Settlement construction in the West Bank has historically served four main objectives for Israel: greater security, a stronger connection to ancient Biblical lands, a better way of life for residents, and pressure on the Palestinians to accept the reality of Israel's existence. Today, each of these goals has been largely met. The settlement enterprise has therefore run its course. It now represents an albatross that threatens to thwart Israel's chance to achieve lasting peace and security.
Israelis have long argued that settlement construction has enhanced Israel's security. Indeed, in areas surrounding Jerusalem, construction has expanded Jewish settlement, providing a buffer of security against attacks. Similarly, settlement construction in the West Bank was intended to broaden Israel's border eastward to provide Israel with greater land and security, particularly along the central coast, where the distance between the Mediterranean Sea and the West Bank measures approximately eight miles. However, the security rationale for settlements is no longer valid. The combination of the construction of the security fence and the strengthening of Palestinian security forces in the West Bank has significantly enhanced Israel's security. Furthermore, the long-range rocket fire of Hezbollah has shown that incremental appropriations of land will not significantly enhance Israel's security against short or long-range threats.
The settlements have also been created and expanded with the support and fervor of religious nationalists seeking to settle the Biblical lands of Judea and Samaria. Driven by messianic fervor, these settlers believe that the messiah will come when Jews have returned to the Biblical lands of Israel. This movement is particularly devoted to Jewish settlement in the ancient Biblical lands. In this regard, they have been successful in advancing understandings that major settlement blocs, including environs surrounding Jerusalem, will ultimately be incorporated into Israel. Having done so, however, religious nationalists must now begin to question whether God intended for the land to be characterized by dominance and submission, or of prosperity and peace. In this regard, instead of calling for exclusive Israeli control over holy areas in ancient Judea and Samaria, religious nationalists should come to realize the need to create a Palestinian state in order to preserve secure access for both Jews and Muslims to such sites.
The settlements have also been expanded in order to provide greater livelihoods for Israeli citizens. An estimated one-third of the West Bank settlers have moved to these areas because of economic incentives provided at times by the Israeli government and advocacy organizations, as well as reasonable costs of living. However, today, widespread settlement activity simply does not make economic sense, for individual citizens or the Israeli government. Israeli settlements beyond the major blocs are likely to be evacuated. Any investment in continuing to build beyond the blocs amounts to wasted resources that should be allocated to strengthening the core of Israeli society, and preparing for the re-integration of settlers who must inevitably return to Israel proper as part of a peace agreement. Finally, the settlements have served to pressure Palestinians to accept Israeli control of the land, and ultimately accept the permanence of the Jewish state. Toward this end, Israel has also succeeded. Today, the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank has accepted Israel's right to exist, the principle of land for peace, and a two-state solution in which Israel and a Palestinian state would live side-by-side in peace and security. To be sure, even extremist elements who profess their desire to destroy Israel -- notably Hamas in Gaza -- have come around to accept the principle of establishing a Palestinian state based on the 1967 lines. Moreover, a majority of Palestinians polled consistently support the notion of a two-state solution, and the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank has devoted itself to eradicating the influence of extremism from the West Bank and enhancing security in the region.
With these core objectives achieved, efforts to continue to rapidly extend the settlement enterprise across the West Bank, upon the conclusion of the settlement moratorium which has just expired on September 26th, would serve to undermine the security of the state of Israel. Continuing construction beyond the core settlement blocs would send the international community a clear and distinct message: Israel is not serious about a two-state solution. It has long been estimated in various negotiation rounds that over 80 percent -- representing roughly 400,000 West Bank settlers -- are likely to stay in their homes following a two-state agreement. These settlers represent those in the settlement blocs and Jerusalem environs that Israel will not abandon due to strong biblical and political beliefs. Israel cannot claim to desire peace on the one hand, and build in areas known to be a part of future Palestinian state on the other.
Continued settlement building will send a message that Israel is not serious about peace, and will inadvertently provide fuel to radical extremists who are seeking to recruit terrorists to commit violent acts against Israeli citizens. Renewed tensions with the United States could also emerge, and positive gestures by the Arab states -- including the Arab League's endorsement of direct negotiations -- could be reversed. Furthermore, the international campaign to delegitimize Israel's right to exist would be intensified as a result of continued settlement expansion.
To avoid such a scenario, Prime Minister Netanyahu must place Israel's national interests above his coalition concerns. In this respect, Netanyahu is being tested: does he have the conviction and leadership qualities necessary to achieve a two-state solution, or will he be held hostage by domestic politics? He should show leadership now by communicating Israel's position clearly, which should include a land swap that would incorporate the vast majority of settlers in the major blocs into Israel proper, an option for some of the religious settlers to stay within a Palestinian state through an agreement with the Palestinians, and for the negotiations to begin to immediately address the issue of borders. Negotiating the borders now is particularly important as it would eliminate the questions as to which lands will belong to Israel and which to the Palestinian state. Moreover, it will allow the Israelis to continue to expand the settlements that will be incorporated into Israel proper early in the process before settling every other conflicting issue. Prime Minister Netanyahu has the political strength to present such a platform; with Kadima waiting in the wings as a potential coalition partner, he should demonstrate such leadership to achieve a two-state solution. The only question now is: which path Netanyahu will choose?
Critics argue that the Palestinians rejected Israel's ten-month moratorium and are only now raising its importance. This argument suggests that as Israel makes concessions -- like freezing construction -- it has received little to nothing in return, with the Palestinians staying out of negotiations for months before being coaxed by the United States to participate in direct talks. Others argue that Israel did not have to freeze construction in the past in order for peace talks to be advanced -- so why continue it now? The answer is simple: to show that this time Israel is committed to doing all it can to create an environment conducive to achieving a lasting agreement. Furthermore, after years of negotiating with Israel while it simultaneously settled land in the West Bank, the Palestinians must show their people -- who are as skeptical as Israelis about the current peace talks -- that this time is indeed different.
The objectives of the settlement enterprise have generally been achieved. Today, its continuation in areas which will inevitably be part of a Palestinian state would place Israel's security, and the nascent peace process, in jeopardy. The United States and the international community are watching closely to see how Prime Minister Netanyahu reacts to this test of his leadership. He has the tools to succeed-now he must show that he has the conviction.
*A version of this article was originally published by the Jerusalem Post on September 24th, and can be accessed at http://www.jpost.com/Opinion/Columnists/Article.aspx?id=188828