Colette Avital
Middle East Progress
September 23, 2008 - 12:00am

What challenges do settlements present and what is their impact on the peace negotiations?

While our government has been negotiating a peace treaty with the Palestinian Authority, and even though we agreed to freeze settlement activity, settlements in the West Bank have continued to expand. This presents a twin challenge. First, the government does not fully control settlers in the West Bank. Second, failure to halt construction in settlements sends a negative signal to our Palestinian partner. It changes their perception?how could Israel be serious about the peace talks if settlement continues?

Illegal outposts present another challenge. Former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon appointed attorney Talia Sasson to write a report on the issue. Upon the release of the report in 2005, Sharon promised both the Israeli government and the U.S. administration that illegal outposts would be dismantled. To the best of my knowledge, only four of the 26 outposts mentioned in the report have been dismantled so far.

Why do you think no other outposts have been removed thus far?

I think the strategy of the Ministry of Defense is to deal with illegal outposts as part of an ongoing dialogue with the settlers.

What inspired you to start the Bayit Ehad [One Home] movement which seeks to pass a law that would enable the government to compensate West Bank settlers who want to return now to Israel proper rather than wait until, presumably, they are forced to do so?

After the construction of the security barrier, 77 settlements?80,000 people?were left east of the barrier. These are small, isolated settlements which we all know will not be part of the major settlement blocs Israel intends to keep as part of an agreement.

There are two types of settlers: the first type was motivated by ideology, whereas the second sought a better quality of life. Settlers of the second type approached MK Avshalom Vilan and me after the security barrier not only led to deterioration in their quality of life but also made clear their property is within the borders of the future Palestinian state. They approached right-wing legislators initially but returned empty-handed.

We were very touched by their pain. They cannot sell their houses, the interaction with Palestinians puts their life in real danger and moving inside the West Bank and crossing into Israel proper is complicated and inconvenient. In essence, they were left outside of the state. On top of that, their future looms in the dark. While the government is negotiating an agreement with the PA, it does not inform them of what they should expect. As far as they know, they might be asked to move out any day.

This vagueness makes it extremely difficult to manage a business, enroll the kids in school and so forth. I heard stories from hairdressers who cannot decide on how much hair dye to order because there is no point in keeping things in stock if evacuation is near. Moreover, distributors are having a hard time crossing checkpoints and delivering goods to these remote settlements. Thus, grocery stores, supermarkets, pharmacies and other businesses are often undersupplied, lack essential products and are forced to close down. They feel like hostages in their own homes.

We took this issue very seriously. We conducted a survey and found out that 50 percent?10,000 families which account for some 40,000 settlers residing east of the barrier?are willing to move back into Israel proper now if offered a decent arrangement. If done wisely, everybody can gain. Creating a mechanism that would allow settlers to relocate voluntarily makes sense both politically and financially. Eventually we will have to compensate them anyway. Why not start now and reduce the pressure of dealing with the issue when we reach an agreement? Such a mechanism will also reduce the levels of violence and give settlers less leverage to extort the state for bigger compensation in the future.

We hired the lawyers who dealt with the Gaza disengagement and drafted the law ?Pinui Pitzui,? meaning ?evacuation compensation.? In contrast with the disengagement, we propose compensation only for houses and not for businesses. We suggest monetary compensation paid by the government of $250,000-300,000 per house, based on market assessments, so that families can afford to buy a house somewhere else, as long as it is not in another settlement.

Do you offer a solution to tackle the challenge of the type of settlers who are motivated by ideology?

No. Our bill seeks to help the settlers who want to relocate now. The challenge of setters who don?t want to leave will be addressed probably when we sign a peace agreement. One option is that they might be allowed to relocate to a settlement bloc that Israel keeps.

The evacuation of further settlements is seen as likely to be very divisive within Israel. What kind of response have you gotten from individual settlers and the settler community to your plan?

As part of our outreach, we sent the 80,000 settlers east of the barrier letters in which we presented our initiative. To some of the letters we provocatively added an image of a Palestinian passport implying that they will become citizens of the future Palestinian state if they don?t act soon. We got positive responses from settlers as well as, unsurprisingly, negative ones. At the end of the day we can say that as many as half, maybe more, want a way out.

If the bill is passed, what might be the implications for the peace process?

If such a compensation mechanism is installed even before we reach an agreement, it would be an asset in the negotiations. One of the most serious problems between us and the Palestinians is lack of trust. Continuation of settlement expansion at a time of dialogue only makes this lack of trust harder to bridge. A legal framework for voluntary compensation would serve as a trust-building measure and boost the negotiations.

