Settlements and Peace: An Introduction


Howard Adelman

Based on the interviews of the Yedioth Ahronoth journalist, Mahum Barnea, with unnamed American officials who were active in the talks, Larry Derfner wrote an article called, “U.S post-mortem on peace talks: Israel killed them,” that was first published in +972, a blog based web magazine redistributed by the Foundation for Middle East Peace (FMEP) which I use as one prime source for my information on Israeli settlement activity as well as the information provided by the Israel Bureau of Statistics.

The latter has to be used as well because, as I wrote in yesterday’s blog, FMEP since it was founded in 1979 had held the position that settlements are the greatest obstacle to peace. The founder, Merle Thorpe Jr., has never budged from that position put forth in the 1984 book, Report on Israeli Settlements in the Occupied Territories. Though I appreciate Geoffrey Aronson’s updates on settlement activity, and though I have always opposed settlement activity in the West Bank, as readers know, I have not found the argument that settlements are the key block to peace to be compelling. I have found it to be less compelling rather than more so as time goes on.

Based on these interviews, FMEP believes it has the definitive goods for its case. Further, the case is supported by other reports of B’Tselem, Peace Now and other leaks that the Martin Indyk American team blamed Israel for scuppering the talks because of its settlement activities. What is the case in support of that argument. 

First, in initiating settlement activity in the West Bank during the talks, the activity may not have been helpful for either peace or Israeli public relations. However, a freeze on settlements was not a precondition for the talks proceeding. Everyone agreed, but you would never know that if you did a survey of general public opinion.

However, the Americans claimed that not making a freeze a precondition was their big mistake. It prevented a re-alignment of the Israeli cabinet that would have backed the peace progress. Second, the right wing Housing and Construction Minister, Uri Ariel, could sabotage the talks by announcements of housing starts in the West Bank. No one ever makes clear how announcing housing starts could undercut the peace talks when a freeze was not a precondition of the peace talks. The explanation proffered: a de facto freeze was expected if not a de jure part of the agreement in restarting the talks.   

How do we evaluate whether the continued settlement activity sabotaged the talks? According to the leaked debriefing, the John Kerry team placed virtually all of the blame for the failure of the talks on the Israeli side citing the announcement of 14,000 new settlement housing tenders and a massive expropriation of West Bank land for building these settlements. The figure of 14,000 settlement units came from Peace Now in the final week of the scheduled talks when everyone had acknowledged that the talks had been a failure. How does information coming after the implosion of the talks cause of that implosion? Everyone presumably could count. Peace Now apparently merely added it all up. claiming that Israel had “promoted plans or approved tenders for nearly 14,000 new settler homes on occupied Palestinian land during the nine months of peace talks,” activities that were at an unprecedented scale compared to the past twenty years. For example, in Netanyahu’s first term as Prime Minister, only 1,385 settler homes per year had been approved, just a few less than the number approved by Ehud Olmert. However, during the peace talks, Netanyahu broke all previous construction records.

The  facts are otherwise as I will document tomorrow. I want to present the argument in full first but I will summarize the evidence. First, yjough over 10,000 were authorized, the total did not add up to 14,000.. Far fewer were actually built. Third, the numbers were not unprecedented but along the norms over the last 15 years, though much larger than the last few years when housing approvals and starts were at their lowest point. Both the Israeli left and the Israeli right seem to have strong vested interests in exaggerating the figures on housing starts in the West Bank. And American officials have accepted those figures on face value. 

No one blames Tzipi Livni. She is regarded as a heroine in the talks. However, Tzipi Livni exclusively lays the blame on the Palestinians and also defends Netanyahu against the charge of insincerity in trying to advance a two-state solution. So if the settlement activities scuppered the talks, why is Livni not onside in that criticism? Alternatively, why is she not included in the targets worthy of blame? A hint comes from understanding the reading of history by the various parties. The Americans interviewed read the twenty year history prior to the talks as a litany of Israeli betrayal leaving an embittered and frustrated Abu Mazen – Mahmoud Abbas – the Palestinian Authority president. In their view, he did not fail to conclude a deal with Barack or with Olmert when the latter two made what were widely regarded as highly generous offers. Rather, Israel betrayed Abbas once again not only in building more houses in the West Bank but recently in failing to release the final 26 Israeli Palestinian prisoners.

What is left out is that Netanyahu did not refuse. He only said he would postpone the release of prisoners with “blood on their hands” until such time as Abbas agreed to continue the peace talks, especially the 14 of the 26 who were Israeli Arabs. When the peace talks were aborted two weeks later, the failure to release the prisoners could be blamed as well as the housing starts in the West Bank and Gaza, or Netanyahu could be lauded for being prescient though also blamed for the earlier releases when he allegedly received nothing in return – also not quite accurate..

