by Mitchell Plitnick
During his meeting with Secretary of State John Kerry two weeks ago, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu offered “a package of meaningful measures in the West Bank.” Although Netanyahu was apparently vague about what those measures would be, an anonymous Israeli official told a reporter for Israel’s Ha’aretz, “The prime minister made it clear that we want American recognition of the settlement blocs and of the fact that we can build there.”
Most observers have long recognized that any workable two-state agreement between Israel and the Palestinians is likely to include Israel keeping the large settlement blocs of Gush Etzion, Ariel and Ma’ale Adumim. A key question had been if, and when, U.S. policy should shift to acknowledge this, either tacitly or explicitly.
For most of the period from 1967 until today, the United States has viewed all Israeli settlements beyond the Green Line in the same way. The one exception came in 2004, when George W. Bush, in a letter to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon wrote, “In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli populations 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. It is realistic to expect that any final status agreement will only be achieved on the basis of mutually agreed changes that reflect these realities.” The Bush administration’s thinking here was that, by delivering this recognition, it would make it politically easier for Sharon to take difficult steps toward peace.
The Obama administration, while never making any sort of declarative statement, quietly and unofficially walked back this policy of winking at the “settlement blocs” that Bush established. Many on the right criticized this, but Daniel Kurtzer, who served as U.S. Ambassador to Israel in 2004, defended the Obama administration’s move, noting both that Israel and the U.S. had never agreed upon a definition of the “settlement blocs,” and in any case the growth of settlements had far outstripped what the Bush administration would have considered acceptable.
Now some are suggesting again that hope for preserving the two-state solution lies in accepting building in those settlement blocs.
Michael Koplow, policy director of the Israel Policy Forum, a group that advocates for a negotiated two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and author of the excellent blog, Ottomans and Zionists, makes the case for this approach in a piece today In sum, Koplow argues that, while it is hard for peace advocates to accept any settlements as legitimate, pragmatism dictates differentiating between settlements we expect Israel to keep and those we do not.
“The reality is that if a two state solution is to happen,” writes Koplow, “it will require settler buy in, for better or worse, and getting settlers to support two states means recognizing that for the majority of them, expanding their current communities does not create an impediment to a final status agreement.”
First, let’s recognize that, yes, hard-to-swallow compromises often have to be made in order to progress toward a mutually beneficial outcome. The problem here is that objections to this idea are not, as Koplow characterizes them, only about moral high ground, nor about principle. The issue is very much a practical one.
It’s helpful to review the history. Israel has always accepted incremental gains so that it can pocket them and use the new status quo as a new starting point. One example of this strategy is the Palestinian recognition of Israeli sovereignty, made most explicitly in 1993 by Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasir Arafat. In 2007, the Israeli demand changed from simple recognition to recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, a much more problematic formulation, and a unique one in the annals of international relations. Netanyahu is very well aware of this strategy, and he is employing it now in this demand for US recognition of the settlement blocs.
Such recognition would have real effects on the ground – none of them good. As happened under the Bush administration, it would allow for further expansion of these key blocs, which have already grown into much bigger threats to the contiguity of a Palestinian state than they were before, with ever-expanding “regional council” areas surrounding the growing built-up areas, and new, barely connected “neighborhoods” in the blocs.
Importantly, if Obama should acknowledge such a thing, it will likely be seen as a final betrayal by the U.S. of the Palestinians’ historic compromise, in which they accepted 22% of historic Palestine for their state. Again, this is not simply a matter of principle, nor about securing the “moral high ground.” It’s pure pragmatism, based upon clear lessons of history. If we ignore the blocs, Israel naturally pockets that and presses for more, as any shrewd negotiator would if they could. Such a policy effectively removes the blocs from the negotiations. The Palestinians would quite reasonably ask what there is to discuss when the U.S. has already framed the talks in terms of Israel having secured the major blocs by force.
This approach did not lead to progress when Bush took it. It would likely be much worse if Obama did it now, given the current situation, where Israel has lurched further right, the U.S. has lost most of its credibility as broker, and Abbas is hanging politically on by a thread. While well intentioned, Koplow’s “solutionism” thus runs the risk of feeding into the Israeli right’s agenda to block a two-state solution. (And while new approaches and ideas are most welcome, it must be said that “Let’s give Israel stuff and hope good things happen” is one of the oldest approaches there is in Washington.)
The alternative to this is not to call for a full settlement freeze, which in any case Obama is not going to do, nor is his successor. A better way forward is to frame talks in terms of treating everything beyond the Green Line as equal but open to swaps. Israel would then know that to keep the blocs it must pay “fair market value” for them and be flexible enough to allow for contiguity for the Palestinian state (i.e. it needs to reduce the areas currently reserved for settlement growth, which are much larger than the built-up areas themselves).
Such an alternative is pragmatic and is, in fact, consistent with existing U.S. policy and, importantly, with international law. What has been missing is the political will to frame the talks in the manner that the international community, including the U.S., has long agreed: borders based in the 1967 lines with mutually agreeable swaps. That is how Israel can keep the settlement blocs. They are not a fait accompli, but an Israeli gain for which the Palestinians must be compensated fairly, and not merely by Israel agreeing to meet its pre-existing commitments, as Netanyahu is now offering. Anything less would merely reinforce the current dynamic of Israeli impunity, and further entrench the one-state reality.
Republished, with permission, from the Foundation for Middle East Peace blog. Photo of Gush Etzion settlement.