The settlers’ movement is a threat to Israel’s existence

Above the Fray: The settlements represent more than a security and political disagreement.

Settlers gather for prayer in Ramat Gilad_311 (photo credit: REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun)
Settlers gather for prayer in Ramat Gilad_311
(photo credit: REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun)
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 Knesset.
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.
This 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.
Every housing 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 units.
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 negotiations.
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 political impossibility.
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 be impossible.
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.
Netanyahu has 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 negotiations.
However, the settlements represent more than a security and political disagreement.
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 Land.
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 eradicated.
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 cancer.
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.