Sense on settlements

Both the Left and the Right have been reluctant to distinguish between "good" and "bad" settlements.

ofra settlement 298 AJ (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
ofra settlement 298 AJ
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
In its bid to join the pre-Annapolis jockeying, the Knesset voted this week on two measures relating to settlement blocs and outposts. The first, sponsored by Kadima MK Yoel Hasson, supported settlements in high-density Jewish population areas in the West Bank. It passed 39 to 18 with the support of coalition MKs, except for the Labor Party. Labor instead supported another measure, along with Meretz, which called for the evacuation of 105 unauthorized outposts. That measure was defeated 42 to 14. All of this was somewhat predictable and largely superfluous. Yet Hasson said something unusual for a supporter of the settlement enterprise. "If we had invested energy in another city like Ariel and another Ma'aleh Adumim, and not placing another 20 caravans here and 30 caravans there, maybe the settlement blocs would be much bigger," he declared in the plenum. It is these blocs "that will determine Israel's permanent borders." This sort of thinking is somewhat refreshing given that the debate over settlements tends to be dominated by those who favor or oppose all of them. Both the Left and the Right, each for its own reasons, have been extremely reluctant to distinguish between "good" and "bad" settlements. Yet Hasson characterizes the view of many Israelis correctly when he says, "There is majority support among the public and in the Knesset to preserve the settlement blocs. ... Even the Palestinians understand there are places that Israel will not evacuate under any circumstances. There should be no argument with respect to continued development of these areas, particularly along the lines of natural growth."\ Actually, this sort of centrist position recalls the original distinction employed by the Labor Party between "security" and "ideological" settlements. Under the plan named after Labor defense minister Yigal Allon, Labor governments worked toward the goal of defensible borders - as stipulated by UN Security Resolution 242 -- by establishing 21 settlements along the Jordan Valley and the eastern slopes of the north-south ridge bisecting the West Bank. While the Labor Party has largely abandoned this position and become anti-settlement across the board (as indicated by this week's Knesset vote), the logic of its original distinction remains. In principle, a line can be drawn between settlements designed to secure Israel territorially without blocking the creation of a Palestinian state, and settlements that are designed precisely to block any sort of two-state plan. Both of the absolutist positions on settlements have been discredited and abandoned by the Israeli majority. While most Israelis are extremely skeptical that the Palestinians will be ready for peace anytime soon, most agree that it is Israel's interest not to rule over the Palestinians in the territories. The two-state concept has shifted from anathema until the late 1980s to a mainstream view today. At the same time, almost no Israeli can imagine going back to the 1967 lines and dismantling the settlement blocs. Further, following the aftermaths of the unilateral withdrawals from Lebanon and Gaza, there is little stomach for continuing with that model. Illegal outposts, however, are another matter. Israel is committed to removing them, and there is widespread agreement that such commitments, along with the need to follow the rule of law, need to be addressed regardless of the peace process or the near-complete lack of confidence in Palestinian intentions or capabilities. Given this, it makes sense that the absolutists on both side consider the logic implicitly endorsed by the Israeli consensus. This would mean "exchanging" the outposts for expansion of consensus settlements. For this plan to work, of course, one of the absolutist parties, the United States, would have to at least implicitly change its position. While President George Bush made a nod in the direction of recognizing settlement blocs in his letter to Ariel Sharon in April 2004, officially the US remains opposed to all Israeli settlements. It is time for the US, then, to discover the distinction made by the Labor Party in the 1970s and by the Israeli consensus today. There is a significant difference between settlements that hamper a two-state plan and settlements that actually encourage such an outcome, by imposing a territorial impetus for the Palestinians to end their war against Israel sooner rather than later. More explicit recognition by the US of settlement blocs would also help the process by giving Israelis confidence that a two-state plan will truly take Israel's requirement of defensible borders into account. There will be no return to the pre-1967 lines, so stubbornly sticking with a "zero settlement" policy makes a two-state plan less realistic, not more so.