Into the Fray: Leibler on settlements - Right diagnosis, wrong prescription

In his recent column, Isi Leibler was spot on with his analysis regarding what Netanyahu has not done; but way off with his conclusions regarding what he should do. It is vital to understand why.

Views of Israel seen from Palestinian territories 370 (photo credit: Courtesy Hagai Nativ/Martin Sherman)
Views of Israel seen from Palestinian territories 370
(photo credit: Courtesy Hagai Nativ/Martin Sherman)
To avert disaster, Netanyahu must... seize the moment to develop a coherent and consistent government policy… to commit to intensifying construction in those areas over the Green Line which would unquestionably be retained by Israel. But in isolated settlements primarily located in the disputed territories… a status quo in relation to expansion should be maintained.
– Isi Leibler, Jerusalem Post, December 21
Any territory evacuated by the IDF will become a base for terrorist assault on Israel’s civilian population. Israel’s mistake has always been its willingness to return land acquired in wars of self-defense “for peace,” rather than put forward our national right… to live in the land of Israel.
– Steve of Mevaseret, in a Talkback to Leibler, December 21
Isi Leibler is a columnist of considerable talent. His analyses are perceptive and penetrating, and as a rule I find myself largely in agreement with his assessments of the political events in the Middle East and beyond.
Common misperceptions & misunderstandings
Yet despite my esteem for him and his work – or perhaps, because of it – I feel compelled to take issue with him over his recent column (“It is crucial Netanyahu creates a coherent settlement policy,” December 21).
Let me underscore that I am taking up this matter because the points in dispute are of general relevance for the debate on what Israel’s policy should be with regard to the Palestinian issue, particularly in light of Israel’s tarnished international image.
With all due respect to Leibler, several of the policy prescriptions that he urges Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to adopt reflect misperceptions/misunderstandings prevalent among those who deem themselves “right of center,” i.e. those who reject the Left’s unmitigated concessions but still feel that some durable agreement might be hammered out that will leave certain portions of Judea-Samaria (such as the large settlement blocs) and east Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty.
These misconceptions and misunderstandings are highly detrimental because they perpetuate the illusion that continued efforts will somehow bear fruit and a reasonable pact can be forged to end the conflict with “two states living side-by-side in peace and prosperity.”
Ignoring realities prolongs conflict
But these efforts ignore the realities on the ground and the lessons that should have been learned from the experience of the past two decades. As such they generate two harmful effects: (a) They communicate, whether explicitly or implicitly, that the Palestinians’ claims have a measure of merit and that there is potentially some value in complying with them, whether because of political pragmatism or moral principle; (b) They result in an ongoing process of Israeli concessions in the vain hope that further “goodwill gestures” or “confidence-building measures” will somehow coax the Palestinians into a negotiated resolution of the conflict.
These two elements operate to validate – indeed, stiffen – Palestinian intransigence and hence, prolong the conflict, and promote pressures for even more Israeli concessions.
Regrettably, and probably unwittingly, Leibler reinforces these unfortunate propensities by suggesting that, in the territories across the pre-1967 lines, a distinction should be drawn between areas such as “major settlement blocs and east Jerusalem,” which he – wistfully – deems “will always remain part of Israel,” and other areas which he concedes are “disputed” – but, in effect acknowledges, will not always remain a part of Israel.
But more on the far-reaching implications of this unwarranted distinction later.Correct diagnosis of Netanyahu’s policy defects
Leibler correctly diagnoses the defects in Netanyahu’s settlement policy.
He acknowledges that Netanyahu faces daunting difficulties in this regard, noting that “heading a coalition government comprised of conflicting groups ranging from Tzipi Livni’s dovish Hatnua to Naftali Bennett’s hawkish Bayit Yehudi… has made it extraordinarily difficult to develop a coherent strategy.”
This is undoubtedly true. But Leibler fails to mention that this conflicting composition of the coalition is largely a result of the atrociously dysfunctional electoral campaign Netanyahu ran, almost snatching disastrous defeat from the jaws of certain victory.
This same ineptness is reflected in Leibler’s censure of the prime minister’s performance hitherto: “Netanyahu faces ceaseless pressure from the Americans and Europeans, and is often intimidated by a rabidly hostile media and unduly influenced by fickle public opinion polls. These combined elements… result in paralysis, zigzagging and the implementation of contradictory policies… that benefit our adversaries and confuse our friends.”
He adeptly identifies the counter-productive contradictions in Israel’s Palestinian policy, chastising: “Netanyahu condemns Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority for their intransigence… Yet, in order to placate the Americans and the dovish elements of his coalition, he frequently praises Abbas as a ‘genuine peace partner.’” He adds, again with considerable justification: “the prime minister’s inconsistencies have been a major contributing factor towards alienating our allies… This erratic approach and repeated contradictory, ill-timed statements have heightened divisiveness within the country and enabled our adversaries to depict us as duplicitous.”
I couldn’t agree more.Incorrect prescription for remedy
But, while Leibler’s diagnosis of the malaise afflicting Netanyahu’s settlement policy and the difficulties facing the PM, is impeccably accurate, his prescription for its remedy is completely off target. He is demonstrably wrong in suggesting that it was the “blurr[ing of the] distinction between construction in the major settlement blocs and east Jerusalem,” and elsewhere in Judea-Samaria, which has led to “[v]irtually the entire world [being] deluded into believing that settlements represent the principal obstacle to peace.”
Quite the opposite. The real reason for much of the international misunderstanding – and hence enmity – towards Israel with regard to the Palestinian-cum-settlement issue is the abysmal performance of Israel’s public diplomacy over the past several decades, and its utter failure to convey to the world the imperative of applying Jewish (I stress “Jewish”) sovereignty over the entire Land of Israel, from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea.
