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Elliott Abrams on ‘the Settlement Obsession’

Nicholas Jahr
August 11, 2011

by Nicholas Jahr

Today brought the news that the Netanyahu administration has approved the construction of 1,600 new apartments in East Jerusalem (with 2,700 more on deck and 930 already given the green light). Lest anyone think this might be a problem, former Bush administration official Elliott Abrams had taken to the pages of the July/August issue of Foreign Affairs -- the preeminent journal of the bipartisan foreign policy establishment -- to assure us all otherwise. Under the guise of a book review, Abrams has published a major statement on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process (or what passes for it these days). “The Settlement Obsession” argues that the focus on Israeli settlements in the occupied territories is beside the point and counter-productive, and that recent diplomacy -- particularly the push for a settlement freeze -- has proceeded along the wrong track. It’s a shot across the bow of the Obama administration, and a signal of where the never-ending process might be headed.

Before we wade into the weeds, a few words about the author. Abrams is a neocon of outstanding pedigree. Not only did he marry into the Podhoretz/Decter dynasty, but he cut his teeth working for Senator Henry ‘Scoop’ Jackson and followed that with a tour under Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. From there he ascended to the executive branch, serving as an assistant secretary of state for Reagan, or rather, in the words of his boss George Shultz, as “king” of Latin America. Called before the Senate’s Select Committee on Intelligence in late ’86 to testify about Iran-contra, Abrams insisted “We’re not in the fundraising business.” Five years later he finally plead guilty to two counts of withholding information from Congress.

Pardoned by Bush pere, he was then rehabilitated by Bush fils -- who appointed Abrams to the National Security Council, subsequently anointing him “Deputy National Security Advisor for Global Democracy Strategy” (we all know how that worked out) -- and he now enjoys a sinecure at the Council on Foreign Relations (which publishes Foreign Affairs). During his years in the wilderness prior to the Bush restoration, he kept busy signing letters from the Committee for Peace & Security in the Gulf and the Project for a New American Century, both of which beat the drums for regime change in Iraq. Even outside government, the neocons have long since proved their ability to exert pressure on the course of foreign policy and shape the debate. All of which means it’s worth paying attention to what Abrams has to say.


The essay’s controversial thesis is simple: “current construction in the settlements is not a critical issue.” (He goes on to state that the territorial expansion of the settlements has been “minimal,” a point to which we will return later.) Abrams sees current construction as entirely unrelated to the fate of the settlements “if and when” the Palestinians achieve statehood, and the weight of the settlements in the tactical calculations that might reach that objective.

On the tactical level, it’s hard to disagree with Abrams’ conclusion that the Obama administration’s call for a settlement freeze “was clearly a mistake in the sense that it failed.” This past April, former senior Mossad official and past director of the Jaffee Center of Security Studies Yossi Alpher declared that the Netanyahu administration would never have stopped construction unless the U.S. had backed the call with “serious and even brutal pressure.” Asked by email to clarify, he pointed to occasions when the U.S. has put arms shipments and R & D on hold, or refused to meet with Israeli leaders (think Kissinger’s ‘reassessment’ in ’75). “Obama,” Alpher noted, “used none of these in trying to enforce the settlement freeze.”

Back in August 2009, longtime peace activist and analyst Helena Cobban argued on her blog that the only thing the insistence on ‘confidence building measures’ had succeeded in building was mistrust, and the failed push for a freeze is one more case in point. As Cobban points out, this doesn’t mean those 5,230 new apartments in East Jerusalem aren’t a problem. “Ongoing construction in the settlements has always been an issue for everyone concerned about ending Israel’s occupation of the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and Gaza, and it continues to be so,” she wrote in an e-mail. “It has also always been completely illegal under international law, and continues to be an issue on that score, as well.”

At this point one might ask -- and Abrams does not -- what the Palestinians have to say about all this. “We cannot wait indefinitely while Israel continues to send more settlers to the occupied West Bank,” wrote Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in an NYT op-ed last May. “The choice,” he continued, “is not between Palestinian unity or peace with Israel; it is between a two-state solution or settlement-colonies.” That definitely doesn’t sound like the people on the other side of the negotiating table share Abrams’ assessment. Cairo Arafat, who works within the office of the Palestinian PM (Salam Fayyad), writes in an e-mail:

At this time, Israeli settlers are subject to the Israeli legal system, planning, and zoning systems (even though they reside on Palestinian territory) and Palestinians abide by the Palestinian legal system. So you end up with two different legal systems... being applicable for people living within the same area. Israelis are given free movement in these areas while Palestinians are imprisoned for entering areas that rightfully belong [to] and are owned by them. Palestinians are prevented from building homes, schools, and water networks on their lands, while the Israeli system gives the Israeli settlers not only the right to do so, but finances them. So this situation is not only critical, but a core issue that challenges the viability of a Palestinian state.


