Israeli settlements in the West Bank are back in the news this week. The State Department denounced the Israeli government’s approval for the construction of 486 new housing units in parts of Jerusalem and the territories as something that the U.S. is “deeply concerned” about. A “senior official” claimed the move “undermines the prospects for a two-state solution.” Earlier in the week, Nicolay Mladenov, a Bulgarian diplomat currently serving as the United Nations’ Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process sounded the same theme when he declared such building to be the prime obstacle to efforts to end the conflict. If that wasn’t enough, the New York Times devoted a portion of its front page today to a feature that purported to claim that Israel was “quietly” working to legalize some other housing projects that were built without proper authorization.
The image of Israel that comes through in all this is that of a country that is actively seeking to prevent peace negotiations and foreclosing any effort at a compromise that could end the conflict. But while Israelis can and do debate the wisdom of their governments’ actions, the one thing we can definitively say about the settlement moves is that they will have zero impact on the prospects of revived negotiations with the Palestinians or on a successful outcome of such talks if they ever resumed.
The main reason why settlements don’t prevent peace is that the Palestinians have already repeatedly turned down offers that would have given them a state and sovereignty over almost all of the West Bank. Settlements existed before those peace offers were made and their continued existence, with or without a few extra units, wouldn’t prevent the Israeli people from accepting a compromise based on a genuine desire to end the conflict for all time if the Palestinians were ever capable of doing so.
Just as, if not more important, is the fact that almost all of these new housing units are in places that even the Obama administration has stated would remain part of Israel in the event of a successful peace negotiation. Israel isn’t giving up Jerusalem neighborhoods like Gilo, where some of the new units are being built. Nor is it giving up the settlement blocs in the immediate Jerusalem suburbs or build along the counter’s eastern border with the West Bank and no one, including the current administration, expects them to do so.
Let’s also understand that the language used to describe these developments is part of the problem. Nobody would call a new apartment building in an existing neighborhood in the United States a new town but that’s essentially what is being done every time the construction of a house anywhere in Jerusalem or the West Bank (provided it is a house that Jews live in) is called a new settlement. Moreover, the “pirate outposts” that the Times speaks of being legalized are almost all extensions of existing settlements. The focus of the article is on a few houses that are separated from an existing settlement by a road. None are, as they are universally described as being, major land grabs.
It’s also vital to understand that the only ones being retroactively granted legal status are the ones built on state land, not private property on which Palestinians purport to have claims. Any housing that is proved to be on land to which Palestinians have clear title are not approved.
Of course, to Israel’s critics and foes, the semantics of settlements and even legal questions about land aren’t significant. They believe the presence of any Jews in any part of the territory that Israel seized from Jordan (which illegally occupied what it dubbed the “West Bank” to differentiate it from its land east of the Jordan River, from 1949 to 1967) is illegal. But that sentiment, shared by the Palestinians, is not based in law. Israel has a strong legal case for its right to the land based on the League of Nations’ Mandate for Palestine that set aside the country as a national home for the Jews. The Palestinians who live there have their own case for wanting it to be part of their putative state. That is a dispute that can be resolved by compromise, something that the Israelis have consistently proven willing to do and which the Palestinians have consistently opposed.
But the bottom line here is that if the Palestinian Authority were ever to summon the will to return to peace talks with Israel and to declare their willingness to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state, no matter where its borders were drawn, it wouldn’t matter how many new houses had been built or how many settlements existed. The overwhelming majority of Israelis have always been willing to accept two states provided they were sure that this meant no more war or terrorism. And that is something a Palestinian people whose national identity is still inextricably linked to the century-old war on Zionism has not yet shown itself capable of doing. So long as they consider Tel Aviv “stolen land” as much as the “pirate outposts,” peace is impossible.
Focusing on the settlements is the tactic the Palestinians have invented since the Oslo Accords to excuse their strategy of avoiding peace. It’s a shame the U.S. government; the UN and liberal publications like the Times echo their talking points. But in doing so they are merely helping the PA avoid talks and making the already dim chances for peace even more unlikely.