Jun 9th 2009

The Settlements: Obama's Demands and Netanyahu's Options

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

Amidst the whirlwind of activity surrounding President Obama's diplomatic efforts to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict, one issue has stood out among others as particularly contentious. The renewed statements by President Obama, Secretary Clinton and the rest of the US administration on ending Israeli settlement activity has caused considerable discord on how to find common ground in this controversial issue. The Obama administration's demand that Israel end all settlement activity, including natural growth, has been deemed unacceptable by Netanyahu's government, which insists that a total freeze will severely aggravate normal life and engender internal political rift. Mr. Obama reaffirmed his position in his address to the Muslim world from Cairo when he stated: "The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements; this construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop." It is unlikely after such a statement that the US administration will retreat from this position. This will undoubtedly compel Netanyahu to revise his stance on settlements and a two-state solution as he addresses his countrymen on Sunday.

A close review of the Israeli point of view suggests that putting an immediate stop to natural growth on settlements, especially those which have become full fledged cities like Ma'ale Adumim, will be extraordinarily difficult to implement both politically and practically. Not only would the settler's movement rattle the government, but violence might inadvertently erupt, creating a scene that the Netanyahu government would want to avoid at all costs. The question is, what can be done to resolve this problem which has such potential to strain US-Israeli relations and undermine the Israeli-Palestinian peace process?

To understand the serious nature of the problem it first must be put in its proper context: More than anything else, the existence of the settlements reminds every Palestinian of the Israeli occupation, and the expansion of these settlements not only reinforces that painful feeling and humiliation, but suggests that Israel is intent on maintaining the occupation indefinitely. The fact that Prime Minister Netanyahu has refused thus far to accept the idea of a two-state solution further strengthens the Palestinian argument that Israel has no intention of relinquishing the occupied territories. President Obama must insist on stopping the expansion of the settlements as a prerequisite to instilling some confidence and integrity into the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. Mr. Netanyahu has thus far been against the freeze partially because it would imply an early concession on one of his main bargaining chips: the idea of the two-state solution.

To resolve this quandary it seems unlikely that President Obama will settle for less than a; moratorium' on further expansion. Changing the semantics from a freeze to a temporary moratorium could initially provide some manoeuvring room to agree on a workable formula. A temporary moratorium would mean a halt on the expansion of all settlements and settlement related activity during a set negotiating process, likely between three to six months. This might well work if it were done with the understanding that Israel and the Palestinians would enter immediately into negotiations with direct and active American involvement to determine the future borders of the two states. Once the borders have been agreed upon, Israel can expand settlement activity within them and will be prohibited from any development outside these borders. Whether the objective of the negotiations from Netanyahu's perspective would be a Palestinian state or not, he has already conceded as much when he stated that the Palestinians have the right to self-rule living side by side Israel in peace. Netanyahu may be able to sell the moratorium idea to his centre-right coalition partners because the alternative will be a direct confrontation with the United States, which could bring his government down. This may explain his likely change of heart, especially when recent polls show a majority of Israelis support the freeze.

During these negotiations, Israelis and Palestinians can agree within a few months as to which of the settlements will be incorporated into Israel proper under a peace agreement, and what contiguous land of equal size and quality can be swapped with the Palestinians in its place, which should be enforced under American monitoring. The two sides have negotiated in the past (at Camp David and in Taba in 2000-2001) and agreed in principle about the status of these settlements. Although the Palestinian Authority will want all issues on the table to reach a final status agreement-including the Palestinian refugees and Jerusalem - it appears that they are willing to discuss borders first once Israel accepts the moratorium. Mahmoud Abbas, along with Jordan's King Abdullah has publicly agreed that borders would be the first order of business. Throughout the duration of these negotiations, the Palestinian camp would be expected to make discernable progress on security and ending incitement, in keeping with the mission of the US security coordinator for Israel and the Palestinian Authority General Keith Dayton.

It should be noted that historically the Israeli public has not tolerated and will not support any Israeli government that alienates the United States. Moreover, no Israeli Prime Minister could hold a government together should the United States decide to exert direct pressure-which the Obama administration appears to be willing to wield. The Wye River negotiations between Prime
Minister Netanyahu and President Clinton in 1998 over Hebron clearly indicate that Netanyahu is capable of surpassing expectations. The idea here is to start the negotiations with a significant concession, and then let momentum and American pressure move the process forward.

