Israel needs to adopt a completely different, proactive policy on the settlement issue. The EU Parliament vote to label produce from Jewish parts of the West Bank as distinct from regular ‘Israeli’ goods has been met with nothing but bluster; reaching a new low with Benjamin Netanyahu’s offensive assertion that it evokes Nazi policies.
Here’s the thing: the West Bank settlements are not Israel. That’s not an ideological point, it is a fact. Under Israeli law, the West Bank is not part of sovereign Israel. Many Israelis don’t like to think about that (and, in my experience, many aren’t even aware of it) but it’s the reality. No Israeli government, of any political stripe, has taken the decision to annex the West Bank and incorporate it into Israel-proper. The EU decision may or may not be the right thing to do politically — and certainly a case can be made that it’s consistent with Europe’s unhelpful tendency to focus on Israeli misdemeanors while giving the Palestinian Authority a free pass — but it has an undeniable logic to it.
Israel needs to adopt a completely starting point. At the moment we have a Prime Minister who says he supports a two-state solution, but who also, when votes are up for grabs, declares that there won’t be a Palestinian state on his watch. He has sanctioned building of new housing in areas that would undoubtedly be part of a putative Palestinian state even while calling for negotiations.
There’s a mixed message, and an even more confused policy.
Either we are serious that Israel cannot permanently rule another people or we are not. Our position, and therefore our message to the rest of the world, should be this: Even if there is no Palestinian partner right now, we fully accept that, at some point in the future, we will not be in control of the vast majority of the West Bank. We do insist however, that a small percentage of the territory, concentrated in the principal settlement blocs, will remain part of Israel, as stated by President George W. Bush in his 2004 letter to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon:
As part of a final peace settlement, Israel must have secure and recognized borders, which should emerge from negotiations between the parties in accordance with UNSC Resolutions 242 and 338. In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli populations centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949, and all previous efforts to negotiate a two-state solution have reached the same conclusion.
Israel should pass an annexation law extending its sovereignty to the settlement blocs. Concurrent with that, other new legislation will freeze settlement building outside of the blocks and offer compensation to any residents of those outlying settlements who wish to relocate to Israel-proper.
Our response to the EU can then be simple, logical and consistent: Anything produced in places like Maale Adumim or Kfar Etzion is Israeli and should be labeled as such. If you wish to label goods differently from settlements outside the blocs, be our guests; we also understand that these are not sovereign Israel, but rather temporary settlements to be evacuated once we have a Palestinian partner genuinely committed to peaceful coexistence with a Jewish state.
The back-and-forth on settlements — building, freezing, saying different things to different audiences — has to stop. We need a clear policy and a clear position to present to the world. It should recognize our rights to our historic heartlands, but also acknowledge that our democracy will not survive permanent occupation of another people. It should express our willingness to make the territorial concessions required to provide the Palestinians with a contiguous state; but also clearly state our refusal to offer those concessions while our putative partners refuse to accept that Israel is, and will remain, the state of the Jewish people..
Clarity instead of confusion. Principled peace-seeking instead of bluster and mixed messages. It’s time for some sense on the settlement issue.