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.

Transferring The Arabs As If They Were A Herd Of Sheep

Tal Schneider is an Israeli journalist and blogger. At her blog, she recently published this excellent piece by Afif Abu-Much, who lives in the community of Baqa Baqa al-Gharbiyye in Israel. Afif’s village is one of those that would be handed over to the Palestinian Authority in the sorts of land swaps that Avigdor Lieberman champions and all too many other Israelis support. The legitimacy and morality of such an action is often debated, but actually hearing from an Israeli citizen who would be directly affected by such a move is sadly rare. I am very grateful that Tal has permitted me to reprint this piece here, in full, as she and Sol Salbe translated it from Hebrew.  Continue reading

Interview With Iran Review

The Iran Review web site published an interview done with me by their correspondent, Kourosh Ziabari. It covers a wide range of

Your humble narrator

Your humble narrator

subjects related to Israel, including the current talks, Gaza and the standoff with Iran, among other issues. I reprint it below. The original can be found at the link above. The interview was conducted on August 26, 2013. 

Iran Review Exclusive Interview with Mitchell Plitnick
By: Kourosh Ziabari Continue reading

US on Israeli Settlements: A Policy Without A Policy

This article originally appeared at LobeLog

Some days, it must be really difficult to be the State Department’s spokesperson. It doesn’t seem like a bad job to have at all, but on certain questions it’s impossible to not look like an idiot. A lot of those questions are connected to de facto policies which differ from de jure ones.

Look up the hill from the West Bank town of Tuwani and you see the Israeli settlement, Maon

Look up the hill from the West Bank town of Tuwani and you see the Israeli settlement, Maon

And there is no better example of that than US policy on Israeli settlements.

Back in the early years after the 1967 war, the United States made it clear that the settlements were illegal according to international law. As recently as 1978, the State Department legal adviser confirmed that all Israeli settlements beyond the Green Line are illegal, and through the Carter administration, this was explicit US policy. That policy has never been explicitly revoked, but beginning with the Reagan administration, de facto policy has been ambiguous. Reagan began the trend when he stated that while the settlements were ill-advised, provocative and that further settlement was not necessary for Israel’s security “I disagreed when, the previous Administration refereed to them as illegal, they’re not illegal.  Not under the U.N. resolution that leaves the West Bank open to all people—Arab and Israeli alike, Christian alike.”

The problematic nature of Reagan’s statement — implying that “Arab” equals “Muslim” and “Israeli” equals “Jew”, and more importantly, citing the “U.N. Resolution”, which is not the basis for the illegality of the settlements (the Fourth Geneva Convention is) — notwithstanding, this was the beginning of the US’ refusal to label settlements illegal, terming them instead, at most, “illegitimate.” Continue reading