The government discussed your proposal last Sunday for the first time. What is the prospect of passing it in the near future?

Forty-one MKs of 120 support the bill. If it wasn?t for the political turbulence in Israel now, I believe Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who supports it, could have convinced his Kadima Party to lend the bill its support and we would have been able to pass it. When I met with Olmert and Haim Ramon, we went through the ground work required to pass the bill, including convincing the religious party Shas to support it, and concluded that it was possible. I spoke with many members of Shas and they understand very well the advantages of this initiative. The timing now, though, is politically problematic. The government did not want to have a vote last Sunday but was willing to include the bill on the agenda, which happened.

It is too early to assess when the bill will be voted on or discussed again by the government. There are a few possible scenarios. First, if we, the Labor Party, decide to join the new coalition Kadima chair Tzipi Livni is trying to form, this will be one point that we raise in the negotiations. If, however, a coalition is not formed and we head toward general elections, the process might be prolonged further. The Knesset is now in recess anyway and it is unclear how long negotiations to form a coalition will take and if elections will be required. We are talking about few months at least. Clearly, this is not the time to pass such sensitive legislation.

What happens to the settlers who put their life on hold until the government decides to address their concerns?

We are very worried about the settlers. We visit settlements at least once a week and talk to the people. We spoke to mayors in Israel regarding finding accommodation for settlers in their cities. All we can offer now is our support and a promise to keep the topic on the agenda until the political situation is more suitable for passing the legislation.

Have you applied the lessons of the Gaza disengagement and the way in which settlers were evacuated, relocated and compensated in developing your plan? If so, how? Has this made a big impact on the way you think about the issue?

One thing that we had in mind when we started Bayit Ehad was to avoid repeating the mistakes of the evacuation of settlers as part of the Gaza disengagement, which was so traumatic. Many settlers in Gaza did not want to leave, and applied pressure on those who were ready to go to refuse any arrangement. Eventually, they were all forced to leave at the last moment, without any choices or options to rearrange their lives. Even though they received compensation, most of them still have no permanent dwelling. This is precisely what must be avoided. If each individual is given the time and the possibility to choose where he or she wants to live, and move there accordingly, we can avoid a lot of trouble. Therefore, we offer West Bank settlers a dignified way to leave in advance with decent compensation that would allow them to rebuild their lives some place else.

On our board of directors we don?t only have people from the left but also from the center and the right, retired generals and even settlers. We are sympathetic to their suffering and genuinely want to help. After all, it was the government that supported them when they first moved to the West Bank and it is the government?s responsibility to help them now.

How do we best convey this kind of urgency, and how directly it affects Israel?s immediate interests and survival as a Jewish democratic state, to the Israeli people, and Jewish people everywhere?

The government is not doing enough to educate the public on what peace will require. I am in favor of secret negotiations, because diplomacy should not be made public, but parallel to the diplomatic process, the government has to have a better dialogue with the public and prepare it for making painful compromises. People don?t realize that. No government has done this yet, although it is one of the lessons of the Oslo years. At that time, the public was caught unaware and unprepared. Preparation is crucial when dealing with such sensitive issues.

Moreover, the peace camp as well as the government should launch a PR campaign that would outline to the Israeli public, Jewish Diaspora and all the supporters of a two-state solution the dangers lying ahead if there are elections in the Palestinian Territories before substantial progress is made in the negotiations. If Hamas takes over the West Bank in addition to Gaza, this will mark the end of the two-state option, which is not only the best way, but is also the only way to ensure Israel?s security.

Ethan Bronner of the New York Times recently wrote about recent successes, both economic and security, of the PA in Jenin; there?s been a real turnaround there over the past year or so. Among the factors cited in the article were the fact that the few settlements that had existed in that area were evacuated at the time of Gaza disengagement in 2005, so the lack of settlements made it much easier to start addressing movement and access issues for Palestinian goods and people and dealing directly with Palestinian security concerns ? at least within that immediate area. Do you agree with that assessment with respect to impact of evacuating those settlements near Jenin in 2005, as part of Gaza disengagement package?

I certainly agree with this analysis, and would add that when roadblocks are removed, this allows the freedom of movement of people and goods. In addition, in the case of Jenin, much more was done: the local police forces were trained, the powers were slowly transferred to them, and the Palestinian government as well as the representative of the Quartet did a lot to help develop local trade.


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