U.S. Efforts to Renew Israeli-Palestinian Peace Negotiations: Too Little, Too Late?

Israeli proponents of a two-state solution say settlers can be evacuated if there's political will, but the facts on the ground suggest otherwise.

A few months before the 20th anniversary of the Oslo Accords, and with a renewed effort about to be made to kick-start the peace talks − it’s useful to pause for a moment and examine what has happened in the West Bank these past two decades. A series of visits there reinforces the impression that, despite the good intentions of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, the reality on the ground could well be the undoing of his new initiative, as happened with that of most of his predecessors since the mid-1990s.

The problem is not just the fundamental differences in the approaches of the two sides to the key issues ‏(Jerusalem, borders, refugees‏), but developments on the ground − and, above all, the expansion of the settlements. The question, then, is whether the newest American effort has come too late.

Shaul Arieli thinks not. A retired colonel who is a senior figure in the Geneva Initiative and the Council for Peace and Security, and a major player in peace negotiations during Ehud Barak’s time as prime minister, Arieli visits the West Bank every week. As we drive through Samaria, he points out the resurgent building momentum in the settlements. But he also fires off data which, in his view, show that the settlers’ leadership has failed to prevent establishment of a future Palestinian state and ensure the settlements’ annexation to Israel.

Some 360,000 Israelis currently live in the West Bank ‏(excluding East Jerusalem‏). The settlement blocs, where 75 percent of the Israelis live, occupy only 6 percent of the territory of the West Bank. In addition, 88 percent of its inhabitants are Palestinians and only 12 percent Israelis. Within the blocs, the population ratio is 95:5 in favor of the Jews; outside of them, it is 97:3 in favor of the Palestinians. The ratio of built-up areas in the blocs is 6:1 in favor of the Israelis, but outside it is 16:1 in favor of the Palestinians.

Arieli’s conclusion is that Jewish dominance extends only to the settlement blocs. Accordingly, “There is no physical problem in reaching an agreement to swap territory with the Palestinians, with Israel retaining about 4 percent of the West Bank − most of the area of the blocs. The leaders of Yesha [council of settlements] are brainwashing us to believe that they have made a Palestinian state impossible. In practice, that has not happened. There are 75 Israeli settlements outside the blocs, but 80 percent of them have fewer than 2,000 residents. That is not a problem that is impossible to overcome with sufficient determination. All that’s needed is courage and a political decision.”

In my 15 years covering the territories, I have not met anyone who can rival Arieli as an expert about what is happening on the ground. But, in this case, a misgiving arises. Could it be that Arieli is now doing what, in his distant past in the Paratroops ‏(in a pre-politically correct era‏), was called “raping the turf”? In other words, is he interpreting the facts in accordance with his ideological map?

True, the settlers did not “settle in the hearts” of Israelis, and are also nowhere near the goal of one million Israelis living east of the Green Line, as some of their leaders have been saying lately. But still, when you see, for instance, Gidonim Ridge − the long series of Jewish farms and outposts on the ridge above the settlement of Itamar, east of Nablus − it’s hard not to reflect on the possibility that maybe they have already won, and that the situation on the ground is in fact irreversible.

Thriving settlements

In the winter of 1998, as a novice military correspondent, I visited the ridge for the first time with the commander of the regional brigade. He spoke at length about the creation of the illegal settler outposts, but admitted in the same breath that the army was providing them with security. At every stop on our tour, we discovered that the defense minister’s assistant for settlement affairs had been there a few minutes earlier. One arm of government declared that building was forbidden; a second ensured that the settlers in the outposts were guarded; and a third saw to it that they received sufficient infrastructure and logistical aid.

Two days later, I reported for the first time in Haaretz that the Defense Ministry was “laundering” ‏(legitimizing‏) outposts in Samaria. In visits since then − even during the murderous terrorist attacks of the second intifada − it was unmistakably clear that the settlement project on the ridge line was thriving. What once recalled the Wild West has become a quite orderly network of farms, which have seized control of a vast area.

