Last Thursday morning, I was perched and staring at Tel Aviv in the distance to my left, Haifa to my right, and the vast Mediterranean Sea that seemed to separate them. My crow’s nest view was from a lookout point from the Israeli settlement of Alfei Menashe, which is situated clearly inside the West Bank and guarded by the controversial barrier that separates Israel from the Palestinian territories (I had to chose my words carefully there — the Israelis call it a “security fence” and the Palestinians have far less PC terms for it. In the name of impartiality, I’ll go with “controversial barrier.”)
Israeli settlements in the West Bank have been a lightening rod for criticism and division. The major settlement push took hold under Menachem Begin, Israel’s prime minister from 1977-83, who supported Israeli construction in the West Bank and Gaza Strip as a way to consolidate Israel’s territorial gains in 1967′s Six Day War. In the present context, they’ve become a key issue as the Israelis and Palestinians negotiate peace — as Israelis continue to build new settlements or expand existing ones, it appears as though Israel’s government is interested only in tightening its grip on Palestinian territories, not giving them back.
Construction in and around Israeli settlements came to the forefront in George W. Bush’s 2003 “Roadmap for Peace,” which called for a “freeze on settlement expansion.” Ariel Sharon, Israeli prime minister at the time, suggested that such a freeze was impossible due to the need for settlers to build new houses and start families. The issue has remained controversial ever since.
Occasionally, this family issue has been falsely referred to as “natural settlement growth.” In reality, “natural growth” is completely different. Here’s how it works: legal Israeli settlements are allotted a certain municipal boundary, but construction initially takes place on a small percentage of the designated land. “Natural growth” means that over time, the settlement expands to these full territorial boundaries. As construction continues, particularly for settlements deep on the West Bank, it certainly does look like an Israeli land grab.
In November, the Netanyahu government announced a 10-month moratorium on settlement construction, with an exemption for East Jerusalem. It’s due to be lifted in September.
The latest flare-up occurred during Vice President Joe Biden’s trip to Israel in March when the Israeli Interior Ministry announced the approval of construction of 1,600 new apartments in East Jerusalem. (NB: The Interior Ministry is headed by right-wing Shas Party member Eli Yishai, a rival to PM Netanyahu. The Interior Ministry’s announcement was likely designed to embarrasse Netanyahu during Biden’s visit.)
So, how do we sort this out? What’s the real concern with settlements, and how is the issue leveraged for political posturing?
The first thing to note is that certain settlement construction is more important (worrying) than others. Growth should only be highly controversial in settlement areas that will, one day, certainly be evacuated and turned over to Palestinian control.
If you look at a map of the West Bank, this includes the row of small settlements along the spine of the Jordan River and all those scattered in a seemingly random pattern throughout the heart of the territory. Jewish inhabitants in these locations number anywhere from a handful to a few thousand, and Israeli governments (yes, even those lead by Bibi) realize that they will not be part of Israel after a peace deal. Construction here in any form is unacceptable.
The biggest problem in this regard is Ariel, a settlement some ten miles behind the 1949 Green Line border. With about 80,000 Jewish residents living in relatively new apartment blocks that extend to its full municipal boundaries, both sides acknowledge moving them is probably more trouble than it’s worth. That’s why “new” construction in a place like Ariel technically isn’t that controversial–Ariel’s boundaries are firm, so construction won’t expand Ariel’s reach into the West Bank. Most likely, Ariel will be walled off as a non-contiguous part of Israel (with some sort of a land-bridge to the “mainland”), just like Kaliningrad is separated from the rest of Russia. Or Alaska from the US. Furthermore, a Palestinian state will be compensated with land elsewhere for Ariel.
Moreover, construction in many — though not all — of the settlements in East Jerusalem is less of a big deal than it seems. Certain settlements, like Alfei Menashe in the first paragraph of this post, will very likely become part of Israel in a peace deal. Settlements in Jerusalem, like the Gilo settlement in the city’s south, may indeed be over the Green Line, but it, like Ariel, is a well-developed community that has been considered a regular Jerusalem suburb for decades. It’s clear to both sides that Alfei Menashe and Gilo — communities that have reached their allotted territorial capacity and have no more room for “natural growth”– will become permanent parts of Israel in a peace deal, and, critically, that the Palestinian state will be compensated with land elsewhere.
In other words, continued construction in a place like Gilo is controversial only because it is symbolic and plays well in the media. In reality, building a new apartment block right in the middle of a settlement technically violates the general construction “freeze,” but in reality isn’t a strategic expansion. Even so, Vice President Biden must severely object to these letter-of-the-law violations because they smack of Israeli tone-deafness to this political sensitivity.
That means that when we hear of construction in settlements, we have to be careful to separate the acceptable-but-tone-deaf construction from the strategically unacceptable. Greater understanding of the strategic and tactical realities of settlements would help diffuse an intense public sensitivity to a highly complex issue.