Anyone familiar with the history of Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking can be forgiven for viewing new Israeli-Palestinian negotiations with a certain degree of skepticism, in large part fueled by concern that settlements will, once again, be used to undermine the chances for achieving peace.
Recent settlement-related developments warrant such concern. Clearly, some are happy to use settlements to kill the new peace initiative, perhaps hoping this will be the final nail in the coffin of the two-state solution. If they succeed, there will be opportunities aplenty for hardliners and cynics alike to smirk and say, "We told you so," but they'll be smirking into the abyss. Failure of this latest peace effort won't create an alternative to the two-state solution or halt the march of settlements. It will only play into the hands of zero-sum ideologues on both sides, with devastating implications for everyone else.
These stakes are simply too high to give in to cynicism and defeatism. Instead, we should recall the words of Yitzhak Rabin, who famously said that he would "fight terrorism as if there is no peace process" and "pursue peace as if there is no terrorism." In today's context, Rabin's formula applies equally to settlements: we must fight settlement expansion as if there are no peace negotiations, and we must pursue peace at the negotiating table, even in the face of settlement provocations.
Recent settlement-related developments include today's announcement of tenders for more than 1000 units in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. This was preceded by last week's announcement of the promotion of hundreds of other settlement units (not final approvals, but close) and the approval of a "new" settlement in East Jerusalem (in fact, an old project recycled into a new provocation). Before that was the publication of the new list of Israeli localities eligible for special benefits as national "priority development areas" -- including 90 settlements, some located deep inside the West Bank. And earlier, there was news of the deal Netanyahu allegedly cut with settler supporters, promising new large-scale settlement construction.
Some will argue that these developments are about Netanyahu keeping his right-wing coalition partners in check as peace talks restart and as Palestinian prisoners are released. Perhaps, but that doesn't change the fact that each new settlement-related announcement is a provocation that erodes the viability of the nascent peace initiative, undermines the credibility of Palestinians who remain committed to a negotiated agreement, and makes it harder to achieve a two-state solution.
At the same time, it's important to note that these new developments have so far changed little on the ground and will not, on their own, spell the end of the two-state solution. While each can make a peace agreement incrementally more difficult to achieve, none are game changers.
This isn't to suggest that these -- or any -- settlement-related developments are unimportant or should be ignored. On the contrary: settlement expansion must be challenged at every turn, especially during peace talks. Indeed, a key failing of past peace efforts was the belief that it was possible to ignore settlements while negotiating peace. The results speak for themselves: massive expansion of settlements during the Oslo process, through Wye, Taba and Camp David, through the last peace effort quarterbacked by former Senator George Mitchell. This experience has led some to conclude that absent a full settlement freeze, peace talks are a trap for the Palestinians - little more than a grace period during which Israel has free hand to consolidate its hold over the very land that is supposedly under negotiation.
At the same time, the current Kerry-backed peace effort may well be the last, best hope for achieving Israeli-Palestinian peace in this generation. Settlements are nearing a tipping point after which a two-state solution will no longer be available, and will likely become available again only after another generation of mutual bloodletting brings Palestinians and Israelis back to the negotiating table. Achieving peace before this tipping point has been passed is too important to give in to cynicism that grants settlers and their fellow travelers a de facto veto-through-provocation over peace efforts.
So what should be the reaction to settlement-related provocations?
First, the Obama administration, the EU, and the world must continue to insist that the 1967 line is the starting point for negotiations -- and by extension, hold firm to the position that Israeli unilateral actions across this line will not determine the outcome of negotiations. This is perhaps the single most important factor in preserving the credibility of the negotiating process and enabling the Palestinians to remain at the table, even in the face of Israeli settlement provocations that seem designed to drive them away.
Second, the Obama Administration, the EU, and the world must more vigorously condemn settlement provocations. This doesn't mean re-fighting the battle over a settlement freeze; it means laying down rules of behavior and holding Netanyahu accountable, making clear that settlement provocations will cost him dearly in the currency of good relations with allies and in political capital.
Third, friends of Israel in the international community must make clear that settlement provocations are not cost-free. Rather, such actions will trigger more anti-settlement measures, along the lines of the EU funding directive that has so shaken up the Israeli body politic (and which the EU must not now rescind or soften).
And fourth, advocates of peace must continue to shine a bright light on Israeli settlement provocations. Darkness is the friend of malefactors and mischief-makers; in the Israeli-Palestinian context, it is the ally of enemies of peace and the two-state solution.
In short, we must hold Netanyahu accountable for decisions that undermine the goal of achieving peace and a two-state solution -- decisions that prioritize land over peace, settlements over security, and Greater Israel over Israel's good standing in the world. To do so we must push back against settlement expansion, even as we refuse to allow settlement provocations to achieve their clear objective of foreclosing the very possibility of achieving peace.
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