On June 4, 2009, President Barack Obama delivered his much-anticipated speech to the Muslim world from Cairo, Egypt. Mr. Obama asserted that he will pursue the creation of a Palestinian state and that Israeli settlement growth must be stopped because it is illegitimate. The previous week, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated, "He [Obama] wants to see a stop to settlements â€” not some settlements, not outposts, not 'natural growth' exceptions."
The Palestinians cite settlements as the most significant obstacle to peace. Much of the Arab world supports that narrative. Now, it appears, the current U.S. administration does, too. However, the administration may be ignoring key aspects of the debate, and in the process, placing undue stress on a Middle East ally committed to peace with its neighbors.
Settlements in context
Settlement activity began after Israel's victory in the 1967 Six Day WarÂ, a preemptive and defensive battle Âwhereby the Israeli military surprised even its own top brass when it gained control over the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Sinai Peninsula, east Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights. During the initial settlement period, between 1967 and 1977, the territories were viewed as bargaining chips that Israel could, in the future, trade for recognition and peace. Jerusalem authorized limited settlement activity based on national security, according to the Alon Plan. This plan, created by Israeli Defense Minister Yigal Alon in 1967, spawned a string of settlements in strategic areas along the Jordan Valley to create a line of protection around the country's vulnerable midsection. Indeed, many settlements began as military stations located in strategic but uninhabited areas.
In 1977, Israel's Likud Party rose to power. Under Ariel Sharon, the so-called "grandfather of the settlements," the settlement project skyrocketed. Prior to 1977, 4,500 Israelis lived in 36 settlements â€” 31 in the West Bank and five in the Gaza Strip. By 1981, West Bank settlers nearly quadrupled to over 16,000. With the party's second victory in 1981, the settlement project became a state-sponsored venture involving subsidies to encourage growth. By 1990, the West Bank settler population reached over 78,000.
Today, there are 187,000 settlers in the West Bank. And while that number indicates significant expansion since 1967, Israeli settlements comprise only a small area of the West Bank. According to the Palestine Monitor, less than three percent of the West Bank is dotted by settlements and Israeli military or industrial facilities. Moreover, settlers amount to less than 10 percent of the West Bank's population of 2,461,267.
Settlements built, settlements destroyed
However, even if Israelis constituted a more sizable percentage of the West Bank population, settlements are not an obstacle to peace. They are impermanent. Indeed, Israeli leaders on both the Left and the Right have repeatedly illustrated their willingness to vacate settlements in exchange for peace.
After the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt in 1979, Israel uprooted its settlements in April 1982 from the Sinai Peninsula, an area measuring some 22,500 square miles, in exchange for peace. The majority of settlers left without protest. Those who didn't were evacuated forcefully by the Israel Defense Force (IDF) in accordance with then-Minister of Defense Ariel Sharon's orders. Israel also relinquished the Alma Oil Field, which it discovered and developed, and would have made Israel an oil exporter; dozens of early warning stations; and military installations, such as airfields and a naval base.
The Sinai evacuation was not an isolated incident. In 2005, Israel again vacated settlements in what Prime Minister Ariel Sharon called a "unilateral security step of disengagement." Sharon dismantled all 21 settlements in the Gaza Strip and four in the West Bank. The evacuation process, which lasted five days, uprooted approximately 8,500 civilians. Like in Sinai, evacuating the settlers was no easy task. In some towns, settlers protested from their rooftops, throwing paint, foam, and other liquids at the soldiers.
Israel also demonstrated its willingness to relinquish land for peace in negotiations with Palestinians. In December 2000, under the auspices of former President Bill Clinton, Israel agreed to offer the Palestinians a sovereign Palestinian state on roughly 96 percent of the West Bank and 100 percent of Gaza, as well as sovereignty over the Temple Mount in Jerusalem and control over Arab sections of Jerusalem. The plan afforded Israel just four to six percent of the West Bank â€” areas housing 80 percent of the settlers, as well as key early warning military stations. The Palestinians, under Yasser Arafat, rejected the plan. Israel offered to relinquish even more settlements during final status talks at Taba in January 2001, to no avail.
The price of withdrawal
Israeli withdrawal from settlements has yielded, at best, negligible gains. At worst, it has brought bloodshed.
