The Settlement Obsession

Author
Elliott Abrams
Content Type
Journal Article
Journal
Foreign Affairs
Volume
90
Issue Number
4
Publication Date
Summer 2011
Institution
Council on Foreign Relations
Abstract
Two recent books on the Israeli settlements explore their corrosive effect on Zionism and Israeli society. But despite the problems settlements cause, Washington should not overstate their importance for the peace process, argues a former U.S. deputy national security adviser.
Political Geography
Africa, Israel
On taking office in 2009, U.S. President Barack Obama put Israeli settlements at the center of U.S. policy in the Middle East. In Washington's view, a complete construction freeze in the West Bank and East Jerusalem became not only desirable but also a prerequisite to Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. Previous U.S. administrations of both parties had never taken such a stance, and in fact, there had been years of negotiations (not least at Camp David in 2000 and after the Annapolis meeting in 2007) while Israeli settlement activity continued. But the Obama administration stuck to its demand, and when Israel refused to freeze construction, 2009 and much of 2010 went by without negotiations. This only changed in November 2010, when the White House abandoned the entire approach and began to search for a new one. This single-minded focus on a construction freeze was clearly a mistake in the sense that it failed: the Israeli government did not agree to a freeze in East Jerusalem. Nor could any earlier Israeli governments have accepted such a demand, even if they, like Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, had been open to partial or time-limited freezes in the West Bank. John Kerry (D-Mass.), chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, expressed the situation well when he said in April 2011, "I was opposed to the prolonged effort on the settlements in a public way because I never thought it would work and, in fact, we have wasted a year and a half on something that for a number of reasons was not achievable." What is more, the Obama administration's demand had the effect of cornering Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who could not ask for less than Washington; if the U.S. president thought a total freeze was a prerequisite to negotiations, Abbas would have to think so, too. As a weary Abbas told Newsweek in April, the Obama administration led him up a tree and then "removed the ladder." But the tactic also was a mistake in a deeper sense: current construction in the settlements is not a critical issue, and the expansion of construction into additional lands has been minimal. At Camp David in 2000, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered the Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat 94 percent of the West Bank; ten years later, Ehud Olmert offered Abbas 93.6 percent with a one-to-one land swap. So it is clear that settlement expansion has not significantly eaten away at the territory of an eventual Palestinian state. The far more serious issues are wholly outside the short-term question of a freeze: namely, the future of the settlements if and when a Palestinian state is created, their impact on the maneuvering that will advance or impede that objective, and the conflict between the settlers' ideology and that of mainstream Zionism. This is not the view taken in the handsome new collection Occupation of the Territories: Israeli Soldiers' Testimonies 2000-2010. The volume is a product of Breaking the Silence, an Israeli nongovernmental organization that presents itself as the conscience of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and indeed of the nation, explaining its role as "pushing Israeli society to face the reality whose creation it has enabled." In this book, Breaking the Silence advances two conclusions. The first relates to the morals of Israel's army and, by extension, Israel itself: "Soldiers who serve in the Territories witness and participate in military actions which change them immensely," the organization explains. "Cases of abuse towards Palestinians, looting, and destruction of property have been the norm for years, but are still explained as extreme and unique cases. Our testimonies portray a different, and much grimmer picture in which deterioration of moral standards finds expression in the character of orders and the rules of engagement, and are justified in the name of Israel's security." The second conclusion is that the presence of Israeli settlers and IDF soldiers in the West Bank is laying waste to the area, reducing it to misery. Some of the testimonies are deeply affecting, and there is no doubt that occupation duty brings out the worst in some soldiers: violence, bullying, vandalism, and theft. Official accounts of the U.S. occupation of Germany after World War II, for example, make clear that there is no such thing as an immaculate occupation. But in this book, Breaking the Silence appears less interested in the current impact of the settlements and the backdrop to the IDF's actions in the West Bank than in advancing particular ideological and political points. For one thing, why produce a volume in 2010 that has so many testimonies about Gaza, from which all Israeli forces withdrew in the summer of 2005? Why include so many interviews from 2000-2002, the years when the second intifada was at its height, rather than interviews from more recent years? In the section on the methods the IDF uses to prevent terrorism, for example, there are 67 interviews, but only five are from 2008 or later; similarly, a section on how the IDF carries out a "policy of control, dispossession, and annexation of territory" contains 44 interviews, of which just six are from 2007 or later. A logical inference from this data would be that the IDF's conduct is improving, but Breaking the Silence does not discuss this possibility. Nor does it discuss what the IDF was attempting between 2000 and 2002, namely, trying to stop terrorist acts that were maiming and killing thousands of Israelis. There is just one sentence about terrorism in this entire volume, acknowledging that "it is true that the Israeli security apparatus has had to deal with concrete threats in the past decade, including terrorist attacks on Israeli citizens."