Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Israeli Settlements: Reality Vs. Hype

First published in the Jewish Press

The Obama administration's high-profile focus on Israeli settlements and demand for a total freeze of construction beyond the pre-1967 armistice line have delighted many around the world, some of whom may even believe that settlements are the major obstacle to peace. But such views, like the administration's slant on the issue, are based on false premises and oft-repeated misinformation.

Essential, and typically misrepresented, truths about the settlements include facts concerning their origins and history, their status in international law, the status of the land on which they've been built, their place in Israeli-Palestinian agreements, their significance in the context of the search for peace, and the stances taken by various American administrations regarding them.

In the wake of the 1967 Six-Day War, the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 242, calling for Israeli withdrawal from captured lands but also - rather than full withdrawal - negotiation of "secure and recognized boundaries." The framers of 242 acknowledged that the pre-war lines put Israel at perpetual risk. They supported Israel retaining some areas.

Lord Caradon, then Britain's UN ambassador, introduced Resolution 242. He told a Lebanese interviewer years later, "It would have been wrong to demand that Israel return to its positions of June 4, 1967, because those positions were undesirable and artificial. After all, they were just the places where the soldiers on each side happened to be on the day the fighting stopped in 1948. They were just armistice lines. That's why we didn't demand that the Israelis return to them, and I think we were right not to "

Shortly after the war, President Lyndon Johnson said Israel's retreat to its former lines would be "not a prescription for peace but for renewed hostilities." He advocated new boundaries that provided "security against terror, destruction, and war."

Media and governments unsympathetic to Israel commonly misrepresent 242. In the summer of 2000, when Israel, the Palestinian Authority and President Clinton met at Camp David in an attempt to forge a final status agreement, The New York Times on three different occasions claimed 242 called for Israel to retreat to the pre-1967 lines. Each time it also published a correction, but only after the third correction did it finally desist from distorting the resolution.

Media and governments also typically refer to the entire West Bank as "occupied" or "Palestinian" territory, although it is formally neither. Since, under the terms of 242, and according to the UN charter, Arabs and Israelis both have claims on the land that are to be reconciled by negotiation, the area is more properly designated "disputed" territory.

In fact, there is a broad consensus in Israel for forgoing claims to much of the territory while insisting on certain essential adjustments. Virtually from the end of the 1967 fighting, Israel has sought to address particular strategic vulnerabilities: the nation's nine-mile width; the security of Jerusalem; the domination of Israel's population centers, on the coastal plain, by heights beyond the pre-war lines; and the strategic necessity of controlling the Jordan Valley.

At the same time, Israel recognized the advisability of separating itself from the Arab population on the West Bank, and its defining of vital strategic areas emphasized locations away from Arab population centers. Moreover, areas of most critical strategic importance were also, typically, sparsely populated.

(Nor, contrary to Israel's detractors, have Israeli leaders thought in terms of ceding Arab population centers as isolated "cantons." Most Israelis have appreciated the importance of contiguity for ceded areas, not least because contiguity would facilitate viable separation. Also noteworthy is that a unified Palestinian state in Gaza and the West Bank would require a secure connecting route across Israel, yet few of those complaining of a "cantonized" Palestinian entity seem concerned that such a corridor would entail Israel compromising its own territorial contiguity.)

Labor governments that led Israel through the first decade after the 1967 war sought to reinforce Israel's claim to vital strategic areas by establishing "facts on the ground" in the form of settlements built on unoccupied public, or "state," land. Subsequent Likud-led governments diverged from this pattern by also creating settlements close to Arab population centers, typically in places of Jewish religious and historical significance. Labor leaders, including Yitzhak Rabin, responded by distinguishing between necessary security settlements and "ideological" settlements.

In none of Israel's prior agreements with Palestinian or other Arab parties - including the Oslo-era accords - did Israel accede to a cessation of all growth in Jewish communities beyond the pre-1967 armistice lines. On the issue of retaining defensible borders, Rabin, for example, in his last speech to the Knesset before his assassination, reaffirmed the necessity of Israel remaining in control of the Jordan Valley "in the widest sense," meaning control as well over the heights dominating the valley.

The 2003 "road map" put forward under the auspices of the Quartet (the U.S., Russia, the European Union and the UN) does call, as part of Phase I, for a complete cessation of settlement growth. But the road map, while endorsed by the Israeli cabinet, has never been officially accepted by the Palestinian Authority.

Moreover, Phase I also requires extensive steps "at the outset" by the PA. These include security measures aimed particularly at ending all anti-Israel terrorism and dismantling terrorist infrastructures and independent militias; institution-building intended to establish a "strong parliamentary democracy"; and an end to anti-Israel incitement.

There has, of course, been virtually no movement by the Palestinians on any of these steps. On the contrary, Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah continues, just like Hamas, to promote anti-Israel terror, employ its media, mosques and schools to attack Israel's legitimacy and call for its destruction, and praise terrorist "martyrs." Indeed, Abbas himself has refused to endorse Israel's legitimacy, demands a Palestinian "right of return" that would transform Israel into yet another Arab-dominated state in the region, and continues to honor those who died attacking Israeli civilians.

In addition, President Bush, in his April 2004 letter to Prime Minister Sharon, called for "secure, defensible borders" for Israel and stated that "In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli population centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949, and all previous efforts to negotiate a two-state solution have reached the same conclusion."

While the latter statement may differ in wording from those of earlier presidents, other presidents as well have endorsed the necessity of defensible borders for Israel and Israel's retention of some territory beyond the 1949 armistice lines.

