The Bitter Truth about the Settlements

AP Photo/Oded Balilty

A construction site in the West Bank Jewish settlement of Modiin Illit

There are a lot of reasons for the peace effort's failure, but people in Israel shouldn't ignore the bitter truth—the primary sabotage came from the settlements.” This is what anonymous U.S. officials told journalist Nahum Barnea, a prominent columnist in Israel’s most-read newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth, in a candid interview about the collapse of Secretary of State John Kerry’s nine-month-long effort to broker talks between the Israelis and Palestinians. 

It’s not just people in Israel who shouldn’t ignore this bitter truth; it’s people in America, and particularly in Washington, where there’s an entire industry dedicated to casting the Palestinians as eternal rejectionists and downplaying the impact of the settlements and occupation that sustain them. Basically, these officials are telling us more explicitly what both Secretary of State John Kerry and President Obama have told us more diplomatically: Netanyahu’s unwillingness and/or inability to reign in the settlements poisoned the negotiations, and is killing any chance of a final, two-state agreement.

To be clear, the settlements are not the only obstacle to a final agreement. And the Palestinians undoubtedly made some questionable choices during these negotiations, too. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas blindsided both the Americans and the Israelis with a reconciliation agreement with Hamas two weeks ago, surprise being the enemy of trust in these kinds of negotiations. But the U.S. officials listed a number of important concessions made by Abbas, none of which were matched by Netanyahu. And the reconciliation with Hamas came after it became clear to Abbas that Netanyahu was not interested in negotiating in good faith. 

“The Palestinians don't believe that Israel really intends to let them found a state when, at the same time, it is building settlements on the territory meant for that state. We're talking about the announcement of 14,000 housing units, no less,” the officials told Barnea. “Only now, after talks blew up, did we learn that this is also about expropriating land on a large scale. That does not reconcile with the agreement.”

It’s good to have U.S. officials lay out these views. It would be even better if they would put their names on it. Still, the interview is troubling in what it reveals about these officials’ professed understanding, or lack thereof, of the environment they were stepping into just under a year ago. “We didn't realize Netanyahu was using the announcements of tenders for settlement construction as a way to ensure the survival of his own government,” they said. “We didn't realize continuing construction allowed ministers in his government to very effectively sabotage the success of the talks.”

Sorry, but there’s just no excuse for this. There was no shortage of people—Israelis, Palestinians, Europeans, and Americans—warning Kerry and his team about it going in. As I reported from Israel in March 2013, just as Netanyahu was assembling his current coalition, nearly every Israeli official with whom I spoke voiced strong concerns that a “surge” in settlement-building was coming. Writing that same month, Aluf Benn, editor-in-chief of Israel’s Haaretz, warned: “The third Netanyahu government has one clear goal: enlarging the settlements and achieving the vision of ‘a million Jews living in Judea and Samaria.’ This magic number will thwart the division of the land and prevent once and for all the establishment of a Palestinian state.”

Leaving aside what these officials should have known, the question is, having now said publicly that the Netanyahu government’s addiction to settlements is the primary obstacle to achieving a stated U.S. interest—a two-state solution—what is the U.S. willing to do about it?

It’s important to note there that it’s not just the settlements themselves—which, as their defenders never tire of pointing out, actually take up only a small fraction of land in the West Bank—that are the problem, but the system required to maintain them; the network of roads connecting them to Israel proper that bisect the West Bank, and on which Palestinians are forbidden to drive; the Israeli military presence that mocks any pretense of Palestinian autonomy; the acts of violence and harassment by settlers that Israeli authorities show little genuine interest in controlling. It’s what the settlements tell the Palestinians as they grow just outside their windows: that Israel has no intention of ever ending the occupation. 

“Twenty years after the Oslo Accords, new game rules and facts on the ground were created that are deeply entrenched,” the U.S. officials continued. “This reality is very difficult for the Palestinians and very convenient for Israel.”