To provide some practical suggestions, it is necessary to break down the settlers' movement into its three basic constituencies. In doing so, some interim solutions can realistically be made to satisfy the American demands, meet the Palestinian and Arab requirements for resuming negotiations, and toprovide Netanyahu with a face saving way out that he can bring to his coalition.

The quality-of-life settlers are those who moved to the West Bank primarily for economic reasons, the majority of whom live in the block of settlements located closer to the green line. According to Peace Now statistics, there are about 196,000 residents in these settlements, several of which are no longer considered settlements and resemble large cities, home to more than 30,000 people each including Ma'ale Adumim, Modi'in and Beitar Illit. The routing of the security fence leaves most of these settlements on the Israeli side of the fence, though some deep inside the West Bank may not be included into Israel proper. The pressure on the government to allow for natural growth in these settlements is enormous and it is here where the Netanyahu government will experience the greatest difficulty in trying to implement the moratorium. This can be done however, because American overt pressure offers a high degree of political cover and limited options.

The second group consists of ideological settlers who use religious arguments to justify their presence in the West Bank. They view the return of the Jews to the land of "greater Israel" as a fulfilment of God's will. They occupy settlements located for the most part deep inside the West Bank and often in the heart of Palestinian populated areas. It is quite evident however that the public support for these settlements is declining. A growing majority of Israelis accept the fact that Israel will need to evacuate most of these nearly 100 settlements that dot the West Bank. The pressure to expand these settlements is minimal and it can be denied without considerable cost in political capital.

The third group is made up of Ultra-orthodox settlers in the West Bank who are a function almost exclusively of cheap and segregated housing close to the Green Line. They are descendents of devoutly religious Jews who oppose change and modernization. They have historically rejected active Zionism and continue to believe that the path to Jewish redemption is through religious rather than secular activity. There are eight ultra orthodox settlements that were built in the eighties and nineties with roughly 80,000 residents, all of whom are located within the settlement blocs that Israel wants to incorporate into Israel proper. These settlements are currently expanding more rapidly than others due primarily to a higher birth rate. Here-once an agreement on the borders is achieved-the expansion can then be quickly resumed within Israeli lines.

Based on the settlers' ideological leanings and location of the settlements, and considering the political constraints under which Netanyahu's coalition government operates, the Obama administration should focus on four possible areas where it can persuade the Israeli government to take action. First, the US should push for the dismantling of all illegal outposts-which the government has already begun-but must also insist that no new outposts be allowed to rise under any circumstances.

Second, the United States should focus on removing small clusters of settlements occupied by ideological activist settlers in places such as Nablus and Hebron that are troublesome and heavily tax Israel's security forces. All of these settlements are deep in the West Bank and most Israelis agree that they must eventually be evacuated for any peace deal as soon as there is an agreement.

Third, Israel must create a program of diminishing incentive that will provide settlers who are willing to relocate voluntarily with equal housing an extra incentive if they leave within the first year from the initiation of the program. The incentive will then be reduced every few months thereafter. The idea is to create reverse migrations to Israel proper while psychologically preparing the Israeli public and the Palestinians for the inevitability of ending the occupation.

While many settlers will not accept the compensation and try to hold out for a better deal, the government must be resolute and not give into blackmail. There have been some discussions about the fate of a few thousand Israeli settlers who simply refuse to relocate to Israel proper. Some suggest that they may continue to live in their homes under Palestinian authority, though neither side has reached an understanding on this issue in previous negotiations. This idea remains a viable one as a matter of principle, and can be worked out between both governments. Finally, as difficult as a complete moratorium on expansion of settlements will be, the United States must still exert sufficient pressure on Israel to be sensitive to Palestinian and Arab sensibilities and stop major development projects in and around East Jerusalem.

The Obama administration is likely to intensify the pressure on Netanyahu to make meaningful concessions for advancing peace. Although Netanyahu as a Prime Minister will be a tough negotiator and will demand full compliance in return from the Palestinians for any concession he makes, he may also prove to be the more worthy interlocutor and more trusted by the public. It should be noted that the largest territorial concessions-the Sinai, Hebron and Gaza were all made by Likud leaders Begin, Netanyahu and Sharon respectively.

Special envoy George Mitchell, who is now President Obama's Arab-Israeli point man, concluded his report of the Sharm el-Sheikh Fact-Finding Committee with the following words, "Israelis and Palestinians have to live, work, and prosper together. History and geography have destined them to be neighbors. That cannot be changed. Only when their actions are guided by this awareness will they be able to develop the vision and reality of peace and shared prosperity."

