The settlers are unhappy that he is willing to have even a partial freeze on new construction in the settlements, and they vow to ignore the rules and keep building.
The Palestinians say a “settlement freeze” that allows continued construction of public facilities and 3,000 units that have been already started is no freeze, and they vow not to return to the bargaining table until a “real freeze” is in place.
Depending on whom you ask, Jewish settlements in the West Bank are either:
· The Jewish people fulfilling their God-given mission, settling the land of Israel
· Illegal under international law and an egregious violation of the human rights of the Palestinians, the biggest single barrier to peace
As is usually the case in Israel, reality is more complicated than the slogans.
What’s a settlement? And who’s a settler?
To the average American, the word “settlement” probably conjures up an image of a few trailers on a remote hilltop populated by ornery teenagers, waving guns, with tzitzit flying. Or maybe a small clump of luxurious looking houses in a “seriously gated” community, surrounded by a high fence, isolated on expropriated land.
The above picture is the “settlement” of Har Homa, a short bike ride from my home in Jerusalem. There are no checkpoints to get to Har Homa, no one there is chasing Palestinians away from their olive trees, there is no “bypass road” used by Jews and banned to Arabs. In essence it’s a suburb of Jerusalem. The people who live there for the most part are not there because they identify ideologically with the settler movement: they are there because housing is a lot cheaper than it is a little over a mile away, in my neighborhood of Arnona.
Har Homa – and other large settlements contiguous to the “Green Line,” the pre-1967 border, is not the problem in a peace settlement with the Palestinians. No one seriously thinks that hundreds of thousands of Jews living in these large towns are going to pack up and move, if for no other reason than the cost would torpedo any possible deal. Places like Har Homa and other Jerusalem suburbs like Maaleh Adumim will definitely be part of Israel. As part of the final border negotiations, the Palestinians may be given other land to compensate them for these areas.
Someone in Har Homa adding a bathroom to their house (something that the government at first included in the “settlement freeze”) is not going to seriously impede the rights of the Palestinians, or the prospects for peace. So there really in no point in the US government insisting on a “100% freeze” since it doesn’t really mean anything or accomplish anything.
On the other hand, there are many settlements that ARE a barrier to peace: settlements where land has been taken from Palestinians who have proof of ownership, settlements where ideologically motivated radicals attack their Arab neighbors when they try and farm their fields, settlements whose residents travel on bypass roads that disrupt transportation for the locals.
Many Israelis were quite surprised to read in the newspapers recently that the Palestinians were launching a big protest against construction in Gilo. US President Barack Obama condemned the construction in Gilo as “unhelpful.” Israelis were surprised because hardly any Israelis consider Gilo a “settlement.” Yes, it may technically be on the other side of the Green Line, but it has been part of Jerusalem for so long – since the 1970s – and it is contiguous to “Jerusalem proper,” and there are no checkpoints, bypass roads, etc., to get there – that no one considers the thousands of people living there “settlers.”
Bibi is right that a compromise between unbridle
d construction and a 100% freeze is the appropriate approach to the settlements. However, his approach is seriously flawed in many of the details.
The settlers claim that it is forbidden to give up an inch of land in historical Judea and Samaria. What one calls the area in dispute is a guide to one’s politics: “Yehuda and Shomron” say the settlers; the Occupied West Bank say the lefties and Palestinians. The land is, of course, both.
There are several places in the Torah where we are commanded to go up and “conquer the land.” But for most of Jewish history, reality has intruded on the nominal borders the Bible promises. There are different measures given for the borders of Israel in the Torah – yet even the narrowest borders defined in the Bible have only been the measure of a sovereign Jewish state for very limited periods of history. Land was conquered by others, and in some cases land was willingly ceded to others, as King Solomon ceded some land in the north to the king of Tyre in exchange for wood and peace. King Solomon established a precedent that trading land for peace is acceptable.
The Palestinians base their current claims for land on the 1948 armistice lines, which served as the border between Israel and the occupied territory of Jordan on the one front and the occupied territory of Egypt on the other front until 1967. Note that the land was never “Palestinian” land – it went from Turkish rule, to British rule, to Jordanian/Egyptian rule, to Israeli rule.
There is nothing “magic” about the borders from ’48 to ’67. They were set by one war; they were undone by another. Many, many borders have been set by wars. Normally it’s the victors who get to decide the shape of the borders.
Both the Israelis and the Palestinians should pay attention to the Talmudic teaching “t’fasta m’rubah lo t’fasta,” if you try to grab too much, you grab nothing.
To the settlers, I would say even though Israel won the war in ’67 and in theory could annex all of the territory, it is not in Israel’s best interests to do so. For to do that, there is no alternative but to make all the Palestinians Israeli citizens who can vote in Israeli elections. Anything else would be a morally unacceptable (and politically unacceptable to the world at large) form of apartheid. And if we have a few million additional Muslim voters in Israel, the Jewish nature of the state of Israel would be at grave danger. Ariel Sharon realized this danger, and that is why he embarked on the notorious “disengagement” which included the withdrawal of all the Israeli settlements in Gaza.
To the Palestinians, I would say that suburbs like Gilo, Har Homa, and Gush Etzion are not going to be part of a Palestinian state, so there is not much point in making a big fuss about them. And, truth be told, the major settlements that are relatively contiguous to Jerusalem and pre-67 Israel are not a big problem for the formation of a viable Palestinian state. Focus efforts on where the REAL problem lies: isolated settlements in the heart of the West Bank, served by special roads for settlers that carve the West Bank up like Swiss cheese with road blocks, limiting the freedom of movement of their people.
What the Israeli government should do is a settlement freeze that really addresses the issues. They should stop 100% of construction in settlements that actually might be disbanded or made part of a Palestinian state. They should immediately disband outposts that are illegal under Israeli law. They should immediately halt the attempts to “Judaize” Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem. The recent events in Sheikh Jarrah, where Jews were allowed to move into an illegally built addition to a home in Arab East Jerusalem, are inflammatory in the extreme and do nothing to further the peace process.
The Palestinians should stop wasting their breath on Gilo – that train has already left the station – and focus their efforts on the settlements that actually interfere with a viable Palestinian state.
Both sides are treating every step of the peace negotiations as if they were bargaining for a rug in a bazaar. No one wants to concede even the obvious without making the other side work for it.
Isn’t it time to accept the obvious, and move on from there?