Settlers, Settlements and Peace

Will Israeli settlers kill the peace talks?

It is pretty common knowledge, at least for those following the Israel-Palestine conflict that in November of last year Israeli PM Netanyahu implemented a 10 month settlement construction ‘freeze.’  It is equally known that that ‘freeze’ is set to end on September 26, creating what could be the first possible end of the probably short-lived peace talks.  If one is to believe the Israeli PM, the talks include three leaders who are committed to peace: US President Obama, Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.  However, it seems as though Netanyahu is stuck with the possible continuation of the settlement ‘freeze.’

Abbas and the rest of the Palestinian delegation has been very straight forward about the importance of an extended settlement freeze, warning, even before entering talks, that they would pull out of negotiations if Israel does not extend the ‘freeze.’  Likewise Obama has repeated said that the settlements – illegal by international law and exclusively located on Palestinian land – represent a serious threat to peace – most recently last week when the President explicitly called for an extension.

So far, Netanyahu has refused to comment on the President’s remarks.  Netanyahu’s relative silence (he has already implied that the ‘freeze’ will not be extended) is logical considering the pressure he is receiving to let the ‘freeze’ lapse as well as to extend it.  Continuation of peace talks (and thus Israel commitment to peace) is entirely dependent on Netanyahu’s decision regarding settlement construction.  A simplified analysis might break the PM’s choice down to a mere choice between continuing peace talks and keeping his settler-backed coalition in tact.  It is not surprising that while looking into different alternatives to a ‘freeze’ extension, Netanyahu has kept relatively quiet on the issue, though he recently said:

“I don’t know if there will be a comprehensive freeze,” Netanyahu said during the meeting. “But I also don’t know if it is necessary to construct all of the 20,000 housing units waiting to be built. In any case, between zero and one there are a lot of possibilities.”

A couple weeks ago, Aluf Benn wrote a piece for Haaretz explaining the PM’s silence.  Benn wrote:

Netanyahu knew the freeze would eventually end and he would have to find an alternative. He has several goals – to remain in power, keep his coalition intact, prevent a rebellion among Likud MKs, appease Obama and prevent the talks with the Palestinians from collapsing.

What will he do? He’ll wait for the last minute. If he already has a compromise formula he won’t disclose it before the deadline. Anything he said now would be used to increase the pressure on him.

[tweetmeme] What Benn does not mention is that the extremist views of the settler community and the settler political parties in the governing coalition are making peace nearly impossible.  As if to highlight the ongoing colonization of Palestinian land by settlers, the Israeli planning on confiscating and building on Palestinian land are planning a rally to mark the continuation of Israeli construction.  Furthermore, it is clear that the settlers are planning on bringing down the governing coalition (already the most right-wing in history) is the ‘freeze’ is extended while hoping for the failure of peace talks.  To make matters worse, Netanyahu’s own Likud party has collectively come out against any extension of the ‘freeze’ completely disregarding the paramount importance of such a decision.

With such pressure coming from the minority settler groups, Netanyahu is looking for an alternative to the dichotomy of extending the ‘freeze.’  Among possibilities is the exchange of several hundred Palestinian prisoners, the transfer of a larger amount of Palestinian land to Palestinian administrative control and the removal of several of the many military checkpoints that cover the West Bank in exchange for the resumption of construction.  Such a deal would be completely unacceptable for the Palestinians as it would be accepting minor concessions by Israel (ones that would need to be made later on anyway) for continued colonization and the false creation of fact of on the ground.

Another proposed possibility is to continue the ‘freeze,’ but to alter to terms to allow upward (vertical) growth within settlements while preventing the settlements from acquiring more land.  Unfortunately, this is also completely acceptable as it allows settlers to further populate settlements making it more difficult for Israel to give land back to Palestinians in the event of a compromise.

Finally there is the suggestion that construction be allowed to continue in settlement blocs while preventing construction in isolated settlements.  Once again, this would not solve the problem as all settlement blocs are located on Palestinian land.  Allowing such construction would mean that the PA is essentially agreeing to a final border along the ‘separation’ wall.  The wall, to be sure, is not anywhere close to the internationally recognized Green Line divided Israel from lands it illegally captured after the 1967 war.  While the settlement blocs are all located on the Israeli side of the wall, the wall itself is a means to annex far more Palestinian territory that is acceptable.  From Lara Friedman:

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.

Understandably, Netanyahu has found himself in a major bind.  Realistically, the only way to ensure the continuation of peace negotiations with the Palestinians is to extend the ‘freeze,’ although it will upset what is ultimately a vocal minority (4.1%) of Israelis.  Moreover, the extension of the ‘freeze’ would be largely symbolic considering that over the past 10 months, the Israeli ‘freeze’ has not been particularly effective in preventing construction.

As Friedman says, unabated settler construction sends a particularly negative message to Obama, Abbas and the rest of the world:

Extending the current 10-month settlement moratorium, with no new loopholes or exceptions, is vital to Israel and to peace.  Failing to do so will have a devastating impact on efforts to launch successful peace talks and will play into the hands of those who seek to delegitimize Israel. New settlement construction will be seen as a sign that Israel would rather rule over Palestinians than forge peace.

Seen in this light, Netanyahu’s decision about settlements will be the manifestation of his commitment to peace.  Construction would continue in settlements (albeit, like the last ten months, at a slower pace), but it would demonstrate to Abbas and Obama that the Israeli PM is intent on finding peace with Palestinians.  Furthermore, it would lend the talks much-needed legitimacy among Palestinians while moving the Israeli government away from the extremist views of FM Lieberman and his supporters.

Photo from The San Francisco Sentinel

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