Settlements talk a ‘waste of time?’ I don’t think so

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2009

Today’s  Ha’aretz reported that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said “arguing” about settlements is a waste of time, and more and more Jewish leaders here seem to agree: Jewish settlements in the West Bank may be a legitimate issue, but there’s way too much focus on it. So why not move on to something else?

The problem is, that view ignores a lot of history, and it ignores the way settlements have become a critical symbolic issue to the Palestinians, with a lot of help from assorted Israeli governments.

I am not one of those who considers Israel a colonial power; the current settlements mess, I believe, is the result of a tangle of factors, including bureaucratic inertia, political cowardice and Israel’s convoluted political system, as well as the “greater Israel” aspirations of a Jewish minority.

Nobody has explained the roots of the settlements problem better than Israeli journalist Gershom Gorenberg in his seminal “The Accidental Empire:  Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977.”  Read that book and you come away with the impression of human error and tragedy, not clever conspiracies.

But it is also undeniable that some Israeli governments and leaders deliberately used settlements to create facts on the ground – facts meant to make it difficult if not impossible to carve out any kind of viable Palestinian state. Former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, a major player in settlement expansion, proudly admitted as much to columnist Doug Bloomfield in the 1980s.

Nor is there any real doubt some Israeli governments used “natural growth” as a pretext for expanding the footprint of existing settlements.

Do settlers who moved to the big settlement blocs because it was the only way they could get cheap housing need ways to house expanding families? Sure. Do Palestinian leaders have good reason to get nervous every time Israeli leaders use the words “natural growth?” You bet.

Is it any surprise that the Palestinians regard settlements as a vivid symbol of Israel’s intentions, a symbol made even more powerful by virtue of Israel’s reluctance to even remove illegal outposts over the years and by the extremism of some settlers (yes, I know, a minority, but still one with an amazing ability to attract the television cameras)?

Settlements are a great issue for the Palestinians,  one on which they and their supporters and a lot of the rest of the world believe they hold the high moral ground.

Israel rightly argues that the Palestinian Authority’s refusal to curb incitement in schools and textbooks indicates a lack of seriousness about peace efforts. It’s pretty easy to see how the Palestinians and their supporters and much of the rest of the world sees Israel’s handling of the settlement issue over the years in much the same way.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not suggesting settlements are the root cause of the current Middle East stalemate.

Palestinian terrorism and the unwillingness of Palestinian leaders to curb it have done far more to disrupt the climate for peace than settlements. Weak, indecisive and inept leadership on both sides, particularly on the Palestinian, is a much bigger factor in the current mess.  Then there’s the little matter of Hamas, which controls Gaza and which no sane analyst would call a partner for peace.

But it’s disingenuous to speak of the settlements debate as a waste of time, or something that can be handily put aside for later.  For a variety of reasons it has become a central symbolic issue for the Palestinians that needs to be addressed if there’s any hope of creating a climate that will allow a real peace process to move forward.

I think the Obama administration really understands that, which is why it is not going to  let the Netanyahu government do what so many of its predecessors have done – make a few nods toward U.S. policy on settlements, and then go on its merry way thickening and, in some cases,  expanding them.

About the Author
Douglas M. Bloomfield is a syndicated columnist, Washington lobbyist and consultant. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.