Settlements: obstacles, excuses, opportunities

Washington Watch: Settlements are an ongoing obstacle to progress toward peace, but how the issue is used depends on the political needs of the players.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Until a few days ago, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said he would not resume peace talks with Israel unless Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu froze all settlement construction beyond the 1967 lines, including in east Jerusalem. No freeze, no talks, he said.
No way, Netanyahu responded. Then suddenly, less than two weeks ago US Secretary of State John Kerry announced the two leaders had agreed to go back to the table without the freeze.
Abbas said in a Cairo interview Monday as talks began in Washington that he still wants the construction stopped but that if Israel agrees to drawing borders essentially along the 1967 lines, it will mean the settlements will be gone. Palestinian and other documents show that in earlier talks he and his negotiators have agreed that Israel will retain the major settlement blocs in swaps for territory elsewhere.
Wherever the borders may be drawn, Abbas made it clear he wants no Israelis on his side of the line. “In a final resolution, we would not see the presence of a single Israeli – civilian or soldier – on our lands,” he told journalists in the Egyptian capital – the kind of statement certain to erode trust among Israelis.
To most of their backers, settlements have been intended to prevent Palestinian statehood, but that’s not the main reason the two sides have failed to reach an accord.
Before Israel took control of the West Bank in 1967 there was no effort to establish a Palestinian state there, and in the 10 years following there were very few settlements.
Throughout that period the Arab attitude was no negotiations, no recognition and no peace with Israel. Settlements were irrelevant.
Only after Menachem Begin and the Likud came to power in 1977 did Israel accelerate construction.
Were settlements an obstacle to peace? Yes. Intentionally.
When Ariel Sharon was in charge of construction in the Begin government in 1980, he showed me a map of where he planned to build settlements throughout the West Bank, explaining, “there’s no place to draw any lines,” meaning borders for a Palestinian state.
Settlements present another obstacle, this one undercutting Israel’s international stature and giving Palestinians a crutch to lean on.
The expansion of settlements has empowered a fringe, radical element in Israeli society that vastly compounds – intentionally – the political obstacles to a peace settlement.
Settlements could also be considered an incentive for peace. The longer Palestinians waited to negotiate a land for peace agreement, the more the land shrank. The Washington Post reported a 20 percent settler population growth in just the five years since Netanyahu and President Barack Obama came to office.
But Palestinian leaders failed to recognize that, adding new layers to the settlements problem.
Palestinians have consistently opposed settlements as an effort to block statehood, but they didn’t make a construction freeze a condition for negotiations until Obama gave them little choice. The new president bungled his attempt to restart peace talks at the beginning of his first term by demanding a freeze without fully considering political realities and how the players would respond.
Obama went out on the limb and took Abbas along; when the president recognized it was a failed strategy – for peace and for his domestic political interests – he climbed down, but Abbas was stranded, afraid following would make it appear he approved of settlement expansion.
Settlements are an ongoing obstacle to progress toward peace, but how the issue is used depends on the political needs of the players. If Abbas doesn’t want to talk, he demands a full freeze, and when Netanyahu doesn’t want to talk, he announces more building. And each one sanctimoniously points the finger of blame at the other.
So what has changed this time around? Kerry was able to use a mixture of threats and secret assurances to convince the two leaders to gloss over their differences in the interest of maintaining good relations with their ally in the White House. This round of talks is expected to go for nine months or until one side finds an excuse to walk out earlier and sanctimoniously accuse the other of not wanting to make peace.
If they really want peace, the groundwork has been laid.
The Palestine Papers, documents apparently leaked to Al Jazeera by advisers to chief PLO negotiator Saeb Erekat and published two years ago, showed how close the two sides were and that the Palestinians were much more flexible on key issues like borders, Jerusalem and refugees than previously made public.
The Netanyahu government is deeply divided over the two-state approach. The settlers and the national camp are a powerful presence not only in his coalition but his own Likud party as well.
Settlers, through their increasing use of violence and obstinate opposition to Palestinian statehood, which most Israelis support, have stirred growing resentment that they present a financial, political and security burden the country cannot afford.
Even if Netanyahu and Abbas beat all the odds and hammer out a peace agreement, that could be the easy part.
There are upwards of half a million Israelis in the West Bank today, including about 190,000 in east Jerusalem, among 2.1 million Palestinian Arabs. About 80% of those Israelis live on just the 5% of the land west of the separation barrier, most in the major settlement blocs and Jewish neighborhoods of east Jerusalem that Israel is expected to retain in a peace agreement. The remaining nearly 75,000 would have to be removed, particularly since Abbas said no Israelis would be allowed to live in Palestine.
Relocating them will be a lot more complex, costly and traumatic than the evacuation of 8,500 settlers from Gaza eight years ago. The Gaza redeployment cost about $3 billion, and many of those families still do not have permanent housing.
A 2011 report by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy estimated it could cost between $11b. and $24b. to withdraw and relocate the civilians from the West Bank, depending on the extent of the land swaps, plus billions more for military redeployment, new security measures and infrastructure.
Who will pay? In this era of sequestration and threats of draconian budget cuts at home, don’t look for the US Congress to pick up the tab.
©2013 Douglas M. Bloomfield [email protected]