A cost-benefit balance sheet

Enhancing Israeli security was one of the reasons most settlements were established. The settlements have failed completely in this regard and have instead become a major focus of violence. The settlements also threaten Israel’s demographic security. Nevertheless, in a few places settlements appear likely to help determine more secure borders for Israel. Moreover, perversely, without the threat to Palestinian territorial security posed by the settlements it is not at all certain the PLO would ever have come to the negotiating table. In the context of this security discussion the legality of the settlements is not a primary issue.

The most obvious confirmation of the settlements’ failure to provide security is the intended Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank. The Katif Bloc settlements in the southern Strip were supposed to constitute a buffer separating Palestinians from Egyptians under the Allon Plan of 1968, and to help fend off an Egyptian offensive along the coast against Tel Aviv. Now Israel has not only acknowledged the futility of those objectives, but it is inviting additional Egyptian forces into demilitarized Sinai to help deal with terrorism. Ganim and Kadim, two of the settlements about to be evacuated from the northern West Bank, were placed on the outskirts of Jenin to "separate" it from Israel. Now a much more efficient security fence separates Jenin from Israel.

Not surprisingly, it is the most provocative and dangerous Israeli settlements from a security standpoint–the isolated ones placed deep inside Palestinian population concentrations–that also constitute the biggest demographic security threat to Israel’s ongoing existence as a Jewish and democratic state. Here we return to the Katif settlements, where the presence of some 7,000 settlers has threatened to embrace Israel in a population interlock with 1.3 million Palestinians. But we can also point to several dozen settlements, with a few tens of thousands of inhabitants, that dot the West Bank mountain ridge from Nablus to Hebron and threaten to create a similar interlock with some two million Palestinians. In this sense, the settlements’ biggest drawback from an Israeli security standpoint is the demographic friction they generate at the strategic level.

By the same token, the settlements placed in blocs just across the green line in the West Bank appear to be the most logical in demographic, water and tactical security terms. Most final status maps endorsed by Palestinians recognize that the blocs will be annexed to Israel, both because they have changed the local demography by force of numbers and because they expand Israel’s borders where its territory is dangerously narrow, for example along the coastal strip or the Jerusalem corridor. Given the likelihood of a demilitarized Palestinian state, however, along with the absence of a military threat from the east, even the need to expand Israel’s "narrow waist" with settlements is no longer obvious. Indeed, some Israeli strategic thinkers from the right and center would now rather turn Israeli Arab villages near the green line over to Palestine, thereby narrowing that waist even further, in order to attain the more attractive security goal of improving the internal Israeli d! emographic balance.

Violence by Palestinians against Israelis will almost certainly continue after the advent of a two-state solution, just as it existed prior to 1967. Some Palestinians, and their radical Arab and Iranian supporters, will consider the solution inadequate regarding refugees or Jerusalem, or simply because Israel continues to exist. Many Israelis on the left and center who thought that occupation and settlements were the only reason for Palestinian violence were forced to confront this proposition when, in the course of recent years, suicide bombers targeted towns and cities deep inside Israel far more frequently than they targeted settlements across the green line. This explains today’s demand to remove isolated settlements, which clearly are a focus of violence, while building a security fence to at least reduce Palestinian violence inside Israel.

Did the spread of settlements, particularly in the West Bank, constitute a factor in the PLO’s decision in 1988 to negotiate a two-state solution–in the sense that, if Palestinians waited much longer there would be little left to negotiate? This is an intriguing theory that could, in a sense, justify the construction of settlements retrospectively at the strategic level. But by the same token, the more the settlements continue to spread today in the West Bank, the more moderate Palestinians are beginning to argue that they will soon preclude any possibility of separating the two peoples into two separate states. The day that viewpoint again becomes official PLO policy, the settlements will indeed cease to be a main focus of violence because, thanks to them, the green line will no longer function as a border and Palestinian violence will be directed indiscriminately at all Israelis.

In this context, some opponents of disengagement argue that the West Bank mountain heartland settlements, as an expression of the right of the Jewish people to live in the cradle of biblical Hebrew civilization, are worth any security price. From a national Jewish standpoint, this can only be termed a suicidal approach.