Five benefits to a settlement freeze

Now is the time for Israel to define the contours of a secure settlement freeze, discuss it with the settler movement, the US, the EU, Arab nations, and, if possible, the PA.

HOUSES IN the Jewish community of Efrat (photo credit: REUTERS)
HOUSES IN the Jewish community of Efrat
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Israel should unilaterally freeze settlement construction for one year.
Such a freeze provides at least five distinct benefits for Israel. There are also risks such as potentially seeming to reward terrorism or show weakness. But in this case the benefits outweigh the risks.
Of course, the very definition of “settlement freeze” is unclear. Israel does not build new settlements. It does build within those settlements that do exist and are likely to remain within Israel’s control as part of any peace treaty and those that exist outside the area likely to remain under Israeli control. There is the question of building for “natural growth,” that is, for example, expanding buildings because of additional children being born in these settlements. Israel builds in greater Jerusalem and does not intend to stop. There are so-called illegal outposts. That is, legally defining a “settlement freeze” is itself a problem; Israel will not freeze in the maximalist way the Palestinian Authority wishes, and however much of a freeze Israel can offer within the realities of security and politics it will not be deemed enough by the PA.
Despite these problems, Israel should define a freeze on its own terms which allow for maximum security and then implement that freeze for a year. Security in this case means no withdrawal of IDF forces. Even if Israel concludes that a freeze include incentives for those living in outposts to leave, that does not mean that troops should also depart as happened in Gaza.
What does Israel get out of doing this? Here are five benefits listed in order of least important for Israel to most important:
1) A freeze may propel efforts toward a secure peace. While some observers believe a settlement freeze is the key to re-starting peace negotiations, I remain highly skeptical. I’m with those who don’t think settlements are the impediment to peace but rather focus on the Palestinian Arab refusal to recognize a secure Jewish nation as the real obstacle.
Still, I may be wrong. Maybe a freeze would be just what is needed to push the PA to negotiate and to lead to enhanced Israeli security and separation from a hostile population. As long as there is no security risk taken, it does Israel no harm and may, however remote the possibility, do Israel some good.
2) A freeze will improve relations with the European Union. Recently, the European Commission issued guidelines requiring Israeli producers to replace “Made in Israel” with “Israeli Settlement” labels for various goods that come from settlements if those goods are sold in the EU. These products include fresh fruit and vegetables, wine, honey, olive oil and others. However unfair such an effort is, it is nevertheless potentially dangerous. It provides a victory for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement and incentive for the labeling of additional products in the EU. Additionally, the EU is important in terms of United Nations activities. A settlement freeze may stop any possible momentum from the effort to label settlement goods and give pause to hostile European efforts at the UN.
3) A freeze will help Israel get through Barack Obama’s final year in office.
Obama will remain president of the United States until January 20, 2017. A settlement freeze will reduce tensions with the president which will be helpful, for example, at the UN. To his credit, President Obama has provided weaponry and as Israel negotiates aid from the United States, a relationship with reduced friction remains in the interests of both countries. It should be noted, however, that a settlement freeze in this American political context could also backfire. An incoming president may expect the freeze to continue or see such a freeze as normal. It therefore makes sense to limit the time of a freeze to one year and declare at its inception that if no progress is made in that year there will be no more freezes.
4) A freeze may enhance the possibility of regional cooperation with friendly Arab nations. There are obvious signs that Israel and various Arab nations see the value of cooperating against the widening influence of Iran in the region.
These nations are inhibited from more public cooperation by the status of the Palestinian Arabs. A settlement freeze may provide just the sort of cover to deepen such relationships.
5) A freeze will provide Israel with some much-needed time to reflect. Israel needs to consider the future of the disputed territories. Does Israel want to annex those lands? Does it want to withdraw from them? Does it want to maintain the status quo and hope for the best? Does it have another alternative? Pondering these questions requires a time-out, a moment of quiet, and a settlement freeze can provide that. Additionally, Israel can use such a time to gather data necessary for making crucial decisions. For example, it would be very useful to have a demographic survey of all land west of the Jordan River. How many Palestinian Arabs live there? These demographic facts are important in making any choices.
For these and perhaps other reasons, now is the time for Israel to define the contours of a secure settlement freeze, discuss it with the settler movement, the US, the EU, Arab nations, and, if possible, the PA. Then it is time to implement the freeze.
Doing so may benefit others. But crucially, a freeze will provide multiple benefits for Israel.
The author’s latest book, The Dream of Zion: The Story of the First Zionist Congress, will be published in January.