The Settlement Freeze Ruse II

While supporters of a two-state solution continue to insist that Israel freeze settlement construction in the West Bank, there is something quite maddening about this entire enterprise.

The U.S. has called on Israel to halt settlements for over three decades now. On at least one half dozen occasions, Israel has appeared to acquiesce to these demands. Nevertheless, settlements continue to expand their range like an invasive disease, eating up more Palestinian lands, as evidenced by a recent Israeli press report noting that 15,000 new units have been authorized, with another 58,000 under consideration. If completed, this will nearly double the number of Israelis living in the West Bank!

It’s an old story.

When a Likud government signed the Camp David Accords with Egypt in 1978, President Carter secured (or so he thought) a commitment from then-Prime Minister Begin to stop construction. Back then, the U.S. State Department legal advisor had ruled that settlements in occupied lands were illegal, in contravention of international law which forbade the occupying power from transferring its population into territory its military is holding.

At that time, there were approximately 6,500 settlers living in the West Bank, with another 40,000 living in settlements in occupied areas around Jerusalem. The West Bank settlements were mostly along the "Green Line" and in the Jordan Valley, having been established by the previous Labor government – which claimed they were for "security purposes."

The Likud government changed all that. They initiated efforts to implement what was then called the "Drobles Plan" (a World Zionist Congress "Master Plan for Development of Judea and Samaria" ). According to Drobles, the purpose was "to make concrete and realize our right to Eretz Israel" by constructing "settlements and roads around the settlements of the minorities [i.e., the Palestinians] but also in between them;" in order, as one Israeli analyst wrote in Time Magazine, "to carve [the West Bank] by a grid of roads; settlements and strongholds into a score of little Bantustans so that [the Palestinians] shall never coalesce again into a contiguous area that can support autonomous, let alone independent, existence."

And so, throughout the 1980s, settlements and roads continued to be built, with the West Bank settler population reaching 90,000 by 1991, and the number in the Jerusalem area having grown to more than 137,000. In that year, there was another agreed-upon "settlement freeze." In the lead up to the Madrid peace conference, Secretary of State James Baker, seeking an exchange of confidence-building measures, convinced Arab states to suspend their secondary boycott of Israel and to participate in an international peace conference in exchange for Israel’s agreement to a freeze.

With the signing of the Olso Accords, in 1993, Israel and the Palestinians agreed to refrain from any actions that might "prejudice the final outcome" – understood to be yet another commitment by Israel to stop building settlements and roads throughout the occupied territories. Despite this, the most rapid construction and expansion of both occurred during the "peace years" of the 1990s. By the end of that decade, the settler population doubled and the West Bank was further carved up by a security-enhanced "Jewish only" highway system connecting the settlements to each other and Israel proper.

There were other efforts to stop settlements. President George H.W. Bush, in an effort to put a price-tag on Israeli non-compliance, announced that each year he would deduct from, loan guarantees the U.S. was providing Israel, an amount equal to what Israel spent on settlement construction. This practice was continued by President Clinton. The Clinton Administration also attempted to put brakes on then-Prime Minister Netanyahu’s efforts to construct a new settlement near Bethlehem. After a short halt, plans continued. Today, "Har Homa," as it is called, hosts 19,000 settlers. Even President George W. Bush criticized settlement growth and maintained that, under the "Road Map," Israel was obligated to freeze settlements.

There are today nearly one half million settlers living in occupied lands (including those in occupied areas around Jerusalem). And more are on the way.

The continuing calls to freeze and Israel’s ignoring of these calls reminds me of the parent telling the child to "stop" and standing by while the child continues. Realizing there are no consequences for bad behavior only emboldens, creating a sense of entitlement. To make matters worse, even while calling for a freeze, in April of 2004, President Bush delivered an infamous letter to Ariel Sharon in which the U.S. recognized what the letter calls "realities" on the ground; i.e., the large settlement blocs that are protected behind the "separation barrier." In other words, what were "illegal," "obstacles to peace," "violations" of the Oslo Accords and the Road map are now "realities" which Palestinians must accept.

With one-half million settlers living in about 170 settlements strategically placed throughout the West Bank and surrounding Jerusalem, with another 100 outposts, 600 checkpoints, miles of roads and a wall/barrier that cuts deep into the heart of Palestinian lands – the dream of Drobles is being realized.

At this point, it is critical to recognize that if a two-state solution is to be achieved, calls for a "settlement freeze" are not enough. Not only are they hollow (and, therefore, ignored), but they ignore the reality that there cannot be a contiguous viable Palestinian state with intrusive settlements cutting into Palestinian territory, designed and placed as they were, with the specific intention of making such a state impossible.

Those who want to see a two-state solution cannot continue to accept – and reward – this bad behavior. If we are serious about two states (and some may not be), it is time to call not for a new freeze, but for a removal of settlements.