All Writings
December 4, 2000

The Folly of Israeli Settlements

For more than thirty years, successive Israeli governments, led by either Likud or the Labor party, have fallen prisoner to their own creations–the settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. When he was elected eighteen months ago with a mandate to make peace, it was hoped that Prime Minister Barak was the leader who would tell the Israeli public the truth: that there will be no peace with the Palestinians without evacuating the vast majority of the settlements. Unfortunately, this proved not to be the case.

To the disappointment of a multitude of Israelis and Palestinians, Barak treated the problem of the settlements like his predecessors did: as a monolithic political force opposing territorial concessions. This made it impossible to achieve an agreement with the Palestinians that could lead to a final accord. Instead of using his popular mandate immediately to prepare the Israeli public for the inevitable and to make the settlers part of the solution, Barak squandered every opportunity, giving the settlers false hope which led gradually and inevitably to the present disaster. Most Israelis understand that the establishment of a Palestinian state is only a matter of time and, consequently, that many of the existing 144 settlements will have to be relinquished. Although the majority of the settlers are obviously attached to their homes, fewer than 40,000 of the 175,000 settlers have an affinity to the land that transcends the economic advantages of living there. But this minority sees their presence in the land of their ancestors as fulfillment of a Messianic mission. Thus, they view the yielding of even single inch of land to the Palestinians as a betrayal of the covenant between God and his people. It is useful in this context to recall that most of the settlements were "political" in nature, built from 1977-1993 under Likud-led governments in isolated outposts near densely populated Palestinians areas, with the express purpose of altering the demographic balance in the West Bank.

Any solution to the problem of the settlements in West Bank also has to be viewed in the context of the soon-to-be established Palestinian state and will, of necessity, require a territorial link. Otherwise, the current security nightmare will be worsened for the Israelis, with conditions for both the remaining settlers and the Palestinians becoming unlivable. Those settlers who want to stay in the West Bank must relocate to one of the three blocks of settlements closest to the 1967 borders, all three of which are likely to remain under Israeli control: Gush Etzion, south of Jerusalem; Maaleh Adomim; east of Jerusalem; and Ariel, near Tel-Aviv. Settlers who refuse will have to live under Palestinian rule. Under such a formula, the Palestinians will control a contiguous land mass representing roughly 85-90 percent, of the West Bank, whereas the majority of the settlers will live on the remaining 10-15 percent to be incorporated into Israel proper. All the settlements in Gaza should be relocated. They have caused more pain, suffering and death than they warrant.

Anyone who has even a cursory appreciation of the emotional and psychological attachment of the settlers to the land of their ancestors will understand that relinquishing the settlements will cause a national trauma for the Israelis. But the question is this: Should Israel forfeit an historic opportunity for peaceful co-existence or subject the whole nation to a perpetual state of war? The experience of the past few months has starkly shown that Israel cannot have it both ways. The settlements are facts and symbols of occupation. As painful and heartbreaking as the sacrifice will be, the settlers need to view their withdrawal in the context of other alternatives, and there are none. Although it is in transition the Israeli government must now begin to provide assistance to those settlers who are ready to relocate.

The removal of the settlers, almost inconceivable only a few years ago, is now accepted by a growing majority of Israelis with resignation. If Barak wants to be re-elected in the upcoming elections scheduled for the spring of 2001, he must make the evacuation of the settlements central to his re-election platform. Otherwise Barak, or whoever else might be elected as prime minister, will be forced to evacuate the settlements under intensified Palestinian violence. This is not to suggest that Israel will be defeated in a militarily sense. It will be defeated psychologically however. The Palestinians can inflict such a heavy death-toll that they will cross the threshold deemed tolerable by Israel as a democracy. Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon should offer a very compelling lesson: that debacle further diminished Israel's military credibility, a risk Israel cannot afford to repeat. In the wake of the past few months of intense violence it would be naive and perhaps premature to suggest that Israel should not destroy any of the settlements inevitably left behind as it did to the city of Yamit after the evacuation of the Sinai. Yet for more than a generation Israel has invested billions in the West Bank. Destroying the settlements neither recovers anything nor lessens the pain of a single departing settler. Rather, it will be seen by the Arab nations as an act of blind hatred and, as such, will breed only more hatred, stifling the desire in the hearts of millions of Arabs to embrace Israel as a neighbor. Israel should leave these living "monuments" intact for the some of the Palestinians refugees displaced during decades of hostility. This will be Israel's greatest contribution to the peace of reconciliation.

The settlements that were built to entrench the Israelis in the West Bank and enhance their security have now become their albatross. Courageous and visionary leadership is sorely needed in Israel to open the public's eyes to the folly of the settlements, so that peace can come eventually within their grasp.