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An Unsettled Peace Process

August 15, 2013

by Alan Elsner

Israeli Weekly Cabinet MeetingIsraeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is annoyed. Before meeting with visiting German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle on Monday in Jerusalem, Netanyahu complained about a recent European Union decision to stop EU grants, prizes and loans from going to Israeli entities located in the occupied territories or that conduct activities there. “I have to say,” Netanyahu declared, “on a sad note, that I think Europe, the European guidelines (on the settlements) have actually undermined peace.”

In the topsy-turvy world of Israeli politics, it’s not the existence of the settlements, or their constant expansion, that undermines peace. It’s the attempts to curb their growth. This is like somebody blaming life-saving chemo treatments for making him sick.

Israel began building settlements almost immediately after the 1967 Six Day War when it captured the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan. By 2012, according to the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics, there were some 325,000 Israelis living in West Bank settlements and another 190,000 in neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, which had been ruled by the Jordanians between the wars of 1948 and 1967. Israel annexed East Jerusalem in 1980 — although this has never been recognized by the international community.

Americans for Peace Now, which opposes the settlements, says that 42 percent of the West Bank has been zoned by Israel for the exclusive use of settlements.

Now that peace talks are finally resuming between Israel and the Palestinians, we should be prepared for more settlement announcements similar to those of the past few days, as opponents of the negotiations within the Israeli government do their best to scuttle them.

On Sunday, the Housing Ministry said it began marketing 1,200 housing units in East Jerusalem and the settlement blocs around the capital, while last week the Civil Administration approved construction of hundreds of housing units in secluded settlements. On Monday, another 900 units in East Jerusalem were approved by the Housing Ministry.

The number of settlers grew by 15,000 last year and has doubled in the past 12 years, according to Israel’s population registry. If all the new units announced recently are built, that pace will be maintained.

While these announcements in themselves will not determine the future of the peace talks, they are provocative and make the negotiations more difficult. They embarrass Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, making him look weak and constricting his ability to make concessions. They also give ammunition to Palestinians, like Hamas and other rejectionist groups, who simply do not believe that Netanyahu is serious about making peace.

According to Kerry, Netanyahu told him and Abbas that these announcements were coming and maintained they would not affect Israel’s ability to negotiate.

“Prime Minister Netanyahu was completely upfront with me and with President Abbas that he would be announcing some additional building that would take place in places that will not affect the peace map, that will not have any impact on the capacity to have a peace agreement,” Kerry told reporters Tuesday in Brazil. Still, he reiterated that the United States regards all settlements as “illegitimate.”

In their book Lords of the Land: The War for Israel’s Settlements in the Occupied Territories 1967-2007, authors Idith Zertal and Akiva Eldar show how some Israeli governments sought to appease the settlers, turning a blind eye to their activities; while other administrations have openly adopted the settlers’ agenda, which is to make it impossible for Israel to withdraw from the West Bank. “Deception, shame, concealment, denial and repression have characterized the state’s behavior with respect to the flow of funds to the settlements,” they write. “It can be said that this has been an act of public duplicity in which all the Israeli governments since 1967 have been partner.”

The settlements, many founded in defiance of Israeli law through subterfuge on stolen land, are enclaves of Israel within the West Bank. More than a third of the West Bank is now off limits to Palestinians who cannot build on, cultivate, or develop the land.

The settlement movement has never lost a political battle. It may have suffered temporary legal setbacks from time to time — but it has always found ways of getting around them or having them reversed. Now the settlement movement has effectively taken over Netanyahu’s Likud Party — in recent internal elections, the top slots were all won by pro-settlement politicians openly opposed to a two-state solution. Also represented in the government is the “Jewish Home” Party, which has as its founding ideology the annexation of most of the West Bank.

Obviously, a lot needs to happen if there is to be peace. The parties need to negotiate the border and the future of Jerusalem and Israeli security concerns must be addressed. Any agreement must win the support of a majority of the Israeli people as well as the Palestinians.

But it’s also clear that sooner or later, the settlement movement will have to be confronted and politically defeated for peace to come. The showdown will probably come if and when a deal is struck that involves the evacuation of tens of thousands of settlers from a future Palestinian state.

It will be a painful, wrenching, divisive, emotional battle and it may even turn violent. But it is a necessary battle to restore Israel to health.

It’s unclear what role Netanyahu will play in this decisive political confrontation — which will be no less than a battle for the soul of Israel. Up to now, he has been the consummate pragmatist, always putting off the tough decisions, playing for the short-term, making whatever compromises he needs to make to stay in office. He has both frozen settlements for 10 months, when that seemed advantageous, and presided over their expansion, when that seemed necessary.

Will Netanyahu be the man to face down and defeat the settlers — or the patient who continues to confuse the disease with the cure?

Alan Elsner is vice president for communications of J Street, an organization that advocates for U.S. leadership to achieve a two-state solution.