All Writings
April 11, 2005

The Settlements Albatross

Other than the future of the Old City of Jerusalem, the Israeli settlements, in the West Bank in particular, have been the most intractable problem of the peace process. The Sharon-led coalition (with Labor) may be in the best possible position to decide about the ultimate disposition of a large cluster of these settlements which may sooner than later become the Achilles’s heel of the Israel-Palestinian peace negotiations. Mr. Sharon may have to yield some ground on this critical issue when he meets with Mr. Bush at the president’s ranch in Crawford, Texas.

Once Prime Minister Sharon successfully completes his planned withdrawal from Gaza, and if the current Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire generally holds, he will be under intense pressure to produce a plan B regarding the future of many of the West Bank settlements. The pressure will come not only from the Bush administration, which must breathe new life into the Road Map, but also from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas who will be hard pressed to demonstrate clear progress on ending the activity of the settlements scattered throughout the West Bank. If the planned removal of the settlers from Gaza demonstrates, however, the intensity of the opposition in Israel and the intractability of the problem, it will pale compared to the uncompromising diehard stand of many West Bank settlers. Successive Labor and Likud-led governments are to blame for the albatross that hangs around Israel’s neck, and now they must figure a way out of a mess with the potential of tearing apart Israeli society.

From the time the first Israeli settlement was built in the West Bank more than 35 years ago, a mixture of national security concerns, ideological zeal, religious convictions, and political circumstances have motivated the settlement movement. The Labor party, which was in power in 1967 when the West Bank and Gaza were captured during the Six Days War, initially sought to establish a ring of settlements mainly around Jerusalem to protect the city that an overwhelming majority of Israelis vowed never to relinquish. Committed to the idea of Greater Israel, Likud, which came to power in 1977, laid an historic claim to the entire West Bank and Gaza, immediately embarking on the expansion of political settlements, with the expressed purpose of changing the demographic makeup of the territories on behalf of Israeli Jews. Mr. Sharon himself was the architect of the settlement movement, and scores of settlements were constructed during the first decade of Likud-led governments. Subsequently, successive Labor and Likud governments pursued the building of new and the expansion of existing settlements, particularly since the Palestinians continued to oppose Israel’s right to even exist. Regardless of the changing demographic and political realities, especially following the 1993 Oslo accords, settlements’ activity proceeded unabated. The Israeli public was led to believe that the settlements were a sine-qua-non to the country’s national security, and people were offered economic incentives and military protection to settle the land, irrespective of how such a policy might affect the prospects for peace.

The result was that more than 140 settlements were built, along with some 80 so-called illegal outposts (many of which were supported covertly by the government), with a total population of nearly 250 thousand. Several settlements, like Ma’aleh Adoumim, near Jerusalem, with more than 30.000 inhabitants, and Ariel have become mid-sized cities with colleges, shopping malls, business centers, institutions, and all the other trappings of growing metropolitan centers. To suggest that such settlements (in name only) will some day be evacuated is simply unthinkable. It is a given that the settlers will vehemently oppose such a move, but more importantly, the Israeli public distinguishes between the majority of the settlements scattered all over the West Bank, each with a few hundred settlers or less, and the large settlements clustered in three blocks near Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, which have become an integral part of the Israeli reality. Reflecting Israeli sentiments during the peace talks at Camp David in the summer of 2000, former Prime Minister Ehud Barak insisted that these large settlements be incorporated into Israel proper. Apparently, an agreement in principle was reached with the Palestinians on the matter, provided that Israel would swap some land in exchange.

Although the United Sates officially opposed the building of settlements in the occupied territories, successive American administrations, except for a short period during the presidency of Mr. Bush’s father, looked the other way, leaving Israel to pursue freely its settlement policy. During his first term, the current president treated the settlement problem with benign neglect; in fact, a few months before the elections that would give him a second term, he declared that the new reality on the ground would necessitate some territorial compromises, clearly alluding to settlements such as Ma’aleh Adoumim. Sharon interpreted this statement as giving him a green light to continue with settlement development and expansion, contrary to “the letter” of the Road Map. In his efforts to pacify the settlement movement and under the impression that Washington would offer him political cover, Sharon announced his plan to build 3,500 units in Ma’aleh Adoumim, which prompted immediate Palestinian opposition and, to his surprise, American indignation.

What has brought this sorry state of affairs to the present impasse is a lack of vison as well as wishful thinking by Likud’s leaders in particular who initially believed that by some miracle the demographics will work to Israel’s advantage. It took more than 30 years for a Sharon-led faction within Likud to realize that time is running out and that, if Israel wants to preserve its Jewish identity, it must make the hard decision of giving up on the grand design of a Greater Israel. It is understandable that because of concern over the reaction of the hard-core settlers and their supporters as well as the level of violence that may prevail, Sharon is not in a position to announce publicly in advance how extensive and how soon the Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank will be. Having committed himself to the Road Map, however, he must, at a minimum, dismantle all illegal outposts and establish with the United States the red line (the settlements that must be incorporated into Israel proper, such as Ma’aleh Adoumim and Ariel) beyond which no Israeli government can go. This strategy will strengthen Mr. Abbas’s hand, and get the administration off Mr. Sharon’s back, thereby allowing Washington to demonstrate greater evenhandedness and thus be in a stronger position to exert pressure on the Palestinians to make necessary concessions.

Evacuating the settlements in Gaza, much less the ones in the West Bank, will be one of the most traumatic experiences the Israelis have ever gone through, even those not directly affected. It will test the limits of Israeli tolerance and the capacity of many settlers to refrain from using violence to stop what they consider a national travesty and betrayal. Whereas Sharon must carefully navigate the internal social and political combustion, he has to conclude the Gaza withdrawal successfully before he sets his sights on the much more threatening and explosive West Bank settlements.

Although Likud, and to a lesser extent, Labor brought this on themselves, the Palestinian Authority must demonstrate an understanding of Sharon’s dilemma, not just to facilitate the orderly and peaceful transfer of power in Gaza that he so boldly promoted, but also to prepare the Palestinian public to accept that both sides must make major sacrifices to forge peace.