Old Settlement Wine in New Peacemaking Bottles

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 Bibi KerryNetanyahu 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.

Congressmen Try to Restrict Free Speech To Prevent Boycotts of Israel

This article originally appeared at LobeLog.

Earlier this week, a bill was hastily removed from the agenda of the New York State Assembly. The bill was designed as a response Freedom_of_Thought_Ben_Franklinto the American Studies Association’s decision to boycott Israeli educational institutions. But it was so poorly written that even opponents of the ASA boycott saw it as potentially damaging to academic freedom in general. The bill was removed from the fast track in New York so it could be re-written to be more acceptable to its potential supporters. A similar bill is currently working its way through the Maryland state legislature.

Now the US Congress is getting into the act, with a bill that has the same goal, but takes a different approach. The bills in New York and Maryland did not specifically mention Israel, although it was clear that the ASA action against Israeli academia is what prompted the bills. Instead, they tried to argue that academic freedom meant that the state must penalize institutions that choose to express themselves through the power of boycott if the target is a country that has extensive academic connections with the United States. Continue reading

The Occupation Won

In this week’s column at Souciant, I take a closer look at the outcome of the Israeli election. Particularly, I examine the idea that Yair Lapid’s surprising showing and the broader split between the nationalist and religious camps and the so-called center now makes a resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict more feasible. Put simply, I think not.

The Only Alternative is War

My column for Souciant this week looks at the execrable “Levy Report” which claims that Israel’s occupation is legal under international law and recommends that Israel retroactively legalize most the outposts that were set up contrary to even Israeli law. Yep, that’s what it said, this is not The Onion. the recommendations are unlikely to be accepted even by teh Netanyahu government that commissioned them, but I explore what impact they will have. Check it out.

Meretz USA: Buy Israel – Don’t Buy Settlements (They’re not the Same)

It is a very fine line to try to walk for a group that wants to take concrete action for peace and still identifies as a Zionist organization. Meretz USA does an admirable job of taking on that tension with their nuanced statement here. There are certainly critiques to be made, and I’m sure people will make them. But there is something more important here.

That something, which is all too often lost in the various political debates in Israel-Palestine, is a sincere attempt to reach across lines while maintaining one’s own identity.

Meretz USA Board Chair and actor, Theodore Bikel

Meretz USA is trying to do just that, in my view, with this statement. I particularly like the fact that the state they “denounce” attempts to bring down the state of Israel (kind of goes without saying if you’re pro-Israel, and I agree with them) while saying they merely “disagree” with using BDS as a tactic within the Green Line. I find that kind of nuance refreshing and it opens important doors for groups of various different views to be able to work together in areas they can without being bogged down about issues they disagree on.

I know many of my readers will find things to object to in Meretz USA’s statement, from a variety of different approaches to this vexing issue. I have my critiques as well, and I’ve shared them with Meretz USA. But let’s just for a moment, try and see where we have common ground rather than focusing on where we differ. Ultimately, I think a Zionist group trying to find a way to use economic pressure against the occupation is a very promising step forward that should be welcomed by all.

Continue reading