As soon as Israel announced its settlement construction plan in the E1 area between Jerusalem and Ma’aleh Adumim, the mostly predictable reactions poured in. The Europeans threatened punitive measures against Israel for the Settlement construction. Leaders on the American Jewish Left, such as Rabbi Jill Jacobs, condemned the American Jewish establishment for its silence. The New York Times declared that this would divide the West Bank.
Israel certainly is not doing itself any favors by timing this announcement after losing so decisively at the United Nations, and making it look like settlements are some sort of punishment. But while the outcry against this settlement announcement may halt or postpone this particular batch of building, it is unlikely to alter the dynamic of the Settlement issue, because it fundamentally misreads the Israeli Right. The Israeli Right cares deeply about language and symbolism. Settlements are not merely houses to them, but a tangible statement about Jewish rights to the land and Jewish history in Judea and Samaria. This is the same reason why Bibi Netanyahu holds recognition of Israel as a Jewish state as the most important point in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, and why the current government places so much emphasis on Palestinian incitement.
The critics of the E1 settlement announcement are correct that it pushes peace farther away. But not for the reasons they say. The building in the E1 area, if it ever gets built, does not significantly alter the map of the West Bank. It would make travel from Ramallah to Bethlehem more difficult and further enclose East Jerusalem. However, absent an Israeli willingness to relinquish Ma’aleh Adumim, this was always going to be a trouble spot in final status negotiations. Creative solutions such as a bypass road have already been proposed. Alternatively, if a deal was within sight, and Israel had already agreed to remove thousands of settlers from across the West Bank, it is hard to imagine that moving an additional 3,000 would be the deal-breaker.
This is not to belittle the difficulties involved in solving the issue of borders and territory. The map of the West Bank has been negotiated over for so long that each side feels significantly constrained by the map. As such, tiny changes to the status quo become overly magnified as the supposed negotiating room shrinks.
The real reason that this announcement pushes peace farther away is that it reinforces the dichotomy between how the Israeli Right views the conflict and how their critics want them to view the conflict. So long as settlement announcements are responded to solely with rebukes and lectures about maps, the Israeli Right will remain committed to the symbolism embodied in settlements, namely Jewish connection to the Land of Israel.
There lies an opportunity here, though. Concrete declarations by Mahmoud Abbas allowing some Jews to remain in a future state of Palestine, and gestures regarding protection of Jewish holy places in the West Bank would significantly alter the equation. While it may seem counterintuitive, by recognizing on some basic level that Jewish settlers have a connection to the land and promising protection of Jewish holy places, Abbas will have lessened the actual need for current settlement building. While there will always be a contingent on the far-right that will never be satisfied, Netanyahu would have the political cover to try for the settlement freeze that many are calling for. Absent some sort of recognition from the Palestinians on the type of issues that Netanyahu and his constituency cares about, calls for a Settlement Freeze are unlikely to have any effect.
I am not holding my breath that this will happen. For Abbas to make any sort of gesture regarding even the slightest recognition of legitimacy to settlements or a Jewish connection to the West Bank would be a huge step, and a tremendous risk. However, to truly change the dynamic surrounding settlements one must understand where the Israeli Right is coming from. Rather than being obsessed with maps, those who criticized the E1 settlement decision should instead be looking at how to change the dynamic.