For our own good

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Ever since the Israeli-Palestinian peace process began in earnest with the Oslo accords of 1993, the two sides’ negotiations have been accompanied by Israeli settlement construction. Serious Israeli peace-seekers like Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert all continued building or at least expanding settlements even as they sought interim and final status arrangements with the PLO leadership. The latter, first Yasser Arafat and in recent years Mahmoud Abbas, proceeded with negotiations even as they protested settlement expansion.

The unwritten understanding between these Israeli and Palestinian leaders went more or less as follows: because of the structure of Israeli politics and the influence of right-wing elements it is easier for an Israeli government to negotiate peace than to remove settlements or even freeze their growth, especially when no final status agreement appears likely in the near term. An Israeli prime minister could be aiding and abetting the expansion of a given West Bank settlement in parallel with negotiations destined to remove that very settlement in favor of a Palestinian state. The settlement "beast" had to be fed to keep the coalition together and prevent serious unrest, thereby allowing negotiations to proceed. Once an agreement was reached and the Israeli body politic was presented with the incentive of an end to the conflict and thereby recruited to support it, the government would tackle the momentous and traumatic task of removing settlements.

It was also argued that settlement construction presented the Palestinian camp with an incentive to hurry up and negotiate peace before more of its territory was lost to the settlers. By the same token, the Palestinians had never sought peace with Israel before settlements were built, or even before the occupation began in 1967, so how could settlements be an impediment?

These Israeli leaders of course understood that the more the settlement enterprise grew, the harder it would be to negotiate a final status map acceptable to the Israeli public. Yet they persevered with this self-contradictory policy, apparently because each leader in his turn reasoned that this was the only way to survive politically. On the other hand, the political camp they represented drew encouragement from PM Ariel Sharon’s success in 2005 in removing all the settlements and outposts from the Gaza Strip. If Sharon could do it without a peace agreement, his successors presumably could remove settlements with one.

By and large, during most of the years since Oslo, the American governments involved in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process have accepted this Israeli logic, as long as Israel was seen to be trying to restrain settlement growth. This explains the oral understandings reached by the Sharon and Olmert governments with the Bush administration.

In fact, in the years after 1993 even these agreements were honored in the breach and settlement growth was rampant. By 2003, with the advent of the roadmap, the patience of the otherwise friendly Bush administration had been stretched thin enough to dictate roadmap phase I, to which the government of Israel remains committed. It states explicitly that "GOI immediately dismantles settlement outposts erected since March 2001. Consistent with the Mitchell Report, GOI freezes all settlement activity (including natural growth of settlements)." Bush, however, never got serious about the roadmap.

President Barack Obama’s insistence that Israel finally begin carrying out these roadmap obligations regarding settlements is thoroughly consistent with official American policy. But is it consistent with efforts to reach a peace agreement? In other words, can or should the Netanyahu government abide by the Obama administration’s demands in order to improve the chances for peace? Is a complete settlement freeze a sine qua non of a peace process with the Palestinians?

The answer is complex. On the one hand, the Netanyahu coalition will not collapse if it agrees to a complete settlement construction freeze and moves aggressively to remove outposts. Its members have a vested interest in holding on to their ministerial and Knesset posts for a couple of years before they contemplate taking steps that could lead to a coalition breakup. It’s all a question of prestige, vested interest in budgetary allocations, and even pension rights.

But on the other hand, despite Abbas’ avowed refusal, Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations will resume even without a settlement freeze if and when Washington and Ramallah are convinced that Netanyahu is serious about negotiating a final-status agreement with the Palestinians. Thus far they are not convinced and for good reason.

Perhaps of greatest importance, precisely because the entire settlement enterprise since 1968 constitutes a major strategic blunder on Israel’s part, Obama is justified in presenting the settlement freeze idea to the Arab world in strategic terms. When a succession of Israeli prime ministers who are negotiating peace allow settlement expansion to go on, the message the Arab world is getting is that Israel really seeks to swallow the territories and erase the Palestinian issue from the Middle East agenda. True, that is not the message Rabin, Barak or Olmert sought to project. But it is the message the Arabs got. When Israeli leaders who purport to be concerned with the demographic existential threat to Israel as a Jewish state mindlessly allow the proliferation of hilltop settlements that lock three million West Bank Palestinians in Israel’s embrace, our Arab neighbors can be forgiven if they get confused regarding our true intentions.

Obama wants to present a genuine settlement freeze as a signal to the Arab world that Israel is serious about peace. Even if there is no chance at all for a successful Israeli-Palestinian peace process in the near term and Obama’s sights are set on bigger regional issues like Iraq and Iran, he is doing us Israelis a huge favor in soliciting from those same Arabs confidence-building measures like overflight rights and interest sections. After all, this Arab quid pro quo is to be given in return for us doing what we have in any case committed to do, what corresponds with our own legal obligations and what is calculated to save us from ourselves.

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