Saturday, July 25, 2009

The Case for Anti-Freeze: Regarding Israeli Construction on Settlements

By Barry Rubin

Let me begin by saying that in exchange for full peace and an end to the conflict, I not only support the dismantling of all Jewish settlements on the territory of Palestine, I enthusiastically endorse it. Why then am I against freezing construction on existing Jewish settlements?

I'm focusing now on the freeze question. Since we are so far away from a peace settlement, I will save the other, hypothetical issue for some future time.

Here, in brief, are reasons why I oppose a freeze on construction within existing settlements:

--No advantage for Israel. It has been made clear that in exchange for this major concession, Israel gets nothing in return. Yet while Israel is being “ordered” to go beyond the Road Map plan, the Palestinian side is not even being pressed to fulfill its obligations under the plan. Indeed, if Israel were to stop construction, no matter what the Palestinian did to violate their own previous commitments in future, Israel would not have Western support or restarting it.

--Doesn’t advance peace. Any construction freeze will do nothing to advance peace. The problem on the Arab-Palestinian side includes regime interest, total lack of empathy for Israeli rights and interests, radical forces, desire for Israel’s elimination, and fear of Islamists and the masses. These factors are not total and vary widely among different forces but are sufficient to block any chance of comprehensive peace for decades.

--Doesn’t advance struggle against Iran and radical Islamism. Such an Israeli concession will not bring increased Arab state assistance on these other issues, despite U.S. expectations. Indeed, this, too, is also becoming increasingly obvious even to Washington.

--Sends signal of weakness which will lead to escalation of Arab demands. We’ve already seen this. Both the Palestinians and Syrians were ready to resume negotiations but once they saw U.S. policy they added more preconditions of their own.

--This step will merely lead to the next demand on the U.S. and European list. We have seen how previous Israeli concessions, such as the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip or indeed the Oslo accords themselves, have quickly been forgotten despite Western promises to reward Israeli risk-taking. Within two weeks or so, some new non-negotiable demand will be put on Israel.

--It would compromise Israel’s goal of border modifications. Construction on settlements is not random but focuses on close-in places located in small areas which Israel intends to claim in any comprehensive peace agreement (called the "settlement blocs" concept), possibly as part of territorial swaps. These areas, no more than three percent of the combined West Bank/Gaza Strip area, are high-priority strategic locations for Israel such as Gush Etzion and Maale Adumim.

--The inclusion of east Jerusalem. By including east Jerusalem as settlements, the demand sets the stage for a return to partition of the city along pre-1967 lines. Even people like me—a minority in Israel—who are ready to have a Palestinian capital in east Jerusalem aren’t willing to give up the places where housing is being built, like the Jewish Quarter and the area around French Hill, for example.

--Accepting the United States going back on its word sets a terribly dangerous precedent. I don’t care what Obama administration officials say, I know enough former officials in the U.S. and Israeli governments who were there to be certain that the U.S. government did agree to allow continued construction on existing settlements. This has also been the public position of all Israeli prime ministers since 1993 when the Oslo agreement was signed. If Israel accepts this double-dealing (no matter how much it is a sincere mistake), how can it take seriously U.S. guarantees given as part of a future comprehensive peace agreement or any other issue for that matter?

--Settlements are not merely a negative factor in the peace process. It is important to remember the realities of politics. If the continued existence of settlements and even construction on them is such a horror for Palestinians that should give them an added incentive to make peace, get a state, and have settlements removed completely from a Palestinian state’s territory. It is only because they don’t want a compromise peace that they complain about settlements without taking the simple step that would eliminate them.

--Finally, I believe that for all practical purposes, the United States is bluffing. In real terms, an Israeli refusal to back down will not have a serious material effect on Israeli interests or on long-term U.S.-Israel relations. I have argued this case more fully here. But I will just remark that to foment a confrontation on this issue would deny the United States any help or concession from Israel regarding anything else. In addition, whatever the congressional, Jewish, or popular support the administration has for advocating a construction freeze does not extend to punishing Israel for refusing to capitulate.

This makes for a pretty compelling case. Most Israelis across the political spectrum agree with it, though they would add additional points or omit some of those made above. But anyone who thinks this is merely a "right-wing" position understands nothing about contemporary Israeli politics and public opinion.

And that’s why Israeli policy is going to follow the anti-freeze path.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition, Viking Penguin), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). Go here to read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles or to order books.

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