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My new piece in Foreign Policy: Glib talk about settlements harms peace efforts

My new piece posted (late) last night on Foreign Policy's Middle East channel.

Glib talk about settlements harms peace efforts

With the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian talks this week and the approaching September 26th expiration of the settlement moratorium, the settlements issue is set to once again take center stage.

Last week, in an otherwise excellent article, former US Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk suggested that this need not be a crisis. He stated that "there could be a workable compromise if Mr. Netanyahu restricts building to modest growth in the settlement blocs that will most likely be absorbed into Israel in the final agreement, while offering changes that would make a real difference to West Bank Palestinians..."

The following day, Haaretz's Aluf Benn offered a similar observation as he laid out the popular wisdom regarding what can be expected from Prime Minister Netanyahu. Benn stated that "Everyone agrees the sweeping construction freeze cannot be continued and that the large settlement blocs should be distinguished from the isolated settlements beyond the separation fence. Construction will resume in the blocs and be frozen in the isolated settlements--or continue on a small scale."

This narrative is highly attractive to analysts and pundits because it is simple to articulate, sounds reasonable, and offers an easy answer to the question: how can Netanyahu possibly continue the settlement moratorium? The answer? He doesn't have to.

Unfortunately, this narrative has two huge flaws.

First, it makes sense only if you ignore the inconvenient realities on the ground. Today, it is generally argued that Israel's West Bank barrier defines the settlement blocs. But the built-up area of the settlements on the"Israeli" side of the barrier is only around 7,300 acres, while the barrier de facto annexes an area nearly 20 times that size -- around 148,000 acres. Construction within these 148,000 acres directly threatens the viability of the two-state solution.  

Take, for example, the "Ma'ale Adumim bloc," which includes the site of the planned mega-settlement of E1 -- a settlement whose construction is potentially fatal to the two-state solution. Or the "Givat Ze'ev bloc", where the barrier route extends so far north that it reaches the very edge of Ramallah. Or the "Etzion bloc," where the barrier extends deep into the West Bank, transforming Bethlehem into an isolated enclave.

Some will argue that construction in blocs could be limited to the built-up areas of settlements (sometimes referred to as building "up" or vertical construction), but as chronicled by former US Ambassador to Israel Dan Kurtzer, this is a trap. While it may sound reasonable to agree that settlers can continue to build inside settlements, so long as settlements aren't "expanding", achieving agreement on what it means to build "inside" a settlement versus "expanding" a settlement has proven impossible, allowing settlements to keep growing while the US and Israel bicker. Today's peace effort is too important to waste time re-visting this dead-end approach.

Second, this narrative suggests that settlements, not negotiations, will decide final borders.

This is not a good-faith way to re-start talks. Rather, it is the latest abuse of the "everybody knows" argument (an argument well-known for its use in defense of Israeli settlement construction in East Jerusalem). In effect, the argument is that "what is within the blocs (or inside the barrier) will be Israeli, and the rest is still up for grabs." This approach contradicts not only what Israel and the Palestinians have previously agreed to, but also the position of every US Administration.

Supporters of settlements often abuse President Bush's April 14, 2004 letter to Ariel Sharon, in which President Bush stated that "In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli populations centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949." They seem to forget that in the preceding sentence President Bush stated that any agreement to this effect "should emerge from negotiations between the parties" and in the next sentence added the caveat that "any final status agreement will only be achieved on the basis of mutually agreed changes that reflect these realities"[emphasis added].

Based on past negotiations, including the unofficial Geneva Initiative, it seems likely in the context of a negotiated peace agreement that Palestinians will agree to Israel retaining control of some settlements -- most likely those that are today part of so-called settlement blocs. This is an important principle that, along with the evacuation of all other settlements and land swaps of equal size and quality, could pave the way for a viable permanent status agreement. However, it is disingenuous to cherry-pick this principle in order to justify new settlement construction outside the context of such negotiations and absent a peace agreement. 

The soon-to-expire 10-month settlement moratorium included so many exceptions that it has had little visible impact on the ground. Construction in settlements has continued apace, as has planning and other preparation for new construction; violations of the moratorium are rampant; and the government of Israel, rather than taking steps to deal with illegal outposts, has engaged in efforts to legalize some. Indeed, the moratorium has had so little impact that today Arutz Sheva, the settlers' new outlet, reported that "the number of Jews in Judea and Samaria [the West Bank] rose by over 2.5% in the first half of 2010...according to Interior Ministry statistics. An increase of 8,000 Jews in the first half of 2010 was registered in the Population Registry of the Interior Ministry--a growth rate nearly three times that of the rest of Israel."

Today, swapping this incomplete moratorium for new rules of the game permitting construction within so-called settlement blocs would directly threaten the prospects for a peace agreement on the ground. It would undermine President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad, who reject violence and tell their people that negotiations with Israel are the correct way forward. It would signal that the Netanyahu government is not serious about peace. And it would deal a body blow to the Obama Administration's credibility as a steward of the peace process.

Middle East peace efforts are not served by narratives -- attractive as they may be -- that delude anyone into believing that Israel can avoid the hard decisions it must make on settlements.