In this regard, Leibler’s designation of this imperative as reflecting “maximalist positions” or “extreme-right” ideology are extremely unhelpful, to say the least.
The demand for Jewish sovereignty over the entire area across the pre-1967 Green Line is no more than the clear duty of any prudent, responsible government of Israel. For as one perceptive talk-backer, cited in the introductory excerpts, correctly notes: “Any territory evacuated by the IDF will become a base for terrorist assault on Israel’s civilian population.”
There is nothing “maximalist” or “extreme-right in advocating a policy designed to preclude such an eventuality – especially in light of the precedents. To refrain from doing so would be extreme recklessness, reflecting inexcusable disregard for the lives and limbs of Israelis.
Incorrect prescription (continued)
Leibler is right in warning that urgent action is required and that to “avert disaster, Netanyahu must now seize the moment to develop a coherent and consistent government policy,” and that if “our leaders... do not succeed in achieving minimum long-term security and… defensible borders, their failure will haunt future Israeli generations.” But the parameters of such a coherent, consistent policy are very different from those that Leibler suggests.
For focusing on large settlement blocs will not deliver defensible borders or long-term security. The strategic importance of a given location is more a function of its location and topographic features, rather than of the population resident on it.
Control of the entire western slopes of the Judean-Samarian highlands, from the approaches to the southern port city of Ashdod, via the urban sprawl of greater Tel Aviv to the fringes of Haifa in the North, is necessary to secure the heavily populated Coastal Plain, in which over 80 percent of the country’s civilian population reside and 80% of its commercial activity is conducted. Control of the areas on the crest of the highlands around Jerusalem are necessary for securing the capital; and control of the eastern slopes are imperative to secure the Jordan Valley – which as Yitzhak Rabin stipulated, even after signature of the Oslo II Accords in September 1995 – must remain Israel’s security border.
So even if some pedantic geo-strategist can demonstrate that some of the designated areas are not absolutely crucial in terms of Israel’s national security, these would never aggregate into a territorial entity that could be seriously offered to the Palestinians in a proposal that would even remotely address their demands.Less defensible than pre-’67 ‘Auschwitz borders’
To grasp just how irrelevant “the large settlement blocs” are to the creation of “defensible borders,” all one has to do is glance at a map detailing proposals for land swaps with the Palestinians that would enable all – or some – of “the large settlement blocs” to remain under Israeli sovereignty.
Whether it is the Washington Institute’s “Imagining the Border: Options for Resolving the Israeli-Palestinian Territorial Issue”; or Ehud Olmert’s purported “Peace Plan” (as per Haaretz, December 17, 2009); or the Geneva Initiative’s proposal for “Israel-Palestine Permanent Borders,” they each prove to be more hair-raising and harebrained then the next.
Not only do they all leave most to the indefeasible pre- 1967 Green Line as the permanent frontier, they propose linking the “large settlement blocs” to the Israeli “mainland” by long, tenuous fingers, entirely immersed in surrounding Palestinian territory. This not only makes them even less defensible than the indefensible “Green Line” but greatly increases the length of the country’s borders, which the IDF would have to patrol and secure – at enormous cost, in terms of both manpower and money.
But as chilling as these proposals are, they are now being discarded by obsessive two-staters in favor of even more extreme measures, which underscores the irrelevance of “large settlement blocs” for the attainment of defensible borders.Abandon rather than evict
As I pointed out in last week’s column, a new, egregious concept is beginning to insert itself into the public debate on settlements and frontiers.
Apparently despairing of any government being able to evacuate the Jewish residents from “large settlement blocs,” two-staters are beginning to tout the idea of abandoning them – whether in autonomous enclaves, or as private individuals under Arab sovereignty. I have – as promised – still to discuss the full iniquity of this invidious idea. But it should be noted that, in different forms, it is being promoted by influential and well-funded institutes such as the Hartman Institute and the INSS, and dispenses with the need for connecting “fingers” between the settlements and the rest of Israel.
Thus in the INSS paper (“Jewish Enclaves in a Palestinian State,” April 8) by Gideon Biger and Gilead Sher, we read – with disbelief: “Creation of the enclaves will reduce the need for territorial ‘fingers’ in the direction of Kiryat Arba, Ariel and Emanuel, which will reduce the amount of land needed for land swaps...
So much for the relevance of increased construction in the “large settlement blocs” for ensuring defensible borders.
The real challenge of leadership
The real challenge of leadership is not – as Leibler suggests – to seek consensus around prevailing perceptions of coalition partners, but to generate consensus around Israel’s immutable security imperatives.
One cannot really gauge Israel’s political options, or the international constraints on it, given the current feeble and often counterproductive efforts in the field of public diplomacy. For while I fully agree with Leibler’s assessment that “when negotiations collapse, we [could] face devastating repercussions,” the answer does not lie in forsaking the areas outside “large settlement blocs.” Rather it lies in what I have been advocating repeatedly in the past – a massive $1 billion (1% of the state budget) assault on international (and domestic) opinion.
The overriding objective of such an enterprise must be to delegitimize the Palestinian narrative and expose it as the bogus historical fabrication it is. It must discredit any notion of land-for-peace and Palestinian statehood.
It must drive home that between the river and the sea there can only – and eventually will – prevail either total Jewish sovereignty or total Muslim sovereignty. That is not maximalist right-wing extremism – merely sound political science.
The challenge of Israeli leadership is to convey this to the nation and the world.Martin Sherman ( is founder and executive director of the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies. (