Having (very belatedly) recognized this: Is the U.S. now prepared to take steps that make reality less “convenient” for Israel? For years, the mantra of conservative pro-Israel lobby groups has been that Israel will only be able to make the difficult choices for peace if it knows that U.S. support is absolute. But there’s a flip side to this, too: When Israel knows that U.S. support is absolute, it has no incentive to make difficult choices.   

In February 2011, the Obama administration cast its first veto at the United Nations blocking a Security Council resolution that reiterated the illegality of settlements under international law, and indeed, said basically what these anonymous U.S. officials have said now: The settlements are a key impediment to a final agreement. The veto saw the U.S. standing alone against the rest of the Security Council plus the resolution’s 100 other co-sponsors, isolating the U.S. from even its closest allies, with France, Germany and the UK issuing a statement in support.   

U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice justified the veto by saying that its adoption would risk “hardening the positions of both sides.” Yet here we are. 

So, once again, what now? Will the Obama administration heed the growing calls for it to put a U.S. framework on the table, as Secretary Kerry indicated in recently leaked remarks that he might do? Will it use its considerable leverage to put pressure on Israel to accept the terms of such a framework? Will it take steps to create genuine disincentives for Israel’s continuing defiance over settlements? Or, if it feels it cannot bear the domestic political costs of doing so, will it at least step out of the way of those who will?


There will never be peace until the Moslems teach their children starting at age 3, their total responsibility in life is to first kill all the Jews, and then go on to the Christians. How do you make peace when the other party's only interest is to see you dead. Unfortunately, because of the best wishes of American presidents, Israel gave up the oil wells, Gaza and the West bank, so there is no more to give up, and until they make peace with the moslem enemy, they are at war, so forget about the democracy, Israel has hever been a democracy, and they cannot, as they are a Jewish state, a theocracy. Accept the reality.

This is nonsense through and through.

The Palestinians do teach this, as do the Israelis. But most Muslims are not Arabs!

This is the kind modern-day morality that says there is no good and evil, everyone does both; if the Palestinian teach hatred to children encouraging them to be homicide bombers (as evidenced by pictures and documents), the Israelis must be doing it to. Stop making baseless accusations about Israelis teaching their children to hate and kill, to justify your support of the Palestinians!

Mathew, you have shown total ignorance in this article - it's a real shame when someone writes an article on a subject he knows nothing about, but just regurgitates other falicies. For one there are no roads that are Jew only. Israel has built infrastructre in Judea and Samaria (j&S) that Israelis and Palestinians both enjoy! Jews have every right to reside and build in J & S just like Arabs reside in Israel. The entire J and s is Israeli territory legally historically and morally. There is very minimal violence of settlers against Palestinians but unfortunately a lot of violence against settlers.

Your assertion is false. There are Jewish only roads crossing the West bank and this is well documented.

Saying false things and getting away with it is no longer something you should expect.

I have been to Israel and various cities in the West Bank (Palestine). You are incorrect in a few ways: There are no Jew-only roads, but there are Israeli-Jew-only roads; Palestinian infrastructure is barely repaired and enhanced. J&S is not legally Israeli territory. As for historically--that was a long time ago and many people, now Christian, Muslim, Jewish, and secular folks claim this land; the last legal entity was Jordanian/Palestinian. As for morally--to see the way the Palestinians are herded through checkpoints, harassed by settlers, and treated in inhuman ways (I have seen all of these and it's shameful), apparently, the Israeli government and a good segment of its citizenry doesn't read its own sacred documents.

Peace will be achieved when both sides recognize each other and both sides are willing to compromise. Israel is willing to do both the Palestinians are not!!! The solution is splitting the area in half - The Jewish area called area C goes to Israel and the Arab areas A and B go to the PA with land contiguity - Israel must maintain security from the river to the sea !


