Israeli Settlements Don’t Do
By Jonathan S. Tobin
September 1, 2016
Israeli settlements in the West Bank are back in the news
this week. The State Department denounced the Israeli government’s approval
for the construction of 486 new housing units in parts of Jerusalem and the
something that the U.S. is “deeply concerned” about. A “senior
official” claimed the move “undermines the prospects for a two-state
solution.” Earlier in the week, Nicolay Mladenov, a Bulgarian diplomat
currently serving as the United Nations’ Special Coordinator for the Middle
East Peace Process sounded
the same theme when he declared such building to be the prime obstacle to
efforts to end the conflict. If that wasn’t enough, the New
York Times devoted a portion of its front page todayto a feature that
purported to claim that Israel was “quietly” working to legalize some other
housing projects that were built without proper authorization.
The image of Israel that comes through in all this is that
of a country that is actively seeking to prevent peace negotiations and
foreclosing any effort at a compromise that could end the conflict. But while
Israelis can and do debate the wisdom of their governments’ actions, the one
thing we can definitively say about the settlement moves is that they will have
zero impact on the prospects of revived negotiations with the Palestinians or on
a successful outcome of such talks if they ever resumed.
The main reason why settlements don’t prevent peace is
that the Palestinians have already repeatedly turned down offers that would have
given them a state and sovereignty over almost all of the West Bank. Settlements
existed before those peace offers were made and their continued existence, with
or without a few extra units, wouldn’t prevent the Israeli people from
accepting a compromise based on a genuine desire to end the conflict for all
time if the Palestinians were ever capable of doing so.
Just as, if not more important, is the fact that almost all
of these new housing units are in places that even the Obama administration has
stated would remain part of Israel in the event of a successful peace
negotiation. Israel isn’t giving up Jerusalem neighborhoods like Gilo, where
some of the new units are being built. Nor is it giving up the settlement blocs
in the immediate Jerusalem suburbs or build along the counter’s eastern border
with the West Bank and no one, including the current administration, expects
them to do so.
Let’s also understand that the language used to describe
these developments is part of the problem. Nobody would call a new apartment
building in an existing neighborhood in the United States a new town but
that’s essentially what is being done every time the construction of a house
anywhere in Jerusalem or the West Bank (provided it is a house that Jews
live in) is called a new settlement. Moreover, the “pirate outposts” that
the Times speaks of being legalized are almost all extensions of
existing settlements. The focus of the article is on a few houses that are
separated from an existing settlement by a road. None are, as they are
universally described as being, major land grabs.
It’s also vital to understand that the only ones being
retroactively granted legal status are the ones built on state land, not private
property on which Palestinians purport to have claims. Any housing that is
proved to be on land to which Palestinians have clear title are not approved.
Of course, to Israel’s critics and foes, the semantics of
settlements and even legal questions about land aren’t significant. They
believe the presence of any Jews in any part of the territory that Israel seized
from Jordan (which illegally occupied what it dubbed the “West Bank” to
differentiate it from its land east of the Jordan River, from 1949 to 1967) is
illegal. But that sentiment, shared by the Palestinians, is not based in law.
Israel has a strong legal case for its right to the land based on the League of
Nations’ Mandate for Palestine that set aside the country as a national home
for the Jews. The Palestinians who live there have their own case for wanting it
to be part of their putative state. That is a dispute that can be resolved by
compromise, something that the Israelis have consistently proven willing to do
and which the Palestinians have consistently opposed.
But the bottom line here is that if the Palestinian
Authority were ever to summon the will to return to peace talks with Israel and
to declare their willingness to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state, no
matter where its borders were drawn, it wouldn’t matter how many new houses
had been built or how many settlements existed. The overwhelming majority of
Israelis have always been willing to accept two states provided they were sure
that this meant no more war or terrorism. And that is something a Palestinian
people whose national identity is still inextricably linked to the century-old
war on Zionism has not yet shown itself capable of doing. So long as they
consider Tel Aviv “stolen land” as much as the “pirate outposts,” peace
Focusing on the settlements is the tactic the Palestinians
have invented since the Oslo Accords to excuse their strategy of avoiding peace.
It’s a shame the U.S. government; the UN and liberal publications like the Times echo
their talking points. But in doing so they are merely helping the PA avoid talks
and making the already dim chances for peace even more unlikely.