The Truth About Settlements

248 Israel’s Prime Minister, Bibi Netanyahu, is making everyone unhappy with his policy on settlements  (And I'll probably make everyone unhappy with this blog post!).

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?

Barry Leff

Rabbi Barry (Baruch) Leff is a dual Israeli-American business executive, teacher, speaker and writer who divides his time between Israel and the US.

4 thoughts on “The Truth About Settlements

  • Reb Barry,

    The sides are not Israel and the Palestinians.

    They are Israel and the Arab world, most of which is still on record to destroy Israel.

    Your description sounds neat, but we have a different situation on the ground here.

    It seems to me that every time Israel withdrew from land, or even did any gestures at all, we were rewarded with terror.

    Not withstanding Egypt and Jordan (given, important players, but with heavy oppositions breathing down their backs), I wouldn’t trust any of the non-democratic entities in our neighborhood. You shouldn’t either.

    Gidon Ariel
    Maale Adumim

  • Hi Gidon,

    I dont necessarily trust the neighbors either…but still, the best alternative for Israel is a peaceful Palestinian state. The alternative will be the world would shove a one state solution down our throats, and that would mean the end of the worlds only Jewish state. Its not about trust…its about what do we need to do to make it happen. I disagree with your analysis; we withdrew from Sinai, and have gotten peace on the southern border. The problem with the withdrawal from Gaza is it was done the wrong way, unilaterally. I used to favor unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank as well. I dont anymore; Gaza taught us any withdrawal from land needs to be done as a bilateral deal in the context of peace negotiations. A partial settlement freeze as a confidence building measure is not a bad thing, as long as its the right kind of freeze, which was the point of my post. What Netanyahu has done is not quite the right thing yet.

    Reb Barry

  • Well said–your points about what constitutes a “settlement” is precisely what I’ve been trying to get across to people. Additionally, I don’t believe that Jordanian occupation of real estate for 19 years somehow transforms it into “Palestinian” land—a case in point being the Old City (and Sheik Jarrah, for that matter) since these were majority-Jewish neighborhoods prior to 1948. Ethnic cleansing by the Jordanians and Jordanian settlement of Arabs in former Jewish housing also does not render it “Palestinian.”

    Like you, I think the details can be hammered out in serious negotiations. However, my feeling since Olmert’s failure to reach an agreement has been that the Palestinians aren’t serious about peace negotiations–every concession seems to be met with another demand, and the goal keeps getting pushed out of reach. If Abbas wasn’t willing to even consider (not accept–consider, respond, negotiate some more) Olmert’s offer because it didn’t include the Right of Return and concommitant innundation of Israel with alleged descendents of Palestinian refugees, then why are we wasting our time on this?

  • Dear R Barry,

    Thanks for responding!

    You talked about “the best alternative for Israel is a peaceful Palestinian state”. That term Best Alternative brings to mind BATNA – Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement, from the classic Getting To Yes by Uri and Fisher. That means that you try to negotiate a good solution, but if your negotiating partner will not negotiate or if you cannot get to a better outcome than a pre-thought non-negotiated solution, then you have your BATNA to be satistfied with.

    So a “peaceful Palestinian state” is not an alternative, it is a dream (some would say a fantasy). Such an entity couldn’t possibly happen without negotiations, and I think that you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who thinks it can be had through negotiations – even the most hard line “peaceniks” just are dreaming of non-belligerence (which, by the way, is closer to a truthful description of what we have with Egypt and Jordan than peace, but that’s another story).

    I am not familiar with the international relations term “the world would… shove down our throats”. Could you be a little more specific? I think that if the “world” would deign to put sanctions on us, then no action on our part would turn them into Lovers of Zion.

    I think Israel and only Israel has to decide how to best insure its survival. I personally would prefer a slightly more conservative attitude than “I used to… I don’t anymore” about something that happened a mere four and a quarter years ago, and all warnings of its opponents came to pass.

    “A partial settlement freeze as a confidence building measure is not a bad thing”

    From the perspective of the more than _a quarter of a million people” that this “not a bad thing” effects, it IS a bad thing. And for the MAJORITY of Israelis who do not see the current freeze as a “confidence building measure” and even problematic democratically (see, we feel that experiments should be done in laboratories, not pizza parlors. Flippantly referring to an act that overnight cancels personal property rights as “not a bad thing” is surprising to hear from someone whose liberal, capitalist, and Jewish credentials are so impressive.

    My BATNA is continued, decisive strengthening of settlements in Judea and Samaria, in existing communities and new ones, with a deadline for the Palestinians to give up their arms, replace the inciteful educational system, and come to the table, by which Israel will annex these areas otherwise. We do not need to provide any more “confidence building measures,” we need to present a strong front and act according to our national interests.

    While we are on the subject, I would like to hear your comments on


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