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We Need to Talk (Differently) about Settlements

“It was Obama who suggested a full settlement freeze,” Abbas explained. “I said OK, I accept. We both went up the tree. After that, he came down with a ladder and he removed the ladder and said to me, jump. Three times he did it.”

Newsweek, April 24, 2011

Late in 2009, a frustrated President Obama, having supported a moratorium on Israeli settlement building, asked his senior staff, “What’s the strategy here? I see you want the moratorium, but how does it get us where we want to be?”

The short answer: it didn’t, it doesn’t, and it almost certainly won’t. A report issued this week makes clear why.

Shaul Arieli, the report’s author, is a former commander of the Northern Division in Gaza and was involved in the Geneva Initiative, which in 2003 presented a comprehensive plan to implement the two-state solution. The central claim of the report (titled “Why Settlements Have Not Killed the Two-state Solution”) is thatthe real difficulty in implementing the idea of partition is not physical but political. After all, most Israeli settlement is concentrated in blocs, the Israeli settlement presence beyond the blocs is limited, most working settlers are employed inside Israel, Israeli settlements use largely distinct infrastructure from West Bank Palestinians, many settlers are economically motivated therefore likely to move voluntarily in the event of peace, and the number of new homes currently being planned for construction within Israel is twenty times the number of households that might need to be relocated.

Arieli—a critic of the current government and a supporter of the two-state solution—would like politicians to start making a distinction between two radically different groups of settlers. Eighty percent of the settlers (excluding East Jerusalem) live in settlement blocs, represent 95 percent of the total population, and both sides understand they will be incorporated in Israel proper—Palestine being compensated by 1:1 land swaps—when the deal is done. Twenty percent of the settlers live outside the settlement blocs, mostly belonging to the national religious sector of Israeli society, part of the “Gush Emunim” (Block of the Faithful) ideological movement and are scattered over hilltops, often dotted along the central mountain ridge, Gav HaHar, on Route 60—the main road running north to south. When Israel makes the deal it is inconceivable that these hilltop settlers will be part of it.   

The distinction matters politically. Politicians must signal that they understand the difference between these two groups, for whenever this difference is erased it is disastrous for the peace process. The hard right in Israel and in America seek to erase it in pursuit of a Greater Israel. The far left in Israel and in Europe seek to erase it in pursuit of “a state for all its citizens” in all of mandate Palestine. Pragmatic politicians who support the two-state solution should seek ways to entrench the difference. Instead they too often drift with the extremists. 

A good start would be to talk of “bloc settlers” and “hilltop settlers” to show they understand that the 80 percent who live along the green line can be included in a deal and the 20 percent dotted about the Palestinian hilltops cannot. Policy—the structure of incentives offered to both parties by the international community—should follow this language. 

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