There has been much speculation about the Trump Administration’s position on Israel’s presence in Judea and Samaria. Personally, I like to take people at their word, unless proven otherwise.
Back in November, Jason Greenblatt, who was then co-chairman of the Trump campaign’s Israel Advisory Committee, told Israel Army Radio: “It is certainly not Mr. Trump’s view that settlement activities should be condemned and that it is an obstacle for peace, because it is not an obstacle for peace.” Following President Trump’s election, his spokesman Sean Spicer released a statement from the White House that reiterated the same message: they “don’t believe the existence of settlements is an impediment to peace.”
The reason that the new administration seems to have broken with decades of American foreign policy on this matter is simple — they know the facts on the ground intimately. Unfortunately, for decades, American diplomats were banned by the US government from stepping foot into any Israeli town in Judea or Samaria, which means their assessment of the situation was based on a combination of Palestinian Authority myths and their own preconceived notions.
In contrast, many in President Trump’s inner circle understand our reality because they have visited, contributed towards, and even lived in our communities. This is why I gladly accepted the invitation to meet with Jason Greenblatt, who is now President Trump’s Special Representative for International Negotiations, to discuss ways in which we could improve the lives of Israelis and Palestinians from the ground, without continuing to impose a failed solution from above.
Greenblatt’s approach seemed very different from anything in the past. He made it very clear from the outset that he was in the country to hear all perspectives on how to move forward. When asked, I explained that the first step towards progress will be educating the international community to understand that we aren’t the problem, but rather an integral part of the solution.
Peace will come through dialogue, interests and understanding. There is a lot that can be done to increase cooperation and build bridges, but all of them rely on strengthening the Israeli towns and cities in Judea and Samaria.
Over half a million Israelis currently reside in less than 2 percent of Judea and Samaria, while many more Palestinians populate about 20% of the same area. Both populations are permanent and neither can be uprooted from their homes. Once we internalize this reality, peace will be much easier to achieve.
Contrary to popular belief, Arabs and Israelis live and work together and life goes on. Despite sporadic terror attacks, peaceful coexistence among the vast majority prevails and should be seen as the key to achieving long term peace. Every day, Israeli and Palestinian cars drive together on the same roads and stop at the same traffic lights, shop at the same grocery stores and work alongside one another. Palestinian and Israeli students learn together in university. Some Palestinians and Israeli “settlers” even meet regularly to discuss peace and increase understanding. This is the patchwork reality of Judea and Samaria that must be seen to be believed.
There are those on both sides who hate this reality, since they believe that peace will only come through a process of forced separation between Israelis and Palestinians. Many Israelis don’t want to hear about peaceful coexistence because they are obsessed with total disengagement from the Palestinians. These people conveniently forget that 20% of Israel’s citizens ethnically identify as Palestinian. While many Palestinians describe Jewish towns in Judea as a cancer that needs to be eradicated. They too are blinded by the reality that close to 20% of Judea and Samaria’s population is now Israeli.
Restricting Israeli building in our ancestral homeland is counterproductive for all. It won’t bring Palestinians any closer to statehood and it won’t bring peace to Israel. In fact, strengthening Israel’s presence will only increase prosperity on both sides.
Take the city of Efrat as an example. Currently, we have 10,000 residents and 1,000 Palestinians work in our town daily. The city is zoned for 70,000 people, which would mean the creation of thousands of new high paying jobs for local Palestinians. The Palestinian Authority understands that our communities offer an existential threat to their leadership because we can provide the jobs that they cannot.
The 14 industrial zones in Judea and Samaria are islands of peace where Israelis and Palestinians build life-long friendships. I recently asked a Palestinian woman, who has spent the last three decades working at an Israeli factory in Mishor Adumim, what her family would do if the factory had to close down in the name of peace, and she replied: “We would starve, this is our only income”.
The Palestinian Authority also knows there wasn’t a single Israeli town in Judea and Samaria in 1964 when they established the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Jordan occupied the area for 19 years and could have done whatever it wanted to alleviate the suffering of the Palestinians. Likewise, Gaza was under Egyptian control without a single Israeli resident. There could have been multiple Palestinian states or the integration of those people into Jordanian and Egyptian society. Conveniently, both countries have since relinquished all claims to these lands, after failing to eradicate Israel in the 1967 Six Day War.
The Palestinian Authority is bankrupt. They have squandered billions in international aid money and rejected every Israeli offer of land for peace, which is why they don’t have a state. It has nothing to do with their peaceful Israeli neighbors.
On the contrary, Israeli businesses in Judea and Samaria offer employment to 30,000 Palestinians with wages that are quadruple the Palestinian Authority average. Since the liberation of the area 50 years ago, Israel has dramatically improved the infrastructure on the ground: building roads, hospitals and universities, not to mention providing water and electricity where it wasn’t previously available.
The road to peace may be long and it may realistically take decades, but it will start with dialogue and by building bridges, not walls. Conventional wisdom on the conflict requires total separation, but this will not be sustainable for Israel or the Palestinians.
For example, Israeli desalinization plants have been constructed in most Israeli communities, and the surrounding Palestinian towns can easily be connected to the plants as well. When I offered this opportunity to one of the Arab towns that surround Efrat, the idea was warmly welcomed by their mayor, but shot down by extremists who “didn’t want Jewish and Muslim waste flowing in the same pipes.” That is this sort of xenophobia that needs to be broken down for peace, and not the Jewish homes, synagogues and kindergartens.
On a more positive note, when I was approached by another neighbouring Palestinian mayor who wanted to widen a road that we share, I agreed within seconds, since I knew that it would benefit both of our communities. I told him that we both use the same roads, why not improve them together?
There are many people in Israel and abroad who believe the answer to our problems is building higher walls. They believe that the presence of Jews living alongside Muslims is an impossible reality. They equate Israeli building with Palestinian bombing. However, they don’t see what we see daily. They haven’t heard from Palestinians who are fed-up with their leadership and look to Israel for salvation. President Trump’s representatives have made it clear that we aren’t the obstacle; now is the time for them to work with us from the ground up to build a lasting peaceful solution for generation to come.