Oct 6th 2011

The Settlements - The cancer that will kill any prospect for a two-state solution

by Alon Ben-Meir

A noted journalist and author, Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is professor of international relations and Middle East studies at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University. Ben-Meir holds a masters degree in philosophy and a doctorate in international relations from Oxford University. His exceptional knowledge and insight, the result of more than 20 years of direct involvement in foreign affairs, with a focus on the Middle East, has allowed Dr. Ben-Meir to offer a uniquely invaluable perspective on the nature of world terrorism, conflict resolution and international negotiations. Fluent in Arabic and Hebrew, Ben-Meir's frequent travels to the Middle East and meetings with highly placed officials and academics in many Middle Eastern countries including Egypt, Israel, Jordan, the Palestinian territories, Syria and Turkey provide him with an exceptionally nuanced level of awareness and insight into the developments surrounding breaking news. Ben-Meir often articulates

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.

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Jan 17th 2020
EXTRACT: "Thanks to cutting-edge digital technology, cars are increasingly like “smartphones on wheels”, so manufacturers need to have access to the latest patented 4G and 5G technologies essential to navigation and communications. But often the companies that hold the patents are reluctant to license them because manufacturers will not accept the high fees involved, which leads to patent disputes and licensing rows."
Jan 13th 2020
EXTRACT: "Recent polling from Pew Research demonstrates how the public’s attitudes toward the US and President Trump have witnessed sharp declines in many nations across the world. In Europe, the Americas, and the Middle East favorable attitudes toward the US went from lows during the years of George W. Bush’s presidency to highs in the early Obama years to lows, once again, in the Trump era. And in our Zogby Research Services (ZRS) polling we found, with a few exceptions, much the same trajectory across the Middle East."
Jan 13th 2020
EXTRACT: "In the absence of a declaration of war against Iran, the killing of a foreign official – by a drone strike on Iraqi territory – was possibly illegal. But such niceties do not perturb Trump. The evidence is that Trump’s decision was taken without consideration of the possible consequences. The national security system established under Dwight D. Eisenhower, designed to prevent such reckless measures, is broken to non-existent, with ever-greater power placed in the hands of the president. If that president is unstable, the entire world has a very serious problem."
Jan 9th 2020
EXTRACT: "It is possible that Trump’s reverential base won’t be sufficient to keep him in the White House past 2020. But such ardent faith is hard to oppose with rational plans to fix this or that problem. That is why it is so unsettling to hear people at the top of the US government speak about politics in terms that rightly belong in church. They are challenging the founding principles of the American Republic, and they might actually win as a result."
Jan 7th 2020
EXTRACT: "If anything has become clear in our recent Zogby Research Services (ZRS) polling in Iraq, is that most Iraqis are tired of their country being used as a playground for regional conflict, especially the conflict between the US and Iran. In fact, our polling has shown Iraqis increasingly upset with the role played by both the US and Iran in their country. Majorities see both of these countries as having been the major beneficiaries of the wars that have ravaged their nation since the US invaded in 2003. "
Jan 5th 2020
EXTRACT: "Under his [Suleimani's] leadership, Iran helped Hezbollah beef up its missile capabilities, led a decisive intervention to prop up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, supported the Houthi rebels who have been waging a war against Saudi-led forces in Yemen, and backed a wave of resurgent Shia militias in Iraq. According to Gadi Eizenkot, who completed his term as the Israel Defense Forces’ chief of general staff last year, Suleimani had plans to amass a proxy force of 100,000 fighters along Syria’s border with Israel."
Dec 31st 2019
EXTRACT: ".....stunning technological progress during the 2010s makes it possible to cut GHG emissions at a cost far lower than we dared hope a decade ago. The costs of solar and wind power have fallen more than 80% and 70%, respectively, while lithium-ion battery costs are down from $1,000 per kilowatt-hour in 2010 to $160 per kWh today. These and other breakthroughs guarantee that energy systems which are as much as 85% dependent on variable renewables could produce zero-carbon electricity at costs that are fully competitive with those of fossil-fuel-based systems."
Dec 31st 2019
EXTRACT: "Predicting the next crisis – financial or economic – is a fool’s game. Yes, every crisis has its hero who correctly warned of what was about to come. And, by definition, the hero was ignored (hence the crisis). But the record of modern forecasting contains a note of caution: those who correctly predict a crisis rarely get it right again. The best that economists can do is to assess vulnerability. Looking at imbalances in the real economy or financial markets gives a sense of the potential consequences of a major shock. It doesn't take much to spark corrections in vulnerable economies and markets. But a garden-variety correction is far different from a crisis. The severity of the shock and the degree of vulnerability matter: big shocks to highly vulnerable systems are a recipe for crisis. In this vein, the source of vulnerability that I worry about the most is the overextended state of central-bank balance sheets. My concern stems from three reasons."