There is presently sharp debate between the Netanyahu and Obama administrations on whether the Bush administration agreed to Israeli growth within the boundaries of major settlements even in the context of the road map, with some U.S. officials involved in the relevant deliberations agreeing with the Israeli stance. In any case, there is no debate about the Bush letter, and virtually all settlement growth in the years since that communication has been within the large settlement blocs that Bush as well as most of his predecessors envisioned being retained by Israel. In addition, Israel has not enlarged the boundaries of those settlements or established new settlements.

A separate question is that of the legality of the settlements under international law. While it has been popular, particularly in the Muslim world and in Europe, to simply call the settlements illegal, there is much in international law, including the UN charter, that weighs in the other direction.

Numerous experts on international law have also attested to the legality of the settlements. For example, Eugene Rostow, former dean of Yale Law School and undersecretary of state, wrote in 1991, "The Jewish right of settlement... west of the Jordan River, that is, in Israel, the West Bank, Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip... has never been terminated and cannot be terminated except by a recognized peace between Israel and its neighbors..."

It was largely because of the weight of evidence on their legality that all American presidents except for Jimmy Carter and perhaps Barack Obama (who has used the term "illegitimate") have refrained from characterizing the settlements as illegal. Earlier presidents have rather criticized them as unhelpful, or as obstacles to a negotiated agreement, in view of Arab objections to them.

The heyday of settlements being viewed as a major obstacle to "peace" was during the years leading up to Oslo and then during the Oslo era, when Israel's peace movement aggressively advanced the argument that the dispute with Israel's neighbors was essentially one of borders and if Israel would only retreat to its pre-1967 lines peace would follow. This was the peace movement's thesis even as all Palestinian parties continued to make clear, in words - at least their words in Arabic - and actions, that their goal remained Israel's annihilation.

Since Arafat's rejection of Israeli concessions at the Camp David meetings in 2000 and at Taba, his dismissal of President Clinton's bridging proposals, his refusal to offer counter-proposals and his launching instead a terror war against Israel, most Israelis have been disabused of the delusions of the peace movement. If their views were not changed by Arafat's war, they were swayed by the aftermath of Israel's total withdrawal from Gaza, when the response by the other side was increased smuggling of arms into Gaza and the launching of thousands of rockets and mortars from Gaza into Israel.

The great majority of Israelis now agree with the necessity of the nation's retaining defensible borders and are supportive of settlements in strategically vital areas. One response by the true believers in the peace camp has been to shift their attack on the settlements from emphasis on their being obstacles to peace to claims of their having been built largely on privately owned Palestinian land - rather than exclusively on public or state land, as all Israeli governments have asserted - and being illegal for this reason. But these claims are no less fraudulent and bogus than Peace Now's earlier assertions that Israeli withdrawal was the key to Arab-Israeli peace.

For example, Peace Now declared that 85 percent of Ma'ale Adumim, the largest of Israel's West Bank settlements, had been privately owned Palestinian land. When challenged with the relevant documentation, Peace Now amended its claim to 0.5 percent, acknowledging a 17,000 percent overstatement. Even this claim of 0.5 percent is highly dubious.

In another instance, Peace Now asserted that more than 70 percent of the settlement of Revava was built on privately owned Arab land. When challenged, it modified its claim to 22 percent. The settlement sued Peace Now, insisting Revava was built entirely on state lands. The court ruled in favor of the settlement, and Peace Now and the two authors of its report on Revava had to pay a 20,000-shekel fine and publish a retraction of their false claim in major Israeli newspapers.

Another point often mustered against the settlements is that they represent an attempt to influence the outcome of negotiations on ultimate borders. This is certainly true; the settlement policy initiated by the Labor-dominated government in the wake of the 1967 war sought to influence the results of negotiations by strengthening Israel's claim to key areas.

Again, the legitimacy of Israel's claim to border revisions is recognized in Security Council Resolution 242 and was explicitly asserted by the resolution's authors. But, in addition, diplomatic declarations that condemn settlement activity or insist on its ending because it prejudices future negotiations disregard another central issue: The Palestinians have also engaged in settlement activity in disputed areas - construction likewise intended to influence negotiations.

Especially after creation of the Palestinian Authority, the Palestinian leadership aggressively promoted building in empty areas between the 1949 armistice line and nearby Israeli security settlements, seeking to cut settlements off from pre-1967 Israel. The Arabs also undertook aggressive construction in empty areas in and near Jerusalem, trying to prevent Israel from establishing and sustaining a presence that would enable it to defend the city as it had not been able to do when Jerusalem was attacked in 1948 and in the opening of the 1967 war.

This Arab construction was not propelled by demographic need. Tracts of housing built in previously empty regions, much of it financed by Saudi money funneled through the Palestinian Authority, remained largely unoccupied; they were erected to stake political claims. Palestinian leaders responsible for the Jerusalem area, such as Faisal Husseini and Ziad Abu Ziad, spoke of directing construction to isolate Jewish neighborhoods. In January, 2002, Natan Sharansky, then minister of housing, reported "at least 40,000" housing units had been built with Saudi money for political purposes.

Who has criticized this Arab construction as prejudicing future negotiations?

The strategic imperatives that figured in the formulation of Resolution 242 are still relevant. The topography of the region has not changed, nor have the threats to Israel from its neighbors diminished.

Even if Hamas were not continuing to prepare for the next round in its terror war, even if the Mahmoud Abbas and his associates were not ambiguous at best in their acceptance of Israel, even if the language of genocide and acts of terror were put aside for some extended period, Israel would require defensible borders as it seeks to survive in a neighborhood that will continue to be dangerous.

Those who demand an end to Israeli construction intended to attain viable borders serve more to guarantee future violence than to advance the quest for a sustainable cessation of hostilities and, ultimately, a durable peace.