The Unsettling Question of Israeli Settlements

As if the challenges to productive Israeli-Palestinian talks—set to begin today in Jerusalem—weren’t already monumental, over the past several days the Israeli government has announced the building of over 3,000 new settlement units, and has identified a number of settlements located deep in the West Bank as “priority areas” for future development. If Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s hesitance to return to direct talks in the absence of a publicly declared Israeli settlement freeze was ever really confusing, it should no longer be. No sooner did he agree to come back to the table than the Israelis seemingly go out of their way to make him look like a fool for doing so.

The building announcements, certainly not welcomed by the Palestinians and the United States, are not exactly a surprise. Briefing reporters upon the restart of talks in July, a senior State Department official warned, “I think it would be fair to say that you are likely to see Israeli settlement activity continue.” Asked about it while on a trip to Colombia, Secretary of State John Kerry said that the announcements were “to some degree expected,” but reiterated that the U.S. “views all of the settlements as illegitimate. That is the policy of the United States. And we have communicated that policy very clearly to our friends in Israel.” Returning again to the theme of urgency that has characterized his approach, Kerry continued, “I think that what this underscores, actually, is the importance of getting to the table and getting to the table quickly and resolving the questions with respect to settlements, which are best resolved by solving the problems of security and borders.”

While some Israeli news sources reported that the Israeli moves were “coordinated” with the U.S., this strains the definition of the word. One of the key promises that Kerry secured from both sides was that there would be no surprises, and that all sides would be warned in advance of potentially provocative steps. But it’s not really “coordinating” if you warn someone before poking them in the eye.

It’s important to note that the settlement expansion has been undertaken by Netanyahu in an effort both to mollify extreme pro-settlement members of his own government, many of whom adamantly oppose the creation of a Palestinian state, and to offset the criticism of his decision to release 104 Palestinian prisoners held since before the 1993 Oslo agreement, a longstanding demand of the Palestinians, and a confidence-building measure before the talks. But it’s equally important to note that the prisoner release, which involves numerous Palestinians charged with terrorism and has caused a great deal of pain and outrage among the families and friends of victims, would have been unnecessary had Netanyahu been able to meet the Palestinians’ primary demand, which was a settlement freeze. The strongly pro-settlement nature of Netanyahu’s governing coalition made that option politically untenable. As Bloomberg’s Jeffrey Goldberg starkly put it, “The government of Benjamin Netanyahu would sooner release murderers from prison than stop building apartments on the West Bank.”

Palestinian leaders have registered the usual protests over the new settlement announcements, with some even suggesting that they would withdraw from talks, which is unlikely in the short term, given that Kerry received commitments from both sides to stay at the table regardless of such developments.

Still, it’s worth recognizing what a massive upsurge in settlement building this represents, and how it could negatively affect the talks. In June, Israel’s Peace Now reported that settlement construction starts had reached a seven-year high. Speaking to The Washington Post’s Max Fisher, Danny Seidemann, founder of the Israeli NGO Terrestrial Jerusalem and one of the foremost experts on the settlements, said that the sheer quantity was unprecedented, and was unsure how much the talks could bear. “This is a surge,” Seidemann said. “It can only be interpreted as an effort to humiliate the Palestinians on their way into the negotiating room, and I have doubts as to whether they’ll be able to remain.” (Danny and I have been good friends for a number of years. He tends to be optimistic about the possibility of overcoming the various challenges to the two-state solution. So when he sounds the alarm like this, you should pay attention.)

As indicated by his comments in Colombia, Kerry’s thinking is that the sooner negotiators can begin to grapple with issues like borders—determining, at long last, what is Israel and what is Palestine—the sooner settlements will cease to matter. The challenge in the meantime, of course, is keeping the two sides at the table amid provocations that are likely to periodically arise from various sources.

Interestingly, the European Union has turned out to be a particularly important player in these negotiations. In what may be the best thing to happen to the peace process in years, the EU announced in July the publication of new guidelines prohibiting support for Israeli organizations that operate east of the Green Line (the term used for the 1949 armistice lines) in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.  (The last time Israel faced any consequences from the U.S. over settlements was when the first George Bush administration threatened to hold up loan guarantees over the matter.) After years of expanding settlements with virtual impunity, Israel may finally be forced to reckon with tangible costs for them. The announcement of EU guidelines played a key role in enabling President Abbas to return to talks in the absence of a settlement freeze. The question now is how long they can help keep him there. 

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