Amjad Atallah, Michele Dunne, Yossi Klein Halevi, Rashid Khalidi, Menachem Klein, David Newman
The New York Times (Opinion)
September 1, 2010 - 12:00am

David Newman

The killing of four West Bank settlers on Tuesday was the last thing that Prime Minister Netanyahu needed immediately prior to the opening of talks with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Washington.

Netanyahu is under intense pressure from all sides. The Obama administration, supported by Israel’s left wing opposition, wants him to make real concessions, including a continuation of the settlement freeze which has been in place for the past ten months and which ends on Sept. 26.

There are few in Israel — from left or right — who believe that this new round of peace talks will end in anything but failure. It is clear to all that both Netanyahu and Abbas agreed to be part of this latest “peace” offensive simply to please the Obama administration and its demands for renewed talks. Neither wanted to be perceived as someone who turned down the American invitation, even if it still took some cajoling on the part of the American officials to bring them to the table.

The right wing in Israel, including most of Netanyahu’s own government coalition, spurred on by the settlement movement, wants settlement activity to resume full speed and are not interested in talks which would bring eventually about a Palestinian state, necessitating Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and possible evacuation of most, if not all, of the settlements.

In the past, it was the Arabs who believed that time was on their side, given the relative demographic growth of both populations. But now there are voices on the Israeli side, especially among the settlers, who are beginning to see things in the same way.

While the total settler population is less than 15 percent of the entire West Bank population, it has nevertheless doubled itself in the past fifteen years — since the start of the Oslo peace process — making it increasingly difficult (some would say impossible) for any Israeli government to evacuate some 300,000 residents of the region.

There is no surer sign for the Palestinians that Israel does not mean serious business as long as settlement construction continues. If the government were to announce the end of the settlement freeze now, it is unlikely that Abbas, who is at the negotiation table because of intense international pressure, will remain.

For his part, Netanyahu is trapped into his extreme right wing coalition and will find it impossible to declare a continuation of the settlement freeze. There is no significant opposition in Israel at present who can threaten his government should the “peace” talks fail. What is left of the almost dead Labour Party is trapped inside his coalition government — unable to raise a voice of opposition from within the government (in which it is no more than a minority presence) and unwilling to leave the government for fear of its final disintegration even as a marginal political force.

Representatives of the settlers, spurred on by the senior coalition government partner, the extremist Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, are determining the political agenda of the day and they are in no mood for further concessions or compromise.

Netanyahu is in a much more difficult position to negotiate a peace settlement today than he was during his first term as prime minister, some 12 years ago, when he had to take into account a significant opposition — and alternative government — of the center and center-left, headed by Ehud Barak, the Labour Party leader then as now.

Only now, Barak is his trusted defense minister who has control over the defense establishment and will do anything to ensure that he continues in that job regardless of the political positions taken by the government. While Barak threatened the continuation of the first Netanyahu administration, he now enables the current Netanyahu administration to pursue the policies dictated by his right wing coalition allies.

The killings on Tuesday have increased vows by the settlers to not give in to the terrorists and to continue the construction of even more homes and settlements throughout the West Bank — making what is already an impossible situation even more difficult.

Rashid Khalidi

If the Obama administration accepts the myth that dismantling settlements is impossible for Israel, there are no prospects for peace. The settlements are illegal under international law. Yet settlers have been pampered for more than 40 years, and their violence against Palestinians is consistently tolerated. Peace depends on the Israeli government rectifying the problem they and their predecessors created.

The settler enterprise is a deliberate strategic creation of Israel, beginning with the occupation in 1967. This enterprise has been indulged and enlarged by every Israeli government since then.

From the outset, this was a project to colonize and control Palestinian land. It still is. As Ariel Sharon said in 1998: "Everybody has to move; run and grab as many hilltops as they can to enlarge the settlements, because everything we take now will stay ours. Everything we don't grab will go to them.”

Today, there are nearly 500,000 settlers living illegally in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The U.S. has only occasionally and timidly objected. This irresoluteness, coupled with millions in tax-exempt funding, amounts to complicity in the 40-fold expansion of settlements since 1972.

The U.S. and Israel demand that the Palestinians engage in everything short of civil war (including torture and repression) to protect Israel's security, and yet American leaders fail to demand that Israel confront its own Frankenstein. While a minority of settlers may resist a peace deal requiring their departure, many are there because of generous government subsidies. These settlers would leave if provided with suitable incentives. The U.S. could withhold some of the $3 billion given to Israel as military aid annually and divert it toward housing settlers within Israel's own borders.

But so long as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fails to break with settler leaders, including his own foreign minister, and the U.S. vacillates on this issue, a just peace is far away.

Yossi Klein Halevi

When Palestinian terror attacks occurred during the Oslo peace process of the 1990s, Labor Party leaders responded by referring to the Israeli dead as “sacrifices for peace."

That emotionally detached expression helped alienate large numbers of Israelis from the peace process. Labor’s attitude then toward settler victims of terror attacks was even more obtuse. After an Israeli was murdered in the West Bank, former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin noted that if he hadn’t been there, he wouldn’t have been killed.

Tuesday’s terror attack which left four settlers dead is a reminder of the difference in tone between the Likud-led government today and the Labor-led governments of the 1990s. “You, my brothers, are pioneers,” Ruby Rivlin, the Likud leader and speaker of the Knesset, told settlers at the funeral procession. That wasn’t mere rhetoric. For the Likud, the settlers are an extension of itself.

That emotional connection could become a strategic advantage for the Likud, if peace talks turn serious. Most settlers desperately want to be — and deserve to be — regarded as part of the Israeli mainstream. Only a tiny minority among them is violent. When Gaza’s settlements were evacuated in 2005, there was no violent opposition. In the event of another withdrawal, the Likud’s emotional embrace of the settlers could help contain the radicals’ appeal.