Hanging in the office of Gershon Masika − the head of the Samaria Regional Council and on the far-right of the settlers’ leadership − is a chart monitoring the number of building starts within the bounds of the regional council. Masika has few reasons to complain. Settlement activity is flourishing like it hasn’t for a long time − both legal and illegal, both within the blocs and on the other side of the fence ‏(some have dubbed Masika “Herod” in the wake of the building momentum in Samaria‏). The construction freeze in effect at the start of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s second term has long since thawed. Government supervision slackened last year and is now minimal under the new government, in which the settlers’ status is stronger than ever.

The Yesha Council leadership believes that the government is on its side, but is concerned that the current boom will come to an end under American pressure. In retrospect, it is clear that, in the past few decades, the settlers were the most effective pressure group in Israel. They have strongholds in various ministries − defense, housing, education, religious services − as well as in the Israel Lands Administration and, recently, even in the Israel Nature and Parks Authority. As a lobby, they leave the ultra-Orthodox trailing far behind.

In the past two years, rabbis in preparatory courses for the army have talked about two bastions that have been overlooked − the Finance Ministry and the State Prosecutor’s Office − and about the need to staff them with talented young people from their community, to change the mind-set there, too. If our people were ensconced in the Justice Ministry, they say, it would be easier to deal with cases taken to court by left-wing groups, which led to evacuation of a few outposts.

But even so, quite a bit has been accomplished from this point of view. The farms on the ridge above Itamar are just one example. The situation is much the same 15 kilometers to the south, in the bloc which stretches from Ariel in the west to the Shiloh Valley outposts and the Allon Road ‏(which runs northward from Jerusalem‏). The Israeli consensus favors retaining the settlement blocs, even in a future agreement. However, in the 20 years since Oslo, an eastern panhandle bloc of settlements has been created with great skill, posing a serious obstacle to future Palestinian development plans.

Benny Katzover, a member of the group that founded Gush Emunim ‏(Bloc of the Faithful‏) in 1974, recalls a meeting with Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin during the Oslo Accords period: Rabin explained that he would transfer the entire area north of Nablus to the Palestinians, because there were no settlements there. The settlers took that to heart. Katzover, who has been out of politics for many years, now devotes time to guiding visitors. Standing on Mount Kabir, east of Nablus and close to his home in the veteran settlement of Elon Moreh, he enjoys recounting how settlements were established in the 1970s. Katzover doesn’t have to say so explicitly; it’s clear that, from his perspective, he has already won.

No great expectations

In the face of the new American effort, the level of expectations on the Palestinian side remains low. Senior figures in the Palestinian Authority do not share Kerry’s effusive optimism. They suspect that Netanyahu’s hesitant “oath of allegiance” to the two-state vision is without substance, and that he has no interest in resolving the conflict.

Like Arieli and Katzover, the Palestinians also understand what has happened on the ground these past two decades. Not only has the number of Jews tripled, but the settler outposts have stretched eastward and a settlement continuum has been created across an area that stretches from the Green Line almost to the Jordan Rift. As the Palestinians see it, the postponement of the solution in the seven years between Oslo in 1993 and the Camp David summit in 2000, and then the 13 years of intifada and political stalemate, was exploited in full by the settlers. Even when the Palestinians say they will pursue the threat of favoring a binational state, they still seem to harbor doubt that the settlers, by continuing to acquire territory and gaining even greater influence, will torpedo that scenario, too.

As an alternative, the PA is looking at the international track. If the Kerry initiative fails, the Palestinians will again approach international organizations, with the aim of securing the PA’s status in them and embarrassing Israel. Previous efforts, in the fall of 2011 and again last fall, were not successful. The PA is now trying to cobble together a more cohesive plan ahead of the next round.

At the same time, the PA is battling Israel − in the judicial and public-diplomacy spheres − in Area C as well, by establishing Potemkin ‏(i.e., ersatz‏) outposts and petitioning the High Court of Justice. The PA has set Kerry a deadline of one more week, demanding that the negotiations be renewed by June 7. If not ... well, if not, the Palestinians are convinced that the road from there also leads to a third intifada.