before the 1967 war and the occupation of the war-lands of the Pals, there were NO SETTLEMENTS and the Pals did not make peace, 'settlements'' are an excuse to say no as if the Pals ever had a need

post occupation there was one war, in 1973 and since then forty years mostly peace, no longer nation states going to war, although psychopaths for god can still murder

if the Pals had accepted the 1947 UN vote and not gone to war they would have everything they seek now and more, except the extirpation of the JEWISH state, which they still seek

they are the authors of their own misfortunes an deserve no sympathy whatsoever except from the historically or morally addled or the like-minded haters

get a life dude,

your side is the problem the villain not the victim of the peace

the Pals benefit from the Israeli hegemon by absence of green on green murder, the safest place in the entire arc of Islam is inside israel, for Muslims, Jews, christian, gays, women, children, and everyone else , oh the horror the horror

and they get international money to pretend to be aggrieved

pretty cushy

oh, and if the Pals want the settlements to stop, in place, they merely have to make peace,as is cut their losses, and move forward

for one week only, if they sign here call the 800 number on the screen we waive sixty years of reparations, but they do have to hang their war leaders

This type of militant hasbara has run its course.

Mr. Duss blame the Judea and Samaria settlements; ignoring what happened after Israel evacuated ALL the settlements from Gaza, excuse the fact that Abbas said he would never recognize Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people; he say (implying it is true) that “The Palestinians don't believe that Israel really intends to let them found a state," after they were offered and rejected (according to US representatives not Israel) several times a state on more than 96% of the West Bank; to pretend objectivity Mr. Duss admits that the "Palestinians undoubtedly made some questionable choices." But here is what unveils the mask from Mr. Duss's pretension of objectivity and show him for the antisemite he is, when without an iota of proof he makes the following statement: "It’s not just people in Israel who shouldn’t ignore this bitter truth; it’s people in America, and particularly in Washington, where there’s an entire industry dedicated to casting the Palestinians as eternal rejectionists."

This is a fair question: "How can talks succeed when, throughout the negotiations, Israel is building on the very land that would comprise a Palestinian state?"

After all, Israel has never in its history pulled out of or uprooted an established settlement, whether as part of a peace deal or unilaterally.

More, it's clear that no Jews can be allowed to live in an eventual Palestinian state, so the existence of Jews living on "the very land that would comprise an eventual Palestinian state" is an insurmountable obstacle to peace.

You've convinced me . . .

The bitter and obvious truth also is that Israel cares first and foremost about itself. It is a foreign country which has insinuated itself into our body politic.

From a US standpoint, Israel is heading for self destruction. As friends, we should point this out. But for self preservation, we should first disentangle ourselves.

The first step is to speak the obvious truth, which this article clearly does.

The bitter and obvious truth also is that Israel cares first and foremost about itself. It is a foreign country which has insinuated itself into our body politic.

From a US standpoint, Israel is heading for self destruction. As friends, we should point this out. But for self preservation, we should first disentangle ourselves.

The first step is to speak the obvious truth, which this article clearly does.

This body of comments is incredibly disheartening. It shows blind ignorance and dogged adherence to the hard-line pro-Israel apparatus that dominates the media, not just in the US but in France, in Argentina, the list goes on. The plague of misinformation dished out by "mainstream" American news sources is old news. And those who seek these sources manifest blatant anti-intellectualism---complete complacency for regurgitating the propaganda you are consuming, instead of having the slightest curiosity or moral compulsion to seek quality and independent journalism. This article is but one source that attempts to reverse the years of biased media coverage in our country. Sympathy for the Palestinian perspective is not extremist. It is a humane reaction to the Netanyahu/Likud sociopathy, disproportionate use of force, humiliating tactics, etc etc etc that impedes the quality of life of the average Palestinian daily.

Lordy!! How many times does this have to be repeated? Apartment buildings do not have a nationality or a religion. If there is a successful peace settlement there will be lines drawn on a map and if the line leaves some of these "settlements" on the palestinian side then it will be palestinians who live in them.

How ridiculous, the entire premise is an utter lie. There is only faux outrage for building in 40 year old Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem, that will never fall under Palestinian sovereignty.

If you want to understand the root of the problem, the root of the Evil and Hatred .... read the Quran ."You will surely find the most intense of the people in animosity toward the believers [to be] the Jews and those who associate others with Allah.... Quran 5:86

You need to be logged in to comment.
(If there's one thing we know about comment trolls, it's that they're lazy)