After Israel withdrew from the Sinai Peninsula pursuant to its peace treaty with Egypt, the two countries established full diplomatic ties. However, peace between Egypt and Israel is cold. Trade relations between the countries are minuscule. Rather than pursue normalization, Egypt leads a campaign of hate against Israel. Egypt's state-run media is rife with anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli themes. Cartoons depict Israelis with horns and tails, and equate Israel with Nazis. In 2002, Egyptian state-owned television aired a Ramadan series based on the anti-Semitic tract The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
Israel's 2005 withdrawal from Gaza led to an increase in violence; the Palestinians perceived the withdrawal as a testament to the success of terrorism. Indeed, as Israel withdrew, Palestinian gunmen even fired at the IDF. Only minutes after the last Israeli soldier left the Gaza Strip, Palestinians poured into the abandoned Jewish communities of Morag, Netzarim, Kfar Darom, and Neve Dekalim, and set fire to synagogues.
In fact, since vacating Gaza in 2005, Israel has experienced a 500 percent increase in terror attacks. From disengagement until Hamas' June 2007 bloody takeover of the Gaza Strip (wresting control from the Palestinian Authority), Palestinians fired 1,438 missiles into Israeli cities from Gaza. In 2008, Gazans fired a total of 1,752 rockets into Israel; 223 were launched during the "ceasefire" between June and December. This year alone, the Palestinians fired no less than 542 rockets into Israel.
A Judenrein West Bank?
Today, Palestinian leaders, backed by the Arab world, insist that all Jews must leave the West Bank in order for peace to be achieved. This is problematic for several reasons.
Currently, more than one million Arab citizens live in Israel. Arab Israelis have full and equal rights pursuant to Israel's Declaration of Independence, which guarantees "freedom of religion, conscience, language, education, and culture." Since 1948, Arab Israelis have run the political and administrative affairs of Arab majority municipalities and have elected representatives to the Knesset, Israel's parliament.
Why, then, should the West Bank's Jewish residents be prohibited from enjoying similar rights in an eventual Palestinian state? Jewish settlements in the West Bank, such as Hebron, have existed for centuries, dating back to before the birth of Prophet Muhammad. In fact, the only country in over 1,000 years to bar Jewish settlement in the West Bank was Jordan (then Transjordan) after the 1948 war. The Palestinians, should they assume control of the West Bank, have made it clear that they, too, seek a Judenrein state. Current Palestinian Authority law makes selling land to Jews punishable by death.
West Bank solutions
Forcing Jews from their homes in the West Bank is unnecessary for a successful Middle East peace plan. Two popular solutions allow for settlements to remain in the West Bank.
The first solution â€” a plan supported by Arab-Israeli dialogue activist Rabbi Menachem Fruman â€” calls for a future Palestinian state to have a Jewish minority. In this way, West Bank settlements should be seen as part of a future Palestinian state, and Jewish settlers as its future citizens. Of course, living in a Palestinian state may cause concern for some Jewish settlers, given the anti-Israel or even anti-Semitic views held by many Palestinians. Others, however, will want to stay because they believe the land is a part of the Jewish biblical homeland. Either way, settlers would ultimately determine if they want to stay or leave â€” not the United States.
The second solution, touted by U.S. presidents for the last decade, holds that Israel would retain settlements close to the country's pre-1967 border in any peace agreement, as those settlements are home to almost 80 percent of West Bank Jews. In return, the Palestinians will be compensated with land from within Israel's Green Line. This "land swap" was the vision of the Clinton administration at Camp David in 2000 and at Taba in 2001. It was also embraced by the Bush administration, outlined in letters between Israel and the United States in 2004.
Foreign policy priorities
The president's focus on Israeli settlements appears incongruous with other foreign threats. Even amidst anti-government protests, the Islamic Republic of Iran marches forward with its nuclear weapons program. It is doubtful that Israeli settlements are a more pressing issue than this. Now, however, the only two countries with the will and capabilities to disrupt or destroy the Iranian nuclear program are sidetracked by a diversion from the Iranian nuclear issue, which threatens Middle East peace and U.S. interests around the world.
Samara Greenberg is an M.A. candidate in international relations at American University and an intern at the Jewish Policy Center.
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