A Better Approach to Israeli Settlements

style="float: right; margin-bottom: 10px; font-weight: 600;"Tue 9th May, 2017

The UN has once again succumbed to feel-good politics. While the December UN Resolution 2334 condemns all Israeli settlements equally, about seventy-five percent of the settlers live within the Israeli security barrier within several miles of the 1949 armistice line in the so-called settlement blocs (on roughly eight percent of the West Bank). 

This area will remain within Israel regardless of whether there is a negotiated settlement or not. Significantly, Israeli and Palestinian government officials have already agreed privately and publicly on the concept of exchanging Israeli land for these settlement blocs.

The problem lies with the 20-25 percent of the Israeli settlers who live deeper in the West Bank (about 90,000 people). International efforts, including any future UN resolutions, should focus on freezing the growth of these settlements with an eye towards eventually removing them as part of a negotiated settlement.

This would be a hard sell in Israel but not an impossible one. The Israeli security establishment supports such an approach; Israeli defense minister Avigdor Lieberman said publicly on November 16, 2016, that Israel should seek an understanding with the United States to give up the right to expand these settlements in return for the right to continue to build within the settlement blocs.  According to an Israeli Army radio survey in December 2016, 30 percent of Israeli Jews support returning all the West Bank, 30 percent favor keeping the settlement blocs but not the rest of the West Bank, and 40 percent support annexing the West Bank.      

But the December 2016 UN resolution, as well as the Paris Peace Conference in January, have made such a freeze more difficult since they strengthen hard-line Israelis, who argue that Europe and others are so biased against Israel that they should be ignored as diplomatic players.  This in turn helps Prime Minister Netanyahu.

Moreover, as Netanyahu's main political rival Yair Lapid, who supports territorian compromise, and the UK government have pointed out, the resolution's and the Paris conference's blanket condemnations of all settlements strengthen hard-line Palestinians, who argue that international pressure will eventually force Tel Aviv to retreat to the 1949 armistice line-the mirage they have been pursuing for half a century.  Thus, the resolution feeds the narrative of hard-liners on all sides.


Looking towards the Future

Despite the violence in Israel and the West Bank, one can build on the quiet cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian governments on security, tax revenue transfers, postal services, water and electricity, medical treatment, and Palestinian workers in Israel, as well as the Palestinian firefighters who helped to put out the fires in the Haifa area in November 2016.

In a calmer atmosphere under Palestinian and Israeli leaders who are willing to take risks for a final negotiated settlement there may be a return to something along the lines of Prime Minister Olmert's 2008 offer of an Israeli withdrawal from all of the West Bank except for the settlement blocs and from the Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem; Olmert was also willing to transfer Israeli territory to the new Palestinian state in return for the settlement blocs. President Abbas allowed this far-sighted proposal to die a quiet death because of concern about Arab hard-liners, notably Hamas, his main competitor.

Until then, we should remember that the Middle East is a region of extreme violence, a wilderness of tigers, in which the Palestinian-Israeli conflict plays a tragic but relatively modest role. Some of the Palestinians attacks against Israelis are driven by Israeli policies in the West Bank but others represent the hatred of the "infidels," who are resented for having built a successful society, just as Islamic terror in India, Europe and the U.S. is ultimately not driven by specific foreign or domestic policies, but by a generalized resentment of the more successful, more free 'other.'

Moreover, French President Hollande was wrong to say at the January Paris conference that the Middle East will not be stabilized until there is an Israeli Palestinian agreement to the "oldest conflict in the Middle East."  Solving this conflict will have no impact on the Sunni/Shia conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, including the Iran-Saudi geopolitical rivalry, the civil war in Libya, and the resentment of an Islamic culture that is struggling to come to terms modernity.  

So for the UN and international conferences, next time: Seek realistic goals.

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