Both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas profess to seek a two-state solution, but still have not discussed the core issues that divide them. These issues are borders, security, refugees, Jerusalem, settlements and identity, each of which I will examine in the weeks ahead. The issue of settlements continues to serve as the immediate stumbling-block to renewing negotiations. Far more than a manifestation of the territorial dispute between the two sides, the settlement issue is intertwined with the principle ideology of Israeli and Palestinian identities. Every housing unit built beyond the 1967 Green Line has physical, psychological and political ramifications, making the issue a formidable obstacle to overcome if a two-state solution is to be achieved.
From the Palestinian perspective, the settlement issue is the albatross that undermines any prospect for a viable Palestinian state. Since the Oslo signing of the Declaration of Principles in September 1993, the number of Israeli settlers in the West Bank has nearly tripled, from approximately 116,000 in 1993 to over 300,000 today. This number does not include more than 200,000 settlers in East Jerusalem, where Palestinians seek to establish a capital for their state, and where the Netanyahu government last week announced it would build another 1,100 housing units.
Physically, settlement construction confiscates land that Palestinians seek for their future state, bit by painstaking bit. Psychologically, construction sends the Palestinians a clear message: that Israel does not accept their claim to the land or their national aspirations, and has no interest in a two-state solution. Herein lies the rationale for the continued Palestinian insistence on a complete Israeli settlement freeze in both the West Bank and East Jerusalem prior to their entering into negotiations.
From the Palestinian view, if Israel were truly willing to accept a Palestinian state, it would cease construction that encroaches further into would-be Palestinian territory. Prime Minister Netanyahu and his cabinet ministers reinforce the Palestinian assertions that Israel is not interested in accepting a Palestinian state by continually invoking Israel's historic connection to the West Bank by referring to its biblical Hebrew name "Judea and Samaria."
Politically, continued settlement construction has moved Palestinian leaders further away from compromise with Israel. For any Palestinian leader to enter negotiations without a construction freeze would amount to political suicide. As more Palestinians question whether negotiations can truly lead to a Palestinian state, compromising on an issue that contradicts the very notion of the creation of their state has become a political impossibility.
From Netanyahu's perspective, settlement construction is linked with national identity. He has repeatedly placed the idea of Palestinians accepting Israel "as a Jewish state" at the center of the deliberations over renewing peace talks. From his perspective, until the Palestinians and the Arab world accept the legitimacy of this claim, peace will be impossible. Furthermore, Netanyahu can easily point to his 10 month construction freeze, during which time Abbas failed to enter into negotiations, as a justification for his refusal to accept another freeze, especially if it includes East Jerusalem.
Netanyahu fundamentally differs from his predecessors, Ehud Olmert, Ariel Sharon and Ehud Barak, who used the word "occupation" to describe Israel's continued hold on the West Bank. Netanyahu does not view the ancient Jewish lands of "Judea and Samaria" as occupied, and certainly not East Jerusalem, and thus does not believe them to be off-limits to Jewish construction. This explains why he has expended so much political capital in opposing a settlement freeze, despite continued pressure from Washington and the international community. Netanyahu tries to justify his refusal to freeze construction by linking the settlements to Israel's national security, which an increasing number of Israelis accept at face value.
Netanyahu has repeatedly claimed that Israel cannot accept "indefensible borders," based on the 1967 lines. He highlights that Israel would be only 9 miles wide if it were to relinquish its territory in the West Bank. However, this security argument is undermined by the reality that for any agreement to be reached, Israel will have to relinquish land. Unless Netanyahu claims that a 12 or 15 mile width is more "defensible" in today's missile technology than a 9 mile width, it is difficult to comprehend what Netanyahu's "defensible borders" looks like without a continued substantial Israeli military presence in the West Bank.
If the dispute over settlements was solely based on security or political issues, it could be reconciled through good-faith negotiations. However, the settlements represent more than a security and political disagreement. The issue is viewed as a matter of the inherent historical rights and existence of each side. This is what makes this conflict so intractable. All of this begs the questions: If the settlement issue is so deeply ingrained, how can it be resolved? Is there any way the Palestinians can compromise on the issue of settlements in order to return to the negotiating table? Will the Netanyahu government cease construction and accept a Palestinian state or will it remain committed to a losing strategy that is like a self-consuming cancer?
There is absolutely no way the Palestinians will ever compromise on this issue unless they are offered a more plausible alternative. Compromising now would be viewed as a capitulation for Abbas at a moment when Palestinians believe that they have gained momentum in isolating Israel in the international community, especially on the question of the settlements. At the same time, while Israel has a historical claim to the West Bank, Netanyahu has shown no indication that he is willing to reconcile this claim with the reality that a Palestinian state must be created if a democratic, Jewish state is to remain and thrive in the region.
There will be no solution to the settlement problem until both sides are persuaded to heed to the pressure of the Quartet (the UN, US, EU and Russia), and most directly by the United States, to agree on a new rules of engagement by negotiating borders first. Borders will not only define the parameters of the Palestinian state but will also address the settlements issue. A land swap in which Israel would keep the major settlement blocs in the context of a border agreement has long-been viewed as the answer to this conundrum. This will also give Mahmoud Abbas the political cover he needs to drop his precondition of a construction freeze by negotiating borders first, as long as future construction will be limited to the settlements that will become a part of Israel in a negotiated agreement. With construction freeze out of the way, Netanyahu and Abbas will then face the moment of truth.
Mahmoud Abbas must know by now that he has been playing into Netanyahu's hand. He must change his strategy to bring him even better results. Negotiating borders will lead directly to the heart of the settlement issue, and will require their immediate resolution.
Netanyahu must know by now that his strategy to create more facts on the ground by continuing settlement construction before negotiating borders with the Palestinians in earnest has run its course. The whole world is focused on Israel's settlements' activity because they speak volumes about Netanyahu and his government's ultimate intentions.