Right from the start Abrams is consistently disingenuous in how he presents the settlements. He writes that: “There had been years of negotiations… while Israeli settlement activity continued.” Well, sure, but this has been one of, if not the, most serious grievances of the Palestinians throughout the Oslo years and the lost decade that followed. To cite it as evidence that negotiations should continue regardless amounts to using the Palestinians own willingness to negotiate against them.

Abrams does everything he can to cast the settlements as normal. Comparing Israel’s control over the territories to the Allied presence in Germany after World War II, he observes “there is no such thing as an immaculate occupation.” We might still wonder whether some occupations are nonetheless a bit dirtier than others, perhaps even ill-conceived, but I’m sure the Allies committed their crimes. More to the point is the fact that the occupation of Germany was conducted with the goal of rebuilding and getting out. While Abrams supported Netanyahu’s vaunted ‘economic peace,’ this hasn’t amounted to much besides occasionally threatening to withhold tax revenues.

As for the settlers themselves, “in the eyes of most Israelis,” Abrams writes, “many settlers are simply suburbanites who commute to work in Israel’s cities. Most of those who live in, for example, Maale Adumim, a city of nearly 40,000 in the West Bank just outside Jerusalem, moved there because they were priced out of the Jerusalem housing market.”

He may very well be right about how the settlers are perceived, but here Abrams invokes the ‘neutral’ force of the market to portray as ‘natural’ what’s really the result of deliberate planning and government policy. Israelis are offered an array of incentives to settle the West Bank. Until 2003, settlers received a 7% break on their taxes, regardless of their income. While that particular perk was discontinued, no less than eight government ministries continue to dole out benefits to the settlers, from reductions in the cost of buying or leasing land to loans for purchasing apartments to subsidized transportation to school (and this investment has not been without implications for affordable housing within pre-’67 Israel). And none of this would be possible without the continuing projection of Israeli military force beyond the green line.

So these misunderstood suburbanites -- a good number of whom would indeed probably rather live in Israel proper -- find themselves on the front lines. Once they’re there, Abrams wants to have it both ways. He rightly points out that some of the settlers are reclaiming areas from which Jews were expelled, but that makes them sound a lot less like mere commuters. Whether or not one sees their claims as legitimate, the settlement project is much larger than Hebron and Gush Etzion. Trying to claim moral legitimacy on their grounds invokes a nauseatingly infinite chain of causation. How far back should we go? The War of Independence? The Mandate period? The Second Temple? We can play this game all day, for years on end, and both sides are clearly happy to do so.

Here Abrams knows he’s on thin ice, because what he’s describing sounds an awful lot like the right of return. “The difference,” he insists, “is that the rebuilt Israeli settlements do not prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state, whereas the movement to Israel of millions of Palestinians who claim refugee status... would destroy Israel’s identity as a Jewish state.” Subsuming the contradiction between “the Jews are reclaiming lands they were forced to leave” and “the Palestinians must surrender the land claimed by settlements” under a higher value (whether political, moral, or both) doesn’t resolve it. Even if it could, there’s multiple reasons to think that the settlements do in fact prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state.


This is the argument made by Breaking the Silence, and Abrams ostensibly makes short work of the organization’s new book in the opening of his essay. Occupation of the Territories: Israeli Soldiers’ Testimonies 2000-2010 is a collection of interviews of the kind Breaking the Silence has been making public since it was founded in March 2004 by a group of Israeli soldiers who’d served in Hebron. The kind where a soldier will describe calling in reinforcements so that religious settlers can “walk around Hebron as though it belonged to them” or another will say “You feel you’re on checkpoint duty not for the sake of Israeli security but for Israel’s bank account.”

Abrams attacks the book’s relevance, arguing that many of the testimonies refer to the peak of the second Intifada (2000-2002) or events in Gaza (despite the Israeli withdrawal in 2005). He points to specific sections of the book, one in which only 5 of 67 interviews are from 2008 or later and another in which only 6 of 44 date from 2007 or afterward. “A logical inference from this data,” Abrams argues, “would be that the IDF’s conduct is improving, but Breaking the Silence does not discuss this possibility.”