No American president has taken such a keen and immediate commitment to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict this early in his term as President Obama. And no agreement between Israel and the Arab states has been achieved without direct American involvement. If time, resolve and visionary leadership matter, there may not be a better time to push for a solution than now.

If you wish to comment on this article, you can do so on-line.

Should you wish to publish your own article on the Facts & Arts website, please contact us at info@factsandarts.com.


Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

May 7th 2021
EXTRACT: " Would the United States be prepared to risk a catastrophic war with the People’s Republic of China to protect the Republic of China, better known as Taiwan? "
May 5th 2021
EXTRACT: "Human history, ancient and contemporary, is replete with instances of genocide – that is, the effort to eradicate a people, erase their history, denigrate their culture, and destroy their physical presence. Many of these atrocities have been recognized by the victims and other nations who support them. But, with the notable exception of the German acknowledgment of the Holocaust, rarely have the perpetrators of these crimes accepted responsibility and offer recompense "
May 2nd 2021
EXTRACT: "The best way to defend liberal democracy is to practice it at home and abroad with the “courage and self-confidence” that Kennan touted at the dawn of the Cold War. This is also the best way to ensure the survival of our own conception of human freedom. And survive it will."
May 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "Ann Arbor (Informed Comment) – Sammy Roth at the LA Times/ Boiling Point Newsletter reports that California’s main power grid was powered for several hours last Saturday by 90% renewables. For just four seconds that day, the grid, which covers 4/5s of the state, reached 94.5% generation by green energy. California is the world’s fifth largest economy. The main grid does not cover Los Angeles County. On the other hand, these figures do not include the electricity generated by the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant, which is not counted as renewable but which is also very low-carbon."
Apr 23rd 2021
EXTRACT: "It is no accident that there has been an economic divergence in Central and Eastern Europe. Those countries that have joined the European Union have improved their economic governance, and GDP has begun to converge with Western Europe. Between 2014 and 2019, Hungary, Poland, and Romania grew at an annual average rate of 3.9%, 4.1%, and 4.7%, respectively. Meanwhile, Belarus and Ukraine experienced minimal growth during this period, and Russia’s economy expanded at an average annual rate of just 0.7%. Though Russia had a higher per capita GDP (in terms of purchasing power parity) than Croatia, Poland, Romania, and Turkey as recently as 2009, all of these countries have since overtaken it. Russians today are shocked to learn that they are worse off than Romanians and Turks. Among EU member states, only Bulgaria is still poorer than Russia. With its close proximity to the EU single market, Russia could have had higher growth if it had pursued sound economic policies. Instead,..... "
Apr 22nd 2021
EXTRACT: "As far as anyone can tell, the US military is not on the verge of an internal breakdown, let alone primed to stage a coup d’état. But few predicted anything like the US Capitol riot before protesters equipped with body armor, stun guns, and zip-ties breached the building. Before the US is blindsided again, its leaders must act resolutely to root out extremism in the military."
Apr 17th 2021
EXTRACT: "The new report on 2020 by the International Renewable Energy Agency reveals that the world’s renewable energy generation capacity increased by an astonishing 10.3% in 2020 despite the global economic slowdown during the coronavirus pandemic." .... "In 2020, the global net increase in renewables was 261 gigawatts (GW). That is the nameplate capacity of some 300 nuclear power plants! There are actually only 440 nuclear power plants in the whole world, with a generation capacity of 390 gigwatts. So let’s just underline this point. The world put in 2/3s as much renewable energy in one year as is produced by all the existing nuclear plants!"
Apr 16th 2021
EXTRACT: "When we examined the development of nations worldwide since 1820, we found that among rich Western countries like the United States, the Netherlands and France, improvements in income, education, safety and health tracked or even outpaced rising gross domestic product for over a century. But in the 1950s, even as economic growth accelerated after World War II, well-being in these countries lagged.
Apr 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "Some presidents indulge in the “Mount Rushmore syndrome” making an obvious effort to achieve greatness. Normally soft-spoken and apparently modest Biden is making his own bid for immortality."
Apr 9th 2021
EXTRACT: "New ways of thinking about the role of government are as important as new priorities. Many commentators have framed Biden’s infrastructure plan as a return to big government. But the package is spread over eight years, will raise public spending by only one percentage point of GDP, and is projected to pay for itself eventually. A boost in public investment in infrastructure, the green transition, and job creation is long overdue."