Certainly, the violent fringe will regard withdrawal as treason, no matter who is in power. And the West Bank — the biblical Judea and Samaria — is far more precious to Israelis than Gaza ever was. Still, most settlers wouldn’t violently oppose withdrawal from there either, provided that the government is seen as representing the will of the Israeli majority.

Here too the Likud has a decisive advantage over the left. Most Israelis are flexible on territory but hard-line on security. The Likud has the credibility on security among Israelis that the left, for all its ex-generals, lacks. It is far easier for a Likud government to win majority support for withdrawal than it is for a left-wing government.

It’s no coincidence that every withdrawal so far was carried out by leaders on the right — Menachem Begin from Sinai in 1982 and Ariel Sharon from Gaza in 2005 (and for that matter Benjamin Netanyahu from most of Hebron in 1998). If there is a serious Palestinian offer for peace, then only Likud will be able to deliver a majority of the Israeli public and thereby neutralize effective settler opposition.

Menachem Klein

This question of how to control the settlers and get them on board with any peace process contains two hidden assumptions: First, that all the 500,000 Jewish Israeli citizens residing in the Palestinian area occupied in June 1967 war, are of one sort. Second, that there is a gap between the settlers and the Israeli government.

As for the first assumption, the settlers are divided in their socio-economic and education origins, their ideological motivation, religious affiliation, types of settlements and their location. Each one of these elements can help the government of Israel implement its peace policy. However, I doubt if Israel is ready to pay the needed price to achieve peace.

Moreover, as an Israeli I do not see my government building public trust in the peace talks or in the Palestinian partner, nor expressing serious desire to achieve peace and building public enthusiasm for it. This leads me to the second issue.

All Israeli governments built settlements. As Israel became more ensconced in the territories and broadened its settlement project, the links between the settlements, the army and the state bureaucracy grew tighter, to the point that it is difficult to make out where one ends and the other begins. The state has not ceased to function as a coherent, unitary institution when it approaches the settlement project. On the contrary, the settlement enterprise is the biggest state investment ever.

Furthermore, settlement building and expansion were made also during terms of peace negotiation. Under the aegis of Oslo peace process, the number of settlers increased drastically to 489,000 in 2010 from 222,000 in 1992. Even during the year of the Annapolis talks, 2007-2008, Israel continued to expand its settlements in the West Bank. Housing starts in the settlements in the first half of 2008 increased by 1.8 percent compared to the same period in 2007.

Amjad Atallah

The discussions over a two-state agreement have primarily been a conversation between the Israeli liberal center and Palestinian nationalists. At its core has been an Israeli belief that the only way to keep a Jewish polity democratic is by divorcing Israel from the Arabs in the West Bank and the Gaza strip.

All peace negotiations over ending the occupation have effectively turned into conversations about how Israel could maintain as much territory as possible with as few Arabs as possible. Concerns over Palestinian rights or the illegality of the occupation have never saturated Israeli discourse as thoroughly as the demographic argument has — hence the reason Palestinians and Israelis have spoken past each other for two decades now.

This basic assumption of liberal Zionism is still being challenged by the religious and secular right and parts of the settler community. They view all the occupied Palestinian territory as an integral part of Israel, regardless of what the maps at the State Department might show.

For many, the attachment to the land of the West Bank is more divinely ordained than that of the cosmopolitan and distinctly non-biblical Tel Aviv. For these Israelis, it is possible for Israel to maintain a Jewish polity and all the land up to the Jordan River — albeit at the expense of Palestinian national rights or individual equality for non-Jews. This help explains why the 1967 borders do not hold much sway in the current Israeli government’s negotiating strategy.

It is this reality that Israeli centrists like Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak have called essentially unsustainable, as the Jewish diaspora would not long continue to support a Jewish state that, in their own words, is practicing apartheid.

But this internal Israeli debate won’t require resolution as long as the United States covers up the reality of the situation. The truth is that as long as the United States gets weak-kneed at the mention of Palestinian national rights (as opposed to economic needs) and as long as it continues to provide political, diplomatic and economic support to the occupation, Netanyahu need not worry about bringing settlers on board. In fact, they form a comfortable scapegoat for his own reluctance to end Israeli control over Palestinians.

Many have argued that Netanyahu is ultimately a pragmatist, and he may very well be, but the pragmatist in him presumably realizes that as long as the U.S. provides material support to the occupation, he will never need to have a fight about it with those further to the right inside Israel.

Michele Dunne

Prime Minister Netanyahu would not be able to bring the entire settler movement on board for any kind of territorial deal that would be acceptable to Palestinians. But by breaking down the issue, he may be able to address the various constituencies within the 300,000 settler population in the West Bank, now 50 percent bigger than it was in 2000.

First, more than two-thirds of them live in large settlements that are relatively close to the 1967 Green Line and likely to be kept by Israel in a land swap deal with the Palestinians. Second, of the remainder who reside in settlements that would become part of the Palestinian state, some live there primarily for affordable housing and would be willing to relocate inside Israel in exchange for attractive compensation.

But there would definitely remain a hard core of thousands — probably tens of thousands — of religiously or politically motivated settlers who would not cooperate with evacuation and who would mobilize their many allies inside the Israeli parliament, government, and in the United States to try to derail a deal.

The question is whether Netanyahu could satisfy the concerns of most Israelis (including on religious issues such as access to Jewish holy sites in Jerusalem, Hebron, and elsewhere in the West Bank, as well as territorial and security issues) through a deal with the Palestinians and thereby minimize the amount of political and financial support on which recalcitrant settlers could draw. But at present the Israelis and Palestinians are still far from a point in the negotiations at which Netanyahu would face this problem.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017