The key historical position that the Americans took was that Oslo was merely used as a vehicle by the Israelis to further Israeli settlement activity. Abbas had enough. He was not willing to put up with it anymore. So the question is why did he agree to enter into the talks if a settlement freeze was not a condition of the talks?  Abbas had other complaints. While he agreed to a limited period for continued Israeli security control to be followed by substituting Americans, Netanyahu wanted unlimited security control with no time limits. The Americans agreed that Netanyahu was flexible, but argued that he only budged an inch. They also agreed that Abbas was very rigid, but somehow they symathized with his rigidity.

Abbas argued that he had made many concessions in the past that were not acknowledged or reciprocated. De facto he had given up n refugee return. He had agreed to a de-militarized state. He had agreed to allow Israel to hold onto some territory for security purposes in the Jordan Valley for five years. He had agreed that the Jewish neighbourhoods in East Jerusalem would remain part of sovereign Israel. The Americans have also correctly applauded Abbas on security within Palestine controlled areas of the West Bank for he not only “consistently reiterated his commitment to nonviolence and recognition of the State of Israel,” but also supported a very effective “security program involving disarmament of fugitive [Palestinian] militants, arresting [Palestinian] members of terrorist organizations and gradually dismantling [Palestinian] armed groups in the West Bank.”

However, Abbas refused to consider recognizing Israel as a Jewish state, a concession that Arafat had once made,. Though the Americans believed he should have budged on that, a formula was available to finesse such recognition without an explicit statement by recognizing the resolutions that divided mandate Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state. 

Abbas has said that he will restart negotiations, but only on condition there is a freeze on settlement activity for three months during which the final borders of the two states would be determined. That is not the condition that creates any real obstacle, particularly since housing initiatives can be announced quarterly. His other pre-condition for resuming the talks is the problem – Israel must agree that it will recognize Arab East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine. While both Barack and Olmert had been willing to do so with the exclusion of the Old City, Netanyahu has been unwilling to go even that far. I do not know whether this is a rigid position or whether he holds it because he is unwilling to go down the same road as Barack and Olmert only to be rejected in the end, but this difference does feed my argument that the key blockage is Jerusalem.

Let’s examine the various claims that the key blockage was the settlements in this alleged debriefing of the Americans – which I have no reason to believe is not accurate – an argument echoed by FMEP, Peace Now, B’tselem and feature writers for Haaretz. Ze’ev Schiff in his 2003 article, “Israel’s Policies on Settlements and Outposts” eleven years ago, on 9 May during the second intifada, noted that Israel had established 66 outposts, 24 since the beginning of the armed intifada., the vast majority legally flawed not simply in terms of international law but in terms of property ownership and Israeli law. 35 of the “illegal” outposts were evacuated and orders had been issued to evacuate another 30.

Reality was, however, very different. While outposts were being dismantled – not nearly as many as the targeted number – more outposts were being established than the ones taken down. The vast majority of outposts then were already illegal according to Israeli law since they were built on private Arab-owned land without any authority or land purchase. The Israeli defence establishment could not keep up with the efforts of the settlers and the prolonged legal battles over each outpost, much to the embarrassment of Shimon Peres and his agreement with Colin Powell.

This has changed. According to Israelis involved in government over a decade ago, there was an American-Israeli understanding that a) no new settlements would be established; b) existing settlements would not be expanded, even as a result of natural population growth; c) settlements could be consolidated by filling in within the borders of those settlements. Publicly, Americans have always denied that such an understanding exists since, on the official record, Americans have pronounced ALL settlement activities as illegal. However, the final status of the settlements would be determined in the final peace agreement.

Further, there has been an additional development in addition to curtailing outposts that is perhaps even more important. In the April 30 US State Department annual 2013 terrorism report, that includes documentation on the destructive and intimidating actions of settlers against Palestinians and their property, now not only in the West Bank but in Israel as well, since 2012, Israeli Minister of Internal Security Yitzhak Aharonovitch has adopted a zero-tolerance policy towards these terrorist acts and formed a special unit to eliminate them, an initiative that has recorded considerable success. However, even though the zero tolerance policy has not yet approached the efforts of Abbas in the areas he controls to manage Arab terrorism, even though the litany of attacks against Arab persons and property, cutting down and destroying mature groves of olive trees by vigilante extremists, reads or should read like marks of shame for any Jew, there has finally been some progress. In part, the success is also due to the Palestinian villagers themselves who have formed defense units instead of relying on militant forces that ended up holding the villagers themselves up for ransom.

Ignoring the millions of dollars spent in support of separate infrastructure projects or on development of Israeli settlement employment, especially in industries that use the West Bank to build environmentally polluting facilities that escape the stringent environmental Israeli guidelines, what is the actual record of settlement activity just before and during the just aborted peace talks? What was the response to those activities? Whatever the activities and whatever the response, did the building of more housing units in existing settlements destroy the talks? What is clear is that the argument is no longer over illegal outposts. That activity has been significantly reined in. The argument is focused on the role of housing announcements and actual construction on the peace process itself. Did those activities play the major role in blowing apart the peace talks?

Tomorrow: The Actual Data on Settlements and the Effects on the Peace Talks


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