Apr 7th 2021
EXTRACT: " One can, and perhaps should, take the optimistic view that moral panics in the US blow over; reason will once again prevail. It could be that the Biden era will take the sting out of Trumpism, and the tolerance for which American intellectual life has often been admired will be reinvigorated. This might even happen while the noxious effects of American influence still rage in other countries. For the sake of America and the world, one can only hope it happens soon.  "
Mar 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "By refusing (despite having some good reasons) to end electoral gerrymandering, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., has directly enabled the paralyzing hyper-partisanship that reached its nadir during Donald Trump’s presidency. By striking down all limits on corporate spending on political campaigns in the infamous 2010 Citizens United decision, he has helped to entrench dark money in US politics. And by gutting the 1965 Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder, Roberts has facilitated the racist voter-suppression tactics now being pursued in many Republican-controlled states."
Mar 24th 2021
EXTRACT: "the UK’s tough choices accumulate, and the problems lurking around the corner look menacing. Britain will have to make the best of Brexit. But it will be a long, hard struggle, all the more so with an evasive fabulist in charge."
Mar 15th 2021
EXTRACT: "Over the years, the approach of most American policymakers toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been Israel-centric with near total disregard for the suffering endured by the Palestinian people. The architects of policy in successive US administrations have discussed the conflict as if the fate of only one party (Israel) really mattered. Israelis were treated as full human beings with hopes and fears, while Palestinians were reduced to a problem that needed to be solved so that Israelis could live in peace and security.  ..... It is not just that Israelis and Palestinians haven’t been viewed with an equal measure of concern. It’s worse than that. It appears that Palestinians were judged as less ​human than Israelis, and were, therefore, not entitled to make demands to have their rights recognized and protected."
Mar 8th 2021
EXTRACTS: "XThere’s a global shortage in semiconductors, and it’s becoming increasingly serious." ...... "The automotive sector has been worst affected by the drought, in an era where microchips now form the backbone of most cars. Ford is predicting a 20% slump in production and Tesla shut down its model 3 assembly line for two weeks. In the UK, Honda was forced to temporarily shut its plant as well." ..... " As much as 70% of the world’s semiconductors are manufactured by just two companies, Taiwan Semiconductor (TSMC) and Samsung."
Mar 5th 2021
EXTRACT: "Back in 1992, Lawrence H. Summers, then the chief economist at the World Bank, and I warned that pushing the US Federal Reserve’s annual inflation target down from 4% to 2% risked causing big problems. Not only was the 4% target not producing any discontent, but a 2% target would increase the risk of the Fed’s interest-rate policy hitting the zero lower bound. Our objections went unheeded. Fed Chair Alan Greenspan reduced the inflation target to 2%, and we have been paying for it ever since. I have long thought that many of our economic problems would go away if we could rejigger asset markets in such a way as to make a 5% federal funds rate consistent with full employment in the late stage of a business cycle."
Mar 2nd 2021
EXTRACT: "Under these conditions, the Fed is probably worried that markets will instantly crash if it takes away the punch bowl. And with the increase in public and private debt preventing the eventual monetary normalization, the likelihood of stagflation in the medium term – and a hard landing for asset markets and economies – continues to increase."
Mar 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "Massive fiscal and monetary stimulus programs in the United States and other advanced economies are fueling a raging debate about whether higher inflation could be just around the corner. Ten-year US Treasury yields and mortgage rates are already climbing in anticipation that the US Federal Reserve – the de facto global central bank – will be forced to hike rates, potentially bursting asset-price bubbles around the world. But while markets are probably overstating short-term inflation risks for 2021, they do not yet fully appreciate the longer-term dangers."
Feb 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "To be sure, calls to “build back better” from the pandemic imply some awareness of the need for systemic change. But the transformation we need extends beyond constructing modern infrastructure or unlocking private investment in any one country. We need to re-orient – indeed, re-invent – global politics, so that countries can cooperate far more effectively in creating a better world."
Feb 23rd 2021
EXTRACT: "So, notwithstanding the predictable release of pent-up demand for consumer durables, face-to-face services show clear evidence – in terms of both consumer demand and employment – of permanent scarring. Consequently, with the snapback of pent-up demand for durables nearing its point of exhaustion, the recovery of the post-pandemic US economy is likely to fall well short of vaccine development’s “warp speed.” "