“A bit misleading” is how Mikhael Manekin, co-director of Breaking the Silence, described Abrams’ numbers in an e-mail. All told, the group has collected testimony from “around 800” soldiers (excerpts are available on their website); the book’s 431 pages feature accounts from 100 of them. As to the charge that the testimony featured in the book is dated, Manekin claims that were Abrams to treat the book as a whole and count from the end of the second Intifada (after 2005), that period would encompass over 60 testimonies, about a third of the total featured (according to Manekin, 26 of these date from 2007 or later). This excludes at least some testimony related to 2009’s Operation: Cast Lead, which the organization has published separately. And they’re about to publish recent testimony from Hebron, most of which is from 2009 and 2010. Abrams doesn’t say how much testimony would satisfy him in absolute or relative terms, but in the light of this evidence it would seem his inference concerning the conduct of the IDF doesn’t hold up (which is not to judge the IDF’s conduct one way or another; it’s simply to say soldiers continue to come forward).

Looking beyond the numbers game, Manekin argues that Abrams has misconstrued the fundamental purpose of Breaking the Silence’s work:

Breaking the Silence has stated repeatedly that our problems are not with IDF soldier conduct but with government policy of control of the territories.... The book’s thesis is that the occupation is run as a permanent rule and not as a temporary one.... Many of the testimonies are not even about soldier misconduct, but... the results of military rule. In that, we don’t think there is any reason to suppose that there was a lot of soldier misconduct in 2001 or that there was less in 2008. To the specific question of soldier misconduct we would answer that there are various trends which relate to duration of a unit in a specific area or to certain unit culture, but that is of course not the issue.


So is the occupation permanent or temporary?

Abrams reassures his readers that at some point during the last decade “the right joined the left in believing that separation from the West Bank was desirable.” But this is simply not the case. Some part of the Right was willing to surrender Gaza. Whether Sharon would have gone through with a unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank is now consigned to the realm of the counter-factual. Netanyahu, for his part, didn’t join anyone. He campaigned to retake the Knesset by rejecting a two-state solution and pledging that existing settlements would be allowed to grow. It was only after pressure from the Obama administration that Netanyahu climbed down and, in 2009, made a rhetorical commitment to a two-state solution. This seeming reversal was applauded, but if I can hand over the mic to Henry Siegman:

It was a patently insincere speech, for [Netanyahu] uttered not the slightest reproach when senior members of his own Likud Party and ministers in his government announced the formation of a thirty-nine-member Land of Israel Caucus, the largest caucus in the Knesset. The co-chair of the caucus is Ze’ev Elkin, head of the party’s parliamentary delegation. It includes the Likud’s Reuven Rivlin, Knesset speaker; Benny Begin, a member of the so-called Septet, Netanyahu’s seven-member inner security cabinet, which passes on all major government decisions; as well as several other ministers and deputy ministers in Netanyahu’s cabinet. Haaretz reported at the time that the only two Likud ministers in his government who did not support the caucus were Dan Meridor and Netanyahu himself. Only one minister, Michael Eitan, objected to it, calling the caucus a “thunderous contradiction” of Netanyahu’s declared commitment to a two-state accord.

The official goal of the caucus is to strengthen “Israel’s grasp on the entire Land of Israel.” If that’s not clear enough, Begin helpfully elaborated: “The establishment of a foreign independent sovereign state headed by the PLO in parts of the Land of Israel stands in opposition to two basic ideas that are both supported by a majority of the Knesset: the absolute historic right of the Nation of Israel to the Land of Israel and the right of the State of Israel to national security.” [The Nation]

The Left-Right consensus Abrams presents as given does not exist. One would think this was fairly obvious; after all, if a settlement freeze wasn’t “critical,” it seems an easy measure for an Israeli government to adopt, particularly if it was only temporary. Whatever the motivations of some of the settlers, even Abrams acknowledges that as many as half of them may be religious Zionists. Their vision of eretz Yisrael is not one subject to compromise.

Abrams repeats the claim that Barak offered Arafat 94% of the West Bank at Camp David in 2000, while nearly a decade later Olmert offered Abbas 93.6% (with a one-to-one land swap). Except Barak didn’t offer Arafat 94% of the West Bank at Camp David. That figure comes from the subsequent negotiations at Taba, a last-ditch effort to seal a deal before the clock ran out on the Clinton administration. The point is worth making because the failure of the Camp David summit is so often cited as proof that ‘there is no partner’ (an argument Abrams himself propagated at the time).

