New Israeli Government, Same Old Settlements Expansion – OpEd


By Yossi Mekelberg*

There is a general view, and not without considerable justification, that the new Israeli government formed only five months ago has brought change, and mainly for the better. After years of vitriolic populism from the school of thought(lessness) of Benjamin Netanyahu and his deviant disciples, the civility and businesslike manner with which the current government handles its affairs is a breath of fresh air. Paradoxically, in an extremely ideologically diverse coalition, it operates almost as a government of technocrats, which also enables it to survive and get things done.

Yet, in one area, this government, despite a strong dovish presence around the Cabinet table, has performed a complete eclipse of common-sense, and this is in its relations with the Palestinians, particularly on the issue of settlements expansion.

This is a government led by a prime minister, Naftali Bennett, who is a former director of the Yesha Council, the umbrella organization of Jewish settlements in the West Bank (and formerly in the Gaza Strip). But it is also a parity government with an alternate prime minister, Yair Lapid, who, when he takes office, should adopt a more pragmatic line.

Yet, despite claiming from the outset that this coalition would maintain a “status quo” in its settlements policy, the opposite is taking place in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, both of which under international law are occupied territories.

Last month Israel’s government put forward plans for 3,000 housing units in Jewish settlements in the West Bank, through the High Planning Council of the Civil Administration, which is simply another arm of the military occupation. The Israeli NGO Peace Now, which monitors settlement matters, has reported that 90 percent of these approved housing units are in settlements that under a future peace agreement, in line with previous borders drawn in past peace initiatives, Israel will have to evacuate.

This suggests two options. The first is that the current government, not so differently from previous administrations, is not committed to any peace agreement based on a two-state solution, especially one that entails a viable Palestinian state with territorial contiguity. Continuing to build and expand settlements in the heart of the Palestinian population not only renders a historical compromise impossible, but also increases friction with the Palestinian population, and stokes resentment and anger toward Israel.

Alternatively, even among those within the government who support a genuine peace agreement based on a two-state solution, there persists an illogical and irreconcilable view that Israel can expand its settlements without compromising future peace negotiations, as if the two phenomena are not at all related. The expansion of settlements is seen as a tool of appeasing the settlers and their allies in the coalition, or even a response to natural growth that requires housing. The motivations for this approach range from cynical, short-term political calculations aimed at survival in power, to utter irresponsibility and betrayal of the cause of peace.

As if the approval of thousands of housing units in the settlements was not enough, the “momentum” is continuing, with further tenders being announced for 1,355 housing units in the settlements, including in East Jerusalem. More than half of these homes are intended to be built in the settlement of Ariel.

A brief glance at a map of the West Bank exposes the real ploy behind the establishment of Ariel in 1978 and enlarging it to become the most populated Jewish settlement in the West Bank in the first place. It is located deep inside the West Bank, and is part of a block of settlements that cut into two what is supposed to be, one day, a sovereign Palestinian state. And yet again the government expands this settlement.

However, the most controversial of the recent flurry of settlement expansions is the plan to construct almost 3,500 homes in the E1 area. Building Jewish settlements on this particular piece of land, which will create an urban block between Ma’ale Adumim and Jerusalem, will aggravate the isolation of East Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank, and disrupt the territorial contiguity between the northern and southern parts of the West Bank.

Consequently, it will deliver a hammer blow to the already improbable chances of a two-state solution. It will determine that even if a Palestinian state is established, it will not be able to become more than Bantustan-like, made up of a number of enclaves, that for all means and purposes will be under complete Israeli control.

Uri Reicher, an Israeli architect, in his testimony to the Civil Administration last month on behalf of a number of Israeli human rights and peace organizations, portrayed the government’s intentions in no uncertain terms: “It could even be said that, in fact, the project has been advanced not out of urban planning considerations, but in order to achieve the political goal of thwarting any opportunity to reach a political agreement.”

Settlements are not the only obstacle to peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians. There is an array of major stumbling blocks, but the settlements have become both for practical and symbolic reasons the manifestation of Israel’s disingenuousness when it talks about its desire for peace.

Furthermore, it also affects other core issues in this dispute. The act of surrounding East Jerusalem with illegal settlements sends a message that a future Palestinian capital will never be within the city, not even in some eastern parts of it, and that is a message to which no Palestinian leader could agree.

Moreover, the more land that Israel grabs in the West Bank to expand its own settlements, the less there is for Palestinians to house themselves and develop their economy, and the more pressure it puts on natural resources, such as water. Any future peace agreement will mean hundreds of thousands of Palestinians currently living as refugees in neighboring countries and elsewhere in the Palestinian diaspora will come to live in the West Bank, and Israel’s settlement policy will make this harder to resolve by the day.

The new government in Israel has fashioned itself as the “change government.” But, sadly, when it comes to expanding settlements, it is the same old story, with no, or very few, dissenting voices, even among the more peace-minded within this coalition. And with the silent consent of the international community, block by block, house by house, settlement by settlement, the dream of fair and just peace is evaporating into thin air, with no one to stop it.

  • Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg

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