Israeli catch-22

On Monday, the Blue White Future movement convened a meeting at its headquarters in Hakfar Hayarok, north of Tel Aviv. On the agenda: the state of the peace negotiations. The movement was founded by high-tech entrepreneur Orni Petruschka with the aim of advancing the two-state solution, including via dialogue with the settlers. Taking part in the meeting were two of Petruschka’s colleagues in the BWF leadership: attorney Gilead Sher, a prominent attorney who served as Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s chief of staff and head of the negotiating team with the Palestinians; and former cabinet minister and Shin Bet security service chief Ami Ayalon. There were also two invited guests, whose views on the subject are not far from those of the movement: former cabinet minister Dan Meridor and former Military Intelligence chief Amos Yadlin.

This is a highly experienced group, both in peace negotiations and security-intelligence affairs. Its members believe fervently that the peace process must be moved forward. At the same time, all of them seem well aware of the permanent paradox that hovers over the Israeli public’s attitude toward the negotiations: In periods of Palestinian terrorism, settlements must not be removed, because it is wrong to yield to terrorism; and when things are quiet, why withdraw if everything is all right? This is a philosophical conundrum, an original Israeli catch-22.

All the speakers referred to the Kerry-generated momentum, but were skeptical about translating it into concrete progress. Meridor, for whom no place could be found in the 2013 version of Likud, said that a delusion has formed among the public, to the effect that the quiet in the territories will be permanent. Shunting the Palestinian issue from the agenda of the recent election was both temporary and false, he said.

“People are not dying in the streets, so there is no sense of urgency,” Ayalon observed. “The only thing is that Israelis are not aware that the quiet is being achieved in large measure thanks to the contribution of the Palestinian security forces.”

Meridor, who recalled his time as a young activist in Menachem Begin’s Herut party ‏(the forerunner of Likud‏), considers it “a tremendous achievement that the 1967 lines will no longer be the concluding line of the conflict.” However, Meridor emphasized, “congruence is essential between peace and the settlement project,” and urged that construction in the settlements be confined solely to the big bloc: “It is impossible to sustain a permanent situation of liberated land and occupied people.”

Yadlin argued that Israel’s strategic situation has actually improved in the wake of the upheavals in the Arab world. Israel must demarcate its borders by itself, he urged, but not the way Ariel Sharon did in the Gaza disengagement. Yadlin talks of a limited unilateral withdrawal in the West Bank, while remaining temporarily in the Rift Valley until a final-status settlement is worked out. The key to a successful disengagement, he said, is to preserve the democratic process. One reason for the settlers’ anger in 2005, he noted, is that they felt Sharon deceived them by ignoring the results of the referendum in Likud.

Every speaker ignored the elephant in the room: the question of whether the Israeli army has the capability to repeat a disengagement operation magnified to the tenth power: the evacuation of nearly 90,000 Israelis from the settlements that lie outside the blocs. They appear not to be taking into account the tectonic shifts in the army since the Gaza disengagement, with religiously observant men now making up 30 to 40 percent of the junior combat officers. Many of these do not regard the evacuation of Jews from settlements such as Tapuah and Itamar as legitimate.

It is also impossible to ignore the intensity of the emotions − religious and ideological − that are felt for Judea and Samaria, as compared with the isolated settlements in the Gaza Strip. Indeed, whether Gaza is even part of the Land of Israel is in dispute.

“I talk with rabbis,” former Shin Bet head Ayalon said at the meeting. “My unequivocal conclusion is that if we manage the process properly, despite the huge crisis it will foment, the evacuation will be implemented.”

Yadlin seconded this. “The reports about the change in the army are exaggerated,” he said. “They will be able to do it, as they did in Gush Katif [the Gaza Strip settlement bloc]. The majority of the officers will accept the authority of the state leadership. Politically, the process is possible if we explain to people that, in this way, we are rescuing Zionism, bringing order to the issues of justice and legitimization, and not neglecting security.”

Another element in this theoretical discussion is the reluctance being shown by the political decision makers in Israel and in the PA. People who have spoken to Netanyahu lately were surprised to see how little time he is devoting to the Palestinian issue. Iran and Syria are worrying him more, and for him the unrest in the Arab world absolutely justifies extreme caution in the Palestinian track.

His new coalition partners, Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett, are toeing the line. Bennett is not considering leaving the government because of the Kerry initiative, believing that nothing will come of it in any case. Lapid, in his interview this month to The New York Times, situated himself in the center and even slightly to the right of center. Kerry will need a great deal of skill and luck to breach that front.

AP