Abrams cites those figures to conclude that “settlement expansion has not significantly eaten away at the territory of an eventual Palestinian state.” The key word there is “significantly.” A recent OECD report [PDF] found that from 1997 to 2009, the population of the settlements in the West Bank grew by 94.5% (population growth on the other side of the green line was 26.2%). Of course population growth doesn’t necessarily translate into territorial expansion -- though it certainly increases the pressure to that end. Eyal Hareuveni, a researcher for the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, writes in an e-mail that Israel has “expanded the built up area of certain settlements, expanded the territorial boundaries of certain settlements, and still allocates about 43% of the West Bank to the regional councils of the settlements.” Exactly how much of the West Bank has been appropriated by new settlements over the last decade is unclear, but what is clear is that the settlements continue to erode the territorial foundation of a Palestinian state.


All this might be justified by the conviction that, as Abrams puts it: “The contours of a territorial compromise are visible; the settlements beyond Israel’s security barrier obviously have no future.” It’s a measure of how far some elements of the right have moved that Abrams judges withdrawal “a task that Israel’s national interests require.” He doesn’t explicitly address whether that withdrawal should be negotiated or unilateral, but given, among other considerations, his belief that there is no partner, the answer would seem obvious enough.

The temptation to support such a move is powerful -- just get out already, by any means necessary -- but the least of the problems posed by a unilateral withdrawal is that it doesn’t exclude plunging back in: see all the lead cast at Gaza since the IDF ‘withdrew.’ No less a ‘friend’ of Israel than Bush himself backed the position that “changes to the 1949 armistice lines must be mutually agreed to” (a year later, in 2006, then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice reiterated that stance -- yet another observation I owe to Henry Siegman in The Nation), even if in practice his administration turned a blind eye to the growth of the settlements.

It’s safe to assume that a unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank would see Israel annex the major settlement blocs there; Abrams clearly assumes that the settlements within the wall will become part of Israel. Ralph Seliger published an interesting post over at Meretz USA’s blog two weeks ago on “the limits of Israeli centrism,” in which he argues that the consensus on exactly what territory Israel will be able to retain is more apparent than real. Seliger cites Ariel, Maale Adumim, and the Har Homa neighborhood of East Jerusalem (which as recently as the late 90s was still known as Jabal Abu Ghneim) as particular points of concern. Similarly, the PA’s Cairo Arafat refers specifically to Maale Adumim and indicates that the current route of the wall would be unacceptable as a de facto border, as it cuts off areas of East Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank.

Helena Cobban is also profoundly skeptical of the assumption that Israel can and should retain the major settlement blocs:

If Israelis and their friends want to keep Israel as a majority-Jewish state, they will have to allow for the emergence of a fully viable and independent Palestinian state alongside it. That state needs a territorial base that can help absorb the Palestinian refugees, who now number around eight million worldwide -- both registered and unregistered. It is crazy to think that a Palestinian state that is eroded by the excision of “settlement blocs” can do that.

If she is right, a unilateral withdrawal would be a recipe for disaster.

For his part, Yossi Alpher believes Israel will indeed ultimately retain the major settlement blocs, with the caveat that their exact boundaries and how they will be incorporated into Israel remains to be negotiated. This does not mean, he insists, that:

we should stop worrying about settlement construction. Here [Abrams] ignores two vital issues: first, expansion of the blocs makes it increasingly difficult to reach agreement on what will be annexed to Israel and how Palestinians will be compensated; second, expansion of the isolated mountain heartland settlements that even Abrams evidently slates for eventual removal, which every Israeli leader since Oslo has allowed, constitutes “feeding the beast” for political reasons, sometimes even in order to maintain quiet while negotiations proceed. Yet “feeding the beast” of the messianic settler right wing ultimately enhances its political power and influence, thereby impeding peace.

‘Feeding the beast’ is precisely what Abrams calls for in the end. “If Israel’s leaders hope to persuade the settlers to evacuate with minimal discord and resistance,” he writes, “they must praise the settlement enterprise as a heroic effort that permanently changed Israel’s borders rather than attacking it as a burden and a mistake.” In the absence of significant movement toward a negotiated agreement, such praise can only create space for the settlement project to continue to expand.

Nicholas Jahr is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn and a member of Jewish Currents’ editorial board. In the past he has written for the magazine about comics, film, the diaspora, Israeli elections, and Palestinian nonviolence. His work has appeared in the International New York Times, The Nation, City & State, and the Village Voice (RIP).