To make serious progress toward a final status agreement between Israel and the
Palestinians, George Mitchell must first work on restoring confidence in a peace
process that years of havoc and destruction have all but destroyed. To that end,
he needs to address the two core sensitive issues that both Israelis and
Palestinians place tremendous importance on--ending the violence and
fundamentally shifting the settlements policy.
The settlements issue has been contentious not only between Israel and the
Palestinians but within Israel itself. No issue has eroded the Palestinian's
confidence in the peace process more than the settlements. For the Israelis, the
settlements and their expansion are a highly emotional and politically charged
national subject. Any future Israeli government will face vehement opposition
from the settler's movement, which exercises disproportionate power on the
government's policy toward its activities.
Ideally, building a structure of peace and instilling trust in the negotiating
process would require a complete freeze of all settlement activities including
the settlement blocks that Israel wishes to incorporate into Israel proper in
exchange for a land swap to compensate the Palestinians for the territory. But
that may be easier said than done. To provide some practical suggestions, it is
necessary to break down the settlers' movement into its three basic
constituencies. In so doing some possible interim solutions can realistically be
made to demonstrate to the Palestinians that Israel intends on changing its
settlements' policy and evacuating the vast majority of the West Bank.
The quality-of-life settlers are those who moved to the West Bank primarily for
economic reasons, the majority of whom live in the block of settlements located
closer to the green line. According to Peace Now statistics, there are about
190,000 residents in these settlements, several of which are no longer
considered settlements and officially have been named as cities, home to more
than 30,000 people each including Ma'ale Adumim, Modi'in and Beitar. The routing
of the security fence leaves most of these settlements on the Israeli side of
the fence. The pressure on the government to allow for natural growth in these
settlements is enormous and no government is likely to freeze completely their
natural expansion even under intense American pressure.
The ideological settlers use mainly religious arguments to justify the
settlements and their presence in the West Bank. They view the return of the
Jews to the land of Israel as a fulfillment of God's will. They occupy
settlements located for the most part deep inside the West Bank very close to
and often in the heart of Palestinian populated areas. It is quite evident
however that the public support for these settlements is declining. A growing
majority of Israelis tend to accept the fact that the Israel will need to
evacuate most of these nearly 100 settlements that dot the West Bank.
The Ultra-orthodox settlers in the West Bank are a function almost exclusively
of cheap and segregated housing close to the Green Line. They are descendents of
devoutly religious Jews who oppose change and modernization. They have
historically rejected active Zionism and continue to believe that the path to
Jewish redemption is through religious rather than secular activity. There are
eight ultra orthodox settlements that were built in the eighties and nineties
with roughly 80,000 residents, all of which are located within the settlement
blocks that Israel wants to incorporate into Israel proper. These settlements
are currently expanding more rapidly than other settlements due primarily to a
higher birth rate.
Based on the settlers' ideological leanings and the location of the settlements,
Mr. Mitchell should focus on four possible areas where he can persuade the next
Israeli government to take action, considering the political constraints under
which any future Israeli coalition government operates.
First Mitchell should push for the dismantling of all new illegal outposts; the
government can take this action without losing much political capital and it can
certainly justify it by citing American pressure. The mushrooming of new
outposts has been a terrible source of Palestinian frustration as they signify
further entrenchment rather than disengagement.
Second on the agenda should be removing small clusters of settlements occupied
by ideological activist settlers in places such as Nablus and Hebron that are
troublesome and heavily tax Israel's security forces. All of these settlements
are deep in the West Bank and most Israelis agree that they must eventually be
evacuated for any peace deal.
Third, Israel must create a program of diminishing incentive that will provide
settlers who are willing to relocate voluntarily with equal housing an extra
incentive of say $100,000 if they leave within the first year from the
initiation of the program. (This amount is compelling based on the Israeli
standard of living.) The incentive will then be reduced by $25,000 every six
months thereafter. The idea is to create reverse migrations to Israel proper
while psychologically preparing the Israeli public and the Palestinians for the
inevitability of ending the occupation. While many settlers will not accept the
compensation and try to hold out for a better deal, the government must be
resolute and not give into blackmail; these settlers must eventually be
forcefully evacuated with no incentive.
Lastly, whereas a complete moratorium on expansion of settlements may be
untenable, the United States can exert sufficient pressure on Israel to be
sensitive to Palestinian sensibilities and not commence major development
projects at sensitive moments in the negotiations. Meanwhile, the negotiations
on the final borders should be accelerated to reach an agreement on the
settlements that Israel could incorporate into its own territory. Such an
agreement with the Palestinians would greatly facilitate the movement of
ideological settlers from their current locations to these settlements while
still fulfilling their ideological mission.
The new Israeli prime minister, including Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, is
likely to be under intense American pressure to make meaningful concessions for
advancing the peace. Although Netanyahu as a Prime Minister will be a tough
negotiator and will demand full compliance in return from the Palestinians for
any concession he makes, he may also prove to be the more worthy interlocutor
and more trusted by the public. It should be noted that the largest territorial
concessions--the Sinai, Hebron and Gaza were all made by Likud leaders Begin,
Netanyahu and Sharon respectively.
Mr. Mitchell concluded his report of the Sharm el-Sheikh Fact-Finding Committee
with the following words, "Israelis and Palestinians have to live, work, and
prosper together. History and geography have destined them to be neighbors. That
cannot be changed. Only when their actions are guided by this awareness will
they be able to develop the vision and reality of peace and shared prosperity."
No American president has taken such a keen and immediate concern with the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict this early in his term as President Obama, and no
agreement between Israel and the Arab states has been achieved without direct
American involvement. If time, circumstances and leadership matter, there may
not be a better time to push for a solution than now.
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