,” i.e., that getting rid of the West Bank settlements would mean peace would reign in the Middle East. Prior to the 1967 war of course, there were no Israeli settlements. The only territories that were labeled by the Arabs as being “occupied” were the existing towns and villages within Israel proper – areas that were not even officially recognized by the Arabs.
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The accidental blessing that emerged from the present West Bank settlements is that they displaced their predecessors - the old established settlements in Israel proper - from the epithet of “occupied.” With the exception, of course, of extremist groups such as Hamas who continue to claim that both categories constitute occupied territories. Thus, the psychosis sweeping the world that purports “imminent peace if settlement activity is ceased” rings as hollow as a joke that isn't funny.
The negative attitudes of Arabs towards Israel have never depended on the fortunes of Jewish settlements in any part of the land; it was always the establishment of Jewish roots – which for the Arabs signaled permanence – that generated rejection. The proof of this can be seen today across the Palestinian spectrum. On one end the “moderate” Palestinian Authority still educates its children that Israeli cities like Haifa and Tel Aviv are in fact Palestinian cities, while Hamas on the other, calls for the removal of the Jewish state from the Arab land of Palestine.
During the second Camp David in 2000, former prime minister Ehud Barak had offered former PLO leader Yasser Arafat a near-total withdrawal of Israel from 95% of the territories in return for his commitment to the finality of the conflict. Of course Arafat refused, because such a withdrawal would not have put an end to Israel’s rootedness in the land.
In 2005, Israel went even further by evacuating the Israeli settlements in Gaza in their entirety, but instead of peace the result was continued violence against the surrounding Israeli towns. The fatal lesson that was drawn from the disengagement is that retreating from “peace-threatening” settlements by no means ensures the safety of towns in Israel proper.
We know now that fear was one of the chief factors that propelled former Egyptian president Anwar Sadat to venture into Israel in 1977 and sign a peace treaty. Sadat was consumed with a very real concern that should he procrastinate any longer, the Israeli settlements in the Sinai - which housed several thousand Israelis in the townships of Ophira and Yamit among others - would grow into cities that would eventually become .impossible to uproot. Sadat understood that if enough years would elapse, what happened in Ashkelon and Jaffa after 1948 could also apply to the Sinai., However, Sadat’s fears were laid to rest when he realized that 15 years of Israeli settlement could easily be reversed in exchange for a commitment to peace.
The Palestinians and the Syrians have failed to learn that lesson. They thought that because their territories were “inalienable,” they would lose nothing by continuing to sabotage peace efforts through procrastination.. In both cases they lost territories as a result of their own aggression in 1967, but this did little to faze them. They remained convinced that upon regaining strength they would be able to gain possession of their bygone territories.
Under that thinking, not only did they become obtuse to the cost of their aggression - which might have otherwise deterred them from another war in case they should lose again - but rather were encouraged to keep on trying.
If this is the case, it is up to Israel then to enable the strategic deterrence of future wars. It can achieve this by making it understood unequivocally that those who launch war against the Jewish state will pay the price of losing territories. On the other hand, Israel will continue to forfeit territory to those who embrace peace deals
Just like at the end of World War II when the boundaries of aggressive Germany were curtailed and those of its victims expanded at its own expense, Israel must permanently retain parts of the aforementioned territories. Doing so serves the twin function of punishing aggressors for the cost of war they precipitated on Israel and deterring future attacks.
The Arabs of the region must learn that they stand to lose when they attack, and lands lost may be deemed irretrievable at a future date. Thus, until a peace agreement is reached, only intensive settlement activity from Israel can provide a strong enough incentive for the Arabs – be they Palestinian or Syrian - to hurry back to the negotiating table.
The writer is a professor of Islamic, Middle Eastern and Chinese history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem  and a member of the steering committee of the Ariel Center for Policy Research.