The stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations that Secretary of State John Kerry worked relentlessly to reinvigorate four months ago have once again been stonewalled. The issue of the continuing building and expanding of Israeli settlements in the West Bank resurfaced as the central contentious issue between the two sides, threatening to torpedo the peace process altogether.
The Israelis and the Palestinians view the settlements enterprise from a completely different perspective that defines their strategic objectives and is becoming increasingly irreconcilable every time Israel announces the building of new housing units.
As the Palestinians see it, if the current negotiations are in fact aimed at reaching a peace accord based on a two-state solution, the continued settlement activity and their very existence throughout the West Bank stand in total contradiction to that objective. Consequently, this will inevitably deprive them from establishing a state of their own on the same territory.
Since the Oslo signing of the Declaration of Principles in September 1993, the number of Israeli settlers in the West Bank has tripled, from 110,066 to over 340,000 today, plus approximately 200,000 settlers in East Jerusalem, where thousands of new housing units are continuously being built.
Physically, settlement construction confiscates land bit by painstaking bit and sends a clear message: Israel does not accept the Palestinians' claim to the land or their internationally recognized right to establish an independent state of their own.
The Palestinians insist that, contrary to his public pronouncements, Prime Minister Netanyahu has no intention of pursuing a peace agreement based on a two-state solution. They point to his relentless efforts to expand the settlements by following the mantra of the late extreme rightist Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir in the mid- to late-1980s, who fiercely promoted the idea that Israel should settle one million Jews in the West Bank, creating an irreversible fact that no one can change.
Although freezing construction was not a precondition to resuming negotiations, the problem for the Palestinian Authority is that the expansion of settlements during the negotiating process is seen by the public as caving in on the core issue, which discredits the whole purpose of the negotiations.
Indeed, continued settlement activity makes it extremely difficult politically for President Abbas to compromise on other critical issues for Israel, such as the right of return of the Palestinian refugees.
This is particularly daunting for the Palestinians when seen in the context of Israel's refusal to compromise on the one issue that determines the future of Palestinian nationhood.
Netanyahu's position is that the settlements will not impede the creation of a viable Palestinian state. How he plans to mitigate that with the reality on the ground, however, remains a mystery, specifically when his repeated public pronouncements about Israel's inherent right to the land point to the contrary.
Prime Minister Netanyahu remains adamant about Israel's right to maintain a considerable presence in the West Bank, justified from his perspective by a number of unadulterated facts:
First, Netanyahu insists that the Jews have a historical affinity to the entire "land of Israel" as envisioned by the Zionist movement, and unlike his predecessors, Ehud Olmert, Ariel Sharon and Ehud Barak, ideologically he does not view the West Bank as an occupied territory (which he refers to by its Hebrew name, Judea and Samaria). Thus, he maintains that the West Bank should not be off-limits to Jewish inhabitants.
Second, Netanyahu and many Israelis with strong religious convictions uphold the view that the land has been bequeathed to the Jews, who have a biblical birthright to live in it. Zealous settlers deeply believe they are pursuing God's mission and that the Almighty is testing their resolve, tenacity and willingness to make any sacrifice before He grants them the Promised Land in perpetuity.
Third, Netanyahu has consistently linked the settlements to Israel's national security, which an increasing number of Israelis accept at face value. He has repeatedly claimed that Israel cannot accept "indefensible borders" based on the 1967 lines and highlights that Israel would be only nine miles wide if it were to relinquish much of its presence in the West Bank.
Fourth, the more practical motivation behind the settlements is the desire of many Israelis, with the encouragement of the government, to live in affordable and spacious housing in a clean environment with easy access to urban centers. To attract more settlers, successive governments have and continue to subsidize housing, schools, security and many other services.
As a consequence, the four factors led to the expansion of the settlements and the rise of the settlement movement as a formidable political force fully entrenched in the body politic of the country. Over time it has acquired a near de facto veto power over policies affecting the future disposition of the West Bank.
