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Alon Ben-Meir Headshot

The Settlers' Movement Is a Threat to Peace and Israel's Existence

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The attack of hard-line Jewish settlers on an Israeli military base in the West Bank must not be seen as a passing incident that can simply be eradicated by punishing the perpetrators, as Prime Minister Netanyahu said in the Israeli Parliament. This dangerous and most deplorable incident is a byproduct of the continuing settlement policies that Netanyahu and his hard-core coalition partners have zealously been pursuing for the past three years. Netanyahu condemns the attacks on individual settlers while such policies continue to focus on the rapid expansion of the settlements, further strengthening the settlers' movement, which, for all intents and purposes, has acquired a de-facto veto power over policies affecting the future disposition of the West Bank.

Any attempt to resume serious peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, including the recent efforts by Jordan's King Abdullah II who hosted the representatives of Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the Quartette (the U.S., EU, Russia and the UN) in Amman will go nowhere as long as there is no change in the settlements' policy. Beyond that, continued settlement construction will increase the divide between those Israelis who seek an end to the conflict with the Palestinians and those hard-core ideologues that reference the building and the expansion of settlements as the singular, historic opportunity that will restore the Jewish birthright to their homeland.

The attack on the military base will not be the last incident and is bound to escalate to the detriment of Israel's very existence as long as the settlement issue remains the most contentious issue between Israel and the Palestinians and any future peace agreement requires the evacuation of scores of settlements scattered throughout the West Bank. Indeed, far more than a manifestation of the territorial dispute between Israel and the Palestinians, the settlement problem is intertwined with the principle ideologies encased within Israeli and Palestinian identities. Every housing unit built beyond the 1967 Green Line has physical, psychological and political ramifications, making the issue a formidable obstacle to overcome if a two-state solution is to be achieved.

From the Palestinian perspective, the settlement issue is the albatross that undermines any prospect for a viable Palestinian state. Since the Oslo signing of the Declaration of Principles in September of 1993, the number of Israeli settlers in the West Bank has nearly tripled, from approximately 116,000 in 1993 to over 300,000 today. This number does not include more than 200,000 settlers in East Jerusalem, where Palestinians seek to establish a capital for their state, and where the Netanyahu government continues to build thousands of new housing units.

Physically, settlement construction confiscates land that Palestinians seek for their future state, bit by painstaking bit. Psychologically, construction sends the Palestinians a clear message: that Israel does not accept their claim to the land or their national aspirations and has no interest in a two-state solution. Herein lies the rationale for the continued Palestinian insistence on a complete Israeli settlement freeze in both the West Bank and East Jerusalem prior to their entering into negotiations which they emphasized in their recent encounter with the Israelis in Amman.

The Palestinians insist that if Israel were truly willing to accept a Palestinian state, it would cease its construction, which encroaches further into would-be Palestinian territory. Prime Minister Netanyahu and his cabinet ministers reinforce the Palestinian assertions that Israel is not interested in accepting a Palestinian state by continually invoking Israel's historic connection to the West Bank by referring to its biblical Hebrew name, "Judea and Samaria," a position that strengthens the fervent nationalist settlers who believe they have a biblical birthright to live wherever they choose in the West Bank.

Politically, continued settlement construction has moved Palestinian leaders further away from compromise with Israel. For any Palestinian leader to enter into negotiations without a construction freeze would amount to political suicide. As more Palestinians question whether negotiations can truly lead to a Palestinian state, compromising on an issue that contradicts the very notion of the creation of their state has become a political impossibility.

From Netanyahu's perspective, settlement construction is linked with national identity. He has repeatedly placed the idea of Palestinians accepting Israel "as a Jewish state" at the center of the deliberations over renewing peace talks. From his perspective, until the Palestinians and the Arab world accept the legitimacy of this claim, peace will be impossible. Furthermore, Netanyahu can easily point to his ten-month construction freeze (during which time Abbas failed to enter into negotiations because it excluded East Jerusalem) as a justification for his refusal to accept another freeze, especially if it includes East Jerusalem.

Netanyahu fundamentally differs from his predecessors, Ehud Olmert, Ariel Sharon and Ehud Barak, who used the word "occupation" to describe Israel's continued hold on the West Bank. Netanyahu does not view the ancient Jewish lands of "Judea and Samaria" (and certainly not East Jerusalem) as occupied and thus does not believe them to be off-limits to Jewish construction. This explains why he has expended so much political capital in opposing a settlement freeze, despite continued pressure from Washington and the international community. Netanyahu hypocritically condemns the attacks against settlers while simultaneously justifying his refusal to freeze construction by linking the settlements to Israel's national security, which an increasing number of Israelis accept at face value.

Netanyahu has repeatedly claimed that Israel cannot accept "indefensible borders," based on the 1967 lines. He highlights that Israel would be only nine miles wide if it were to relinquish its territory in the West Bank. However, this security argument is undermined by the reality that for any agreement to be reached, Israel will have to relinquish land. Unless Netanyahu claims that a twelve or fifteen-mile width is more "defensible" in today's missile technology than a nine-mile width, it is difficult to comprehend what Netanyahu's "defensible borders" look like without a continued, substantial Israeli military presence in the West Bank.

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. The issue is viewed as a matter of the inherent historical rights and existence of each side. This is what makes this conflict so intractable and this is precisely why the hard-line settlers feel that no one can impede their activities, including the military, which is stationed there for their protection. All of this begs the question: Will the Netanyahu government recognize that its blind policy on the settlements has set the stage for further escalation of violent confrontations not only between the settlers and the Palestinians but between the settlers and the Israeli military? There is no doubt that Jews will kill other Jews in the name of a messianic mission. Those who think that this is simply unthinkable should think again. The late Prime Minister Rabin was killed by an Israeli Jew and not by a Palestinian terrorist. Nothing will stop the zealot settlers as long as they believe that they are pursuing God's mission and that the Almighty is testing their resolve, tenacity and willingness to sacrifice themselves before He once again grants them the Promised Land.

This is no longer just a small group of criminals and vandals who are out to burn or daub inflammatory graffiti on the walls of Palestinian Mosques or vandalize an Israeli military base. This is a whole movement deeply entrenched and continues to exert disproportionate influence on all Israeli governments, especially a right-leaning coalition government. It is a clear manifestation of a movement determined to control any future political agenda in the West Bank and will not be, as Netanyahu seems to believe, easily eradicated. Yes, he can incarcerate one, two, or a dozen settlers but how he does he intend to incarcerate a whole movement, which represents the core of his own constituency? Notwithstanding the Netanyahu's government "revulsion" to the settlers' criminal acts, these settlers know where Netanyahu and his cohorts really stand as long as the government continues to authorize construction of new housing in the heart of the Palestinian neighborhood. Fundamental policy changes are needed here, changes that must firstly, cease construction and secondly, commit in deeds (and not just in empty rhetoric) to a two-state solution or the Netanyahu government runs the risk of the settlements becoming a self-consuming cancer.

The behavior of these radical settlers must be condemned in the strongest possible terms but the real culprits are not the settlers but the Netanyahu government, which was committed from day one to defying the Palestinian reality and the international community and has, above all, engaged in excessive self-denial to the very detriment of Israel's future. No one but Netanyahu is to blame for this horrifying development. If he has one ounce of integrity left in him he should resign.