Back to square one

Borderline Views: No settlement freeze, no significant peace talks. All of us, Israelis and Palestinians alike, will suffer the consequences.

Settlement Building 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Settlement Building 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
Whoever it was in the Prime Minister’s Office that decided on the 10-month moratorium clearly did not check his calendar. Otherwise he would have noticed that the 10 months would end in the middle of Succot, and immediately following the annual meeting of the UN General Assembly.
For the settlers, it could not have been a more opportune moment. The middle of Succot is a time when they always arrange large events. This year, festivities will focus on the renewal – both symbolic and practical – of settlement construction. Sunday’s events at Gush Etzion in the morning, and in the West Bank settlement of Revava in the afternoon attended by settlement leaders and members of the government coalition, underscored the significance of the timing. It even had a double significance for those of us who remember the original Gush Emunim march to Sebastiya during Succot 1974.
For the government, it could not have come at a worse time – shortly after the US-sponsored peace talks commenced, and just two days after the meeting of the General Assembly and the public call – seen and heard around the globe – by President Barack Obama for a continuation of the settlement freeze. Just sitting back and doing nothing, as has been the policy of the Netanyahu government this past week, has been interpreted as a clear indication that Israel is not interested in extending the freeze.
Binyamin Netanyahu was in a tough position. Personally and ideologically, he has always been in favor of settlement expansion. Tactically, he was also concerned about holding his coalition together and retaining the support of an already angry settler population. But as prime minister he wanted to remain in the good books of the international community and the American administration by at least pretending he wants to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians.
WHAT EXACTLY do we mean when we talk about a settlement freeze? Anyone who drives regularly through the West Bank will be aware that a great deal of construction continued unhampered during the past 10 months. The settlers made a great show at those sites where construction indeed ground to a halt, but for every such site there were other places, off the beaten media track, which developed at a steady pace.
The idea of a settlement freeze has been a constant theme since the first coalition agreements between Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Shamir in the mid-1980s. Whenever there was a coalition government – of which there have been many – the Labor Party always insisted on a clause which would at least limit the continued construction of settlements. This always proved to be fiction, as during that same period the Jewish population of the West Bank (not including east Jerusalem) increased from tens of thousands in the 1980s to over 300,000, with one of the most rapid periods of growth taking place during the tenure of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, at the same time the Oslo Accords were signed.
There has been an important change in the way the settler population, along with many Israelis, views the role of settlements in a peace agreement. It is clear that the critical mass, the number that would make it almost impossible for any government – even one on the extreme Left – to evacuate the entire population has been long passed. Even allowing for a redrawing of the border involving the swap of territories and the inclusion of large settlement blocs within Israel, there will still be between 60,000 and 100,000 settlers on the Palestinian side of the line. Not only is this number significantly larger than the mere 7,000 of Gush Katif who were evacuated in 2005, it also comprises the ideological hard core of settlers in such places as Kedumim, Elon Moreh, Shiloh, Eli and Ofra (to name but a few), whose opposition to evacuation will be much stronger than those living in larger urban settlements close to the Green Line, such as Betar Illit, Alfei Menashe and perhaps even Ariel, who could have been bought out for adequate compensation.
More significantly, there has been a change in the way many now view the time factor. In the past, time was always perceived as being on the side of the Palestinians.
They could simply play the waiting game while their own population, spurred by natural growth, increased much more rapidly than that of the settlers.
In demographic terms, this is still true. But the settlers have realized that if, since the signing of the Oslo agreements, their own population has more than doubled, it is no longer the demographic ratio between the two populations (which will always be in favor of the Palestinians), but the absolute numbers that make it increasingly difficult for a government to implement another forced evacuation.
They understand that every additional house, family and road make a peace agreement less plausible.
THE LABOR party will remain in the government. It will argue, as it always does, that it is better to have a restraining influence from within than to remain powerless from outside. But it is clear that it has absolutely no influence, and that its silence has been purchased for the price of a few relatively minor government positions. Its leader Ehud Barak will continue to sacrifice anything and everything so long as he can continue as defense minister.
The West Bank residents will now ensure that construction resumes at an even faster pace than before.
Peace talks will, at best, continue without any real substance.
Alternately, the Palestinian leadership will decide, given the non-renewal of the settlement freeze, to end the charade altogether, and will conveniently be blamed by the Israeli government (whose media spin doctors are ready and waiting) for destroying yet another opportunity for peace.
Our prime minister could have demonstrated true leadership and made the necessary decisions. But despite the fact that a renewal of the freeze would have greatly improved his international standing, Netanyahu chose to remain silent – a silence which can only be interpreted as an acquiescence to the demands of his right-wing coalition and the settler population.
Israel is the stronger side in this ongoing conflict and, as such, is the one able to make the critical concessions and lead the way. They should be seen as concessions from a position of strength and not, as the right wing argues, a sign of surrender.
Life will continue as normal. Settlements will expand. Palestinians will, once again, seek violent forms of resistance. The government will clamp down and pursue stronger security measures and curfews.
Back to square one. No settlement freeze, no significant peace talks. All of us, Israelis and Palestinians alike, will suffer the consequences.
The writer is professor of political geography at Ben-Gurion University and editor of the International Journal of Geopolitics.