The settler movement is not a small group of criminals and vandals who are out to burn or daub inflammatory graffiti on the walls of Palestinian Mosques or vandalize Israeli military bases, albeit many such incidents have occurred. This is a movement on which successive coalition governments came to rely on to engender wide political support.
If the dispute over settlements was solely based on security or political issues, it could be reconciled through good-faith negotiations and iron-clad security guarantees. However, the settlements represent more than a security and political disagreement.
All of this begs the question: will the Netanyahu government recognize that its policy on the settlements has set the stage for further escalation of violent confrontations, as Secretary John Kerry recently characterized the settlements as "illegitimate" and warned of the potential eruption of a third Intifada?
Kerry may well have ill spoken by making such an assessment publicly instead of honing it forcefully in Netanyahu's ears, but the message remains a sound one.
Although the PA learned the lesson following the second Intifada in 2000 and will try to avoid violent confrontation with Israel, there are many Palestinian extremists over whom the PA has limited or no control and who would seize any opportunity to capitalize on the Palestinians' state of limbo and the dim prospect for a change in their unending plight.
Kerry's frustration with Netanyahu over the settlements was evident for anyone to see, but what is most worrisome is that U.S.-Israel bilateral relations have sunk to a level unseen for decades.
What is needed here are fundamental policy changes that must first, cease construction and second, commit in deeds, rather than empty rhetoric, to a two-state solution. Otherwise, the Netanyahu government runs the risk of the settlements becoming a self-consuming cancer.
The attack by militant settlers on a military base and assaults on IDF soldiers in the West Bank in 2011 and in October 2013 would have been unthinkable only few years ago. However, they are bound to escalate, pitting zealous settlers against the IDF. This is a real possibility and only reckless leaders can shrug it off as unrealistic.
Moreover, continued settlement construction will increase the divide between Israelis who seek an end to the conflict with the Palestinians and hard-core ideologues like Netanyahu, who denies the evidence that the settlements burden ordinary Israelis who are paying for it through cost of living and lack of affordable housing.
Religiously committed Israelis, on the other hand, need no evidence to justify their convictions as they place the building and expansion of settlements as the singular historic opportunity that will restore Jewish birthright to their homeland.
It is true that the uprooting of a significant number of settlers will be the most divisive issue that will face Israel. But then, no solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is possible without evacuating the 80 settlements scattered across the West Bank inhabited by more than 127,000 settlers.
These settlers can be resettled in the three blocks of settlements along the 1967 border (consisting of 43 settlements in which more than 214,000 settlers reside) which will, by agreement with the Palestinians, likely become part of Israel proper in an equitable land swap.
In an extensive discussion I had a few days ago with former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, he was more emphatic than ever that the time to strike a peace agreement is now. He echoed John Kerry's assessment of Mahmoud Abbas' commitment to peace because he has never been stronger politically and is willing to make the hard decisions to strike an agreement, which he was unable to do in the past.
The time is ripe for peace also because Hamas' strength and popularity is at its lowest; the Gulf states, led by Saudi Arabia, along with Jordan and Egypt are gravitating toward Israel because their concern over Iran's nuclear program, the waning strength of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the ongoing turmoil in Syria and Iraq make the settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict more desirable than ever before to usher in regional stability.
Netanyahu's demand from the PA to recognize Israel as a Jewish state when the expansion of settlements in the West Bank continues unabated is the height of "chutzpah."
It could only come from a man who puts his ideological principles before the wellbeing of the state and hold to the view of Herzl that "if you will it, it is no dream." The existence of the Palestinians, though, is not a dream; they are there and the settlements can never wish them away.
All figures, unless otherwise cited, are courtesy of Hagit Ofran, Settlement Watch director for Peace Now, who I thank for sharing her data.
Follow Alon Ben-Meir on Twitter: www.twitter.com/AlonBenMeir