All Writings
February 9, 2009

The Violence and Settlements Anathema (Part 2)

To make serious progress toward a final status agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, George Mitchell must first work on restoring confidence in a peace process that years of havoc and destruction have all but destroyed. To that end, he needs to address the two core sensitive issues that both Israelis and Palestinians place tremendous importance on–ending the violence and fundamentally shifting the settlements policy.

The settlements issue has been contentious not only between Israel and the Palestinians but within Israel itself. No issue has eroded the Palestinian's confidence in the peace process more than the settlements. For the Israelis, the settlements and their expansion are a highly emotional and politically charged national subject. Any future Israeli government will face vehement opposition from the settler's movement, which exercises disproportionate power on the government's policy toward its activities.

Ideally, building a structure of peace and instilling trust in the negotiating process would require a complete freeze of all settlement activities including the settlement blocks that Israel wishes to incorporate into Israel proper in exchange for a land swap to compensate the Palestinians for the territory. But that may be easier said than done. To provide some practical suggestions, it is necessary to break down the settlers' movement into its three basic constituencies. In so doing some possible interim solutions can realistically be made to demonstrate to the Palestinians that Israel intends on changing its settlements' policy and evacuating the vast majority of the West Bank.

The quality-of-life settlers are those who moved to the West Bank primarily for economic reasons, the majority of whom live in the block of settlements located closer to the green line. According to Peace Now statistics, there are about 190,000 residents in these settlements, several of which are no longer considered settlements and officially have been named as cities, home to more than 30,000 people each including Ma'ale Adumim, Modi'in and Beitar. The routing of the security fence leaves most of these settlements on the Israeli side of the fence. The pressure on the government to allow for natural growth in these settlements is enormous and no government is likely to freeze completely their natural expansion even under intense American pressure.

The ideological settlers use mainly religious arguments to justify the settlements and their presence in the West Bank. They view the return of the Jews to the land of Israel as a fulfillment of God's will. They occupy settlements located for the most part deep inside the West Bank very close to and often in the heart of Palestinian populated areas. It is quite evident however that the public support for these settlements is declining. A growing majority of Israelis tend to accept the fact that the Israel will need to evacuate most of these nearly 100 settlements that dot the West Bank.

The Ultra-orthodox settlers in the West Bank are a function almost exclusively of cheap and segregated housing close to the Green Line. They are descendents of devoutly religious Jews who oppose change and modernization. They have historically rejected active Zionism and continue to believe that the path to Jewish redemption is through religious rather than secular activity. There are eight ultra orthodox settlements that were built in the eighties and nineties with roughly 80,000 residents, all of which are located within the settlement blocks that Israel wants to incorporate into Israel proper. These settlements are currently expanding more rapidly than other settlements due primarily to a higher birth rate.

Based on the settlers' ideological leanings and the location of the settlements, Mr. Mitchell should focus on four possible areas where he can persuade the next Israeli government to take action, considering the political constraints under which any future Israeli coalition government operates.

First Mitchell should push for the dismantling of all new illegal outposts; the government can take this action without losing much political capital and it can certainly justify it by citing American pressure. The mushrooming of new outposts has been a terrible source of Palestinian frustration as they signify further entrenchment rather than disengagement.

Second on the agenda should be removing small clusters of settlements occupied by ideological activist settlers in places such as Nablus and Hebron that are troublesome and heavily tax Israel's security forces. All of these settlements are deep in the West Bank and most Israelis agree that they must eventually be evacuated for any peace deal.

Third, Israel must create a program of diminishing incentive that will provide settlers who are willing to relocate voluntarily with equal housing an extra incentive of say $100,000 if they leave within the first year from the initiation of the program. (This amount is compelling based on the Israeli standard of living.) The incentive will then be reduced by $25,000 every six months thereafter. The idea is to create reverse migrations to Israel proper while psychologically preparing the Israeli public and the Palestinians for the inevitability of ending the occupation. While many settlers will not accept the compensation and try to hold out for a better deal, the government must be resolute and not give into blackmail; these settlers must eventually be forcefully evacuated with no incentive.

Lastly, whereas a complete moratorium on expansion of settlements may be untenable, the United States can exert sufficient pressure on Israel to be sensitive to Palestinian sensibilities and not commence major development projects at sensitive moments in the negotiations. Meanwhile, the negotiations on the final borders should be accelerated to reach an agreement on the settlements that Israel could incorporate into its own territory. Such an agreement with the Palestinians would greatly facilitate the movement of ideological settlers from their current locations to these settlements while still fulfilling their ideological mission.

The new Israeli prime minister, including Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, is likely to be under intense American pressure to make meaningful concessions for advancing the peace. Although Netanyahu as a Prime Minister will be a tough negotiator and will demand full compliance in return from the Palestinians for any concession he makes, he may also prove to be the more worthy interlocutor and more trusted by the public. It should be noted that the largest territorial concessions–the Sinai, Hebron and Gaza were all made by Likud leaders Begin, Netanyahu and Sharon respectively.

Mr. Mitchell concluded his report of the Sharm el-Sheikh Fact-Finding Committee with the following words, "Israelis and Palestinians have to live, work, and prosper together. History and geography have destined them to be neighbors. That cannot be changed. Only when their actions are guided by this awareness will they be able to develop the vision and reality of peace and shared prosperity."

No American president has taken such a keen and immediate concern with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict this early in his term as President Obama, and no agreement between Israel and the Arab states has been achieved without direct American involvement. If time, circumstances and leadership matter, there may not be a better time to push for a solution than now.

(This is part two of a two-part analysis on violence and the settlements in Israel and the Palestinian territories.)