Yariv Oppenheimer
Bitterlemons (Opinion)
April 9, 2008 - 8:46am

Recently, the Israeli and international media has featured reports on progress in peace negotiations. Chief negotiators Ahmed Qurei and Tzippi Livni maintain silence about the details, but allow that the talks are ongoing, detailed and purposeful. Now of all times, when the core issues never before discussed appear to be on the agenda, the negotiating theater seems to be infinitely distant from the reality unfolding on the ground.

While the negotiating teams are discussing the ways and principles for partitioning the Land of Israel, the reality on the ground makes it increasingly difficult to establish a sovereign Palestinian state. From week to week, there are more voices on both sides arguing that it has become physically impossible to remove the West Bank settlements and that accordingly the two-state solution is history. The original goal of the settler leaders to prevent any future national leadership from dividing the land is closer than ever to fruition, as the settlements continue to spread.

Like its predecessors, the Olmert government is operating in two contradictory directions: on the one hand it issues declarations regarding the existential need to achieve a peace agreement with the Palestinians, but on the other, it approves more construction beyond the green line, particularly the expansion of existing settlements.

This pattern is repeated especially when Israeli governments decide to advance courageously toward a political settlement. It is then, perhaps stemming from a desire to placate right-wing protests, that the government decides to move ahead with construction plans and alter the lay of the land almost irreversibly.

The codename that legitimizes every act of expanding existing settlements and establishing new ones is the broad concept of "settlement blocs". As if in recognition of a fait accompli, government spokespersons justify every new initiative to build in the territories with the excuse that the areas involved are settlement blocs that in any event will come under future Israeli sovereignty.

During the first three months of 2008, at the height of the Annapolis process, construction took place in 101 West Bank settlements; about 500 structures, comprising thousands of housing units, are currently being built. New construction plans were approved by the government to build a new neighborhood at Agan Haayalot next to Givat Zeev, north of Jerusalem. Tenders were released for the construction of 750 units in East Jerusalem. The regional planning commission approved submission of construction plans for 3,600 additional units in East Jerusalem. Most of these new construction plans are intended for empty areas located adjacent to Palestinian villages and neighborhoods in the eastern part of the city.

In contrast to the pronouncements of official spokespersons, the ramifications of additional construction in the settlement blocs are often more destructive than expansion of isolated settlements in the West Bank heartland. While construction in the isolated settlements is usually limited in scope and in any case destined for eventual removal, the "settlement bloc" concept is a green light for building thousands of housing units near the borderline, in areas where the chances of reaching agreement to evacuate settlements are slim. Removal of settlements like Ofra, Bet El and Har Bracha, which are located deep inside Palestinian territory in the mountain heartland, will enjoy far broader public support than removal of communities inside the settlement blocs, like Maaleh Adumim, Betar Illit and the Etzion settlements.

Moreover, Palestinian agreement to leaving part of the settlement blocs under Israeli sovereignty within the framework of a peace agreement is conditioned on territorial swaps, meaning transfer of Israeli sovereign territory to the Palestinian state. Every built-up acre in the settlement blocs constitutes an additional, complicated problem area when it comes to determining the future borders of the two states.

The settlement of Modiin Illit, which in early March was declared a full-fledged municipality, offers an excellent example of the way Israeli governments have obliterated the green line and de facto annexed territory while simultaneously proceeding with peace negotiations. In 1993 when the Oslo accord was signed, the land adjacent to the Palestinian village of Bil'in was empty. Yet within three years, even as a process unfolded whereby Israel recognized the right of the Palestinian people to a state in the West Bank, construction began on the Modiin Illit settlement to provide housing solutions for the ultra orthodox sector. Today, this settlement comprises 37,500 residents. Plans are advancing to expand it deeper into the West Bank; just this week two new enlargement plans were released.

The settlement construction dynamic, including in East Jerusalem and the blocs adjacent to the green line, should first and foremost concern the Israeli mainstream that aspires to separate from the Palestinians within the framework of a two-state solution. The consistent policy of expanding settlements renders the two-state vision that much more distant and is maneuvering Israel and the Palestinians into a situation where both will have to coexist in a single bi-national state.


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