A Trojan horse in the Jordan Valley

Establishing new settlements is inconsistent with a two-state solution.

jordan valley 298.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
jordan valley 298.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Is Israel serious about wanting peace? Plans approved last week by Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak for a new settlement in the Jordan Valley provide ammunition for those who argue that the answer is no. Here are the facts: In 1982 the army established a military outpost, called Maskiyot, in the Jordan Valley. In 2002, the IDF left Maskiyot and a pre-army religious education program, with a few dozen students in temporary residence, moved in. In September 2005, settlers evacuated from the Gaza Strip settlement of Shirat Hayam announced plans to move to Maskiyot. In late December 2006, the world was shocked to learn that then-Defense Minister Amir Peretz had approved construction to accommodate them. After stinging criticism from within Israel and from abroad, Peretz froze the approval. But settlement plans never die. Today, the plan is back, possibly as part of a "deal" between Barak and the settlers. In exchange for Israel turning Maskiyot into the first new settlement in more than a decade, the settlers may consent to evacuate a few of the more than 100 illegal outposts. Rather than calling settlers to account for the stain on Israel's reputation and breach of the rule of law that the illegal outposts represent, the State is apparently instead offering them a prize. Supporters of construction in Maskiyot argue that the plan will not create a new settlement but simply change the status of an existing one. This logic violates the spirit of Israel's pledge to stop establishing settlements - a pledge made in the context of Israel's very public commitment to peace with the Palestinians. A pledge predicated on the recognition that additional settlements could fatally undermine the chances of achieving a two-state solution. LET NOBODY be fooled: Transforming a disused military site into a permanent civilian community - with all the new construction, security, infrastructure, services, and resources that this would entail - means creating a new settlement. Arguing to the contrary is trying to win the debate on a technicality. It is no accident that the settlers and their supporters are targeting the Jordan Valley. The future of this area is at the heart of the territorial aspect of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And much to the dismay of proponents of eternal Israeli control in the Jordan Valley, Jewish settlement here has never really taken root. This settler population, which has long been stagnating or even dwindling, consists of people who will mostly cooperate with, if not actively support, a future peace agreement with the Palestinians, even if it required them to leave. Given this context, it is not surprising that some observers view the Maskiyot plan as a Trojan Horse - a scheme to transplant hardcore ideological settlers from the Gaza Strip to the Jordan Valley for the express purpose of complicating, if not blocking, any future peace agreement. Indeed, a few weeks ago, we learned that the Israeli Foreign Minister had presented a map to the head of the Palestinian negotiating team, Ahmad Qurei, representing Israel's proposal for borders under a future peace agreement. The map reportedly showed the Jordan Valley - with no Israeli settlements - as part of the Palestinian state. How does this square with the Defense Minister's decision? TWO YEARS ago, cooler heads prevailed and the Maskiyot plan was frozen. Israeli officials recognized that establishing this new settlement would have contradicted Israel's stated commitment to Israeli-Palestinian peace; that it would have been a slap in the face to the U.S., which was heavily invested in promoting peace; and that it would have dealt a body blow to President Abbas and other moderate Palestinians who support Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Cooler heads are needed again, today, to stop the plan. Barak's decision must be reversed. The world is watching. And the world - including friends of Israel - knows that establishing new settlements is inconsistent with a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, now or in the future. This is a clear, bright line that supporters of the plan will not succeed in blurring, and it is a line that Israeli leaders must have the wisdom to not cross. The world is watching, and the world will be saying: No new settlements, not now, not ever. Not if Israel is serious when it tells us that it wants peace. The writers are the co-authors of Peace Now's Settlements in Focus, a bi-monthly publication. Friedman is Americans for Peace Now's director of policy and government relations. Ofran is the director of Settlements Watch.