Dec 14th 2019
EXTRACT: "Conspiracy theories about sinister Jewish power have a long history. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a Russian forgery published in 1903, popularized the notion that Jewish bankers and financiers were secretly pulling the strings to dominate the world. Henry Ford was one of the more prominent people who believed this nonsense."
Dec 13th 2019
EXTRACT: "In previous British elections, to say that trust was the main issue would have meant simply that trust is the trump card – whichever leader or party could secure most trust would win. Now, the emerging question about trust is whether it even matters anymore."
Dec 5th 2019
EXTRACT: "Europe must fend for itself for the first time since the end of World War II. Yet after so many years of strategic dependence the US, Europe is unprepared – not just materially but psychologically – for today’s harsh geopolitical realities. Nowhere is this truer than in Germany."
Nov 23rd 2019
Extdact: "The kind of gratitude expressed by Vindman and my grandfather is not something that would naturally occur to a person who can take his or her nationality for granted, or whose nationality is beyond questioning by others. Some who have never felt the sharp end of discrimination might even find it mildly offensive. Why should anyone be grateful for belonging to a particular nation? Pride, perhaps, but gratitude? In fact, patriotism based on gratitude might be the strongest form there is."
Nov 20th 2019
Extract: "Moody’s, one of the big three credit rating agencies, is not upbeat about the prospects for the world’s debt in 2020 – to put it mildly. If we were to try to capture the agency’s view of where we are heading on a palette of colours, we would be pointing at black – pitch black."
Nov 17th 2019
Extract: "Digital money is already a key battleground in finance, with technology firms, payment processing companies, and banks all vying to become the gateway into the burgeoning platform-based economy. The prizes that await the winners could be huge. In China, Alipay and WeChat Pay already control more than 90% of all mobile payments. And in the last three years, the four largest listed payment firms – Visa, Mastercard, Amex, and PayPal – have increased in value by more than the FAANGs (Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, and Google)."
Nov 14th 2019
Extract: "Trump, who understands almost nothing about governing, made a major mistake in attacking career public officials from the outset of his presidency. He underestimated – or just couldn’t fathom – the honor of people who could earn more in the private sector but believe in public service. And he made matters worse for himself as well as for the government by creating a shadow group – headed by the strangely out-of-control Rudy Giuliani, once a much-admired mayor of New York City, and now a freelance troublemaker serving as Trump’s personal attorney – to impose the president’s Ukraine policy over that of “the bureaucrats.” "
Nov 4th 2019
Extract: "Trump displays repeated and persistent behaviours consistent with narcissistic personality disorder and antisocial personality disorder. These behaviours include craving for adulation, lack of empathy, aggression and vindictiveness towards opponents, addiction to lying, and blatant disregard for rules and conventions, among others." The concern is that leaders with these two disorders may be incapable of putting the interests of the country ahead of their own personal interests. Their compulsive lying may make rational action impossible and their impulsiveness may make them incapable of the forethought and planning necessary to lead the country. They lack empathy and are often motivated by rage and revenge, and could make quick decisions that could have profoundly dangerous consequences for democracy.
Oct 31st 2019
EXTRACT: "......let’s see what happens when we have less money for all the things we want to do as a country and as individuals. Promises and predictions regarding Brexit will soon be tested against reality. When they are, I wouldn’t want to be one of Johnson’s Brexiteers."
Oct 21st 2019
EXTRACT: "Were Israel to be attacked with the same precision and sophistication as the strike on Saudi Arabia, the Middle East would be plunged into war on a scale beyond anything it has experienced so far. Sadly (but happily for Russian President Vladimir Putin), that is the reality of a world in which the US has abandoned any pretense of global leadership."
Oct 20th 2019
EXTRACT: "Europe also stands to lose from Trump’s abandonment of the Kurds. If, in the ongoing chaos, the thousands of ISIS prisoners held by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces escape – as some already have – America’s estranged European allies will suffer. Yet Trump is unconcerned. “Well, they are going to be escaping to Europe, that’s where they want to go,” he remarked casually at a press conference. “They want to go back to their homes." "
Oct 15th 2019
EXTRACT: "Assuming the House ultimately votes to impeach Trump, the fact remains that there are far fewer votes in the Senate than will be needed to convict him and remove him from office. But the willingness of Congress – including the Senate – to continue tolerating his dangerous conduct in office, including threats to US national security, is now truly in question."