Was the Settlement Enterprise a Strategy to Buy Time?

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According to the framework agreement being crafted by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, 80 percent of the settlers will remain where they are. For some reason, this statistic hasn’t received the prominence it deserves in the flood of leaks. If the peace process is going to be about security arrangements and recognition of Israel as the Jewish state — alongside an agreement that most settlers will stay where there are — then the supporters of the settlement enterprise will win.

More than that — they'll be right. If we put aside ideological or moral issues, it turns out that being a settler was a good idea. It’s a fact that a compromise can be reached, with most settlers continuing to live in the territories. And this compromise can have the backing of the Palestinians, the Arab League, the Americans and the Europeans. Whether the settlers live in settlement blocs or whether the border is drawn around the settlements, the message is instructive, undermining the common contention that the settlements are an obstacle to peace.

The agreement to keep 80 percent of the settlers where they are can also explain why Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu supported the settlements and thought a Palestinian state was a disaster until five years ago but doesn’t think so now.

The famous assertion by Ariel Sharon after he became prime minister — “what you see from here, you don’t see from there” — isn’t convincing enough. Officials in the Prime Minister’s Office probably see information that the public doesn’t know about, but in terms of a political compromise, things have been pretty clear for decades. That’s why one might question whether the right-wing leaders who changed their ways lied, gave in to pressure or had some strategy we didn’t understand.

To find the answer, we should remember that one way or another every government since 1967 has understood that at a certain point we would need an agreement. Right after the Six-Day War, Levi Eshkol’s government considered various political options. Moshe Dayan led the “open bridges” policy during Golda Meir’s administration. Menachem Begin proposed autonomy and Netanyahu agreed to fulfill the Oslo Accords in a measured way.

Even Yitzhak Shamir, in one of his last interviews, said his plan had been to wait for new leaders in the territories after the PLO had been eliminated; then he could try to reach an agreement with the moderates. That doesn’t mean he would have agreed to the establishment of a Palestinian state, but everybody recognized the need for an agreement of some sort. At the same time, another historical truth is very clear: Every government from left to right supported the settlements, whether directly or indirectly.

This contradiction is resolved by the report stating that in the end about 80 percent of the settlers can stay where they are. This leads to the conclusion that there was an ongoing Zionist strategy behind the settlement enterprise, a strategy that replicated David Ben-Gurion’s policy — obtaining the maximum from what is possible — in the territories. While Israel’s governments acknowledged the need to compromise, they sought to buy time and put facts on the ground until we reached a point where we could keep as much as possible.

It sounds odd to look at the agreement taking shape as a victory for the settlement enterprise, because one typically treats the division of the country as a victory for the left. But leaving 80 percent of the settlers where they are requires a different reading of the situation. It can also explain why, despite politicians’ occasional bellicose statements, nothing unusual is happening among the settlers or the general public as the decision to divide the land approaches.

Settlers celebrating in the mid-1970s. Most will be able to keep celebrating. Credit: GPO