The Bitter Truth about the Settlements

AP Photo/Oded Balilty

A construction site in the West Bank Jewish settlement of Modiin Illit

There are a lot of reasons for the peace effort's failure, but people in Israel shouldn't ignore the bitter truth—the primary sabotage came from the settlements.” This is what anonymous U.S. officials told journalist Nahum Barnea, a prominent columnist in Israel’s most-read newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth, in a candid interview about the collapse of Secretary of State John Kerry’s nine-month-long effort to broker talks between the Israelis and Palestinians. 

It’s not just people in Israel who shouldn’t ignore this bitter truth; it’s people in America, and particularly in Washington, where there’s an entire industry dedicated to casting the Palestinians as eternal rejectionists and downplaying the impact of the settlements and occupation that sustain them. Basically, these officials are telling us more explicitly what both Secretary of State John Kerry and President Obama have told us more diplomatically: Netanyahu’s unwillingness and/or inability to reign in the settlements poisoned the negotiations, and is killing any chance of a final, two-state agreement.

To be clear, the settlements are not the only obstacle to a final agreement. And the Palestinians undoubtedly made some questionable choices during these negotiations, too. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas blindsided both the Americans and the Israelis with a reconciliation agreement with Hamas two weeks ago, surprise being the enemy of trust in these kinds of negotiations. But the U.S. officials listed a number of important concessions made by Abbas, none of which were matched by Netanyahu. And the reconciliation with Hamas came after it became clear to Abbas that Netanyahu was not interested in negotiating in good faith. 

“The Palestinians don't believe that Israel really intends to let them found a state when, at the same time, it is building settlements on the territory meant for that state. We're talking about the announcement of 14,000 housing units, no less,” the officials told Barnea. “Only now, after talks blew up, did we learn that this is also about expropriating land on a large scale. That does not reconcile with the agreement.”

It’s good to have U.S. officials lay out these views. It would be even better if they would put their names on it. Still, the interview is troubling in what it reveals about these officials’ professed understanding, or lack thereof, of the environment they were stepping into just under a year ago. “We didn't realize Netanyahu was using the announcements of tenders for settlement construction as a way to ensure the survival of his own government,” they said. “We didn't realize continuing construction allowed ministers in his government to very effectively sabotage the success of the talks.”

Sorry, but there’s just no excuse for this. There was no shortage of people—Israelis, Palestinians, Europeans, and Americans—warning Kerry and his team about it going in. As I reported from Israel in March 2013, just as Netanyahu was assembling his current coalition, nearly every Israeli official with whom I spoke voiced strong concerns that a “surge” in settlement-building was coming. Writing that same month, Aluf Benn, editor-in-chief of Israel’s Haaretz, warned: “The third Netanyahu government has one clear goal: enlarging the settlements and achieving the vision of ‘a million Jews living in Judea and Samaria.’ This magic number will thwart the division of the land and prevent once and for all the establishment of a Palestinian state.”

Leaving aside what these officials should have known, the question is, having now said publicly that the Netanyahu government’s addiction to settlements is the primary obstacle to achieving a stated U.S. interest—a two-state solution—what is the U.S. willing to do about it?

It’s important to note there that it’s not just the settlements themselves—which, as their defenders never tire of pointing out, actually take up only a small fraction of land in the West Bank—that are the problem, but the system required to maintain them; the network of roads connecting them to Israel proper that bisect the West Bank, and on which Palestinians are forbidden to drive; the Israeli military presence that mocks any pretense of Palestinian autonomy; the acts of violence and harassment by settlers that Israeli authorities show little genuine interest in controlling. It’s what the settlements tell the Palestinians as they grow just outside their windows: that Israel has no intention of ever ending the occupation. 

“Twenty years after the Oslo Accords, new game rules and facts on the ground were created that are deeply entrenched,” the U.S. officials continued. “This reality is very difficult for the Palestinians and very convenient for Israel.”

Having (very belatedly) recognized this: Is the U.S. now prepared to take steps that make reality less “convenient” for Israel? For years, the mantra of conservative pro-Israel lobby groups has been that Israel will only be able to make the difficult choices for peace if it knows that U.S. support is absolute. But there’s a flip side to this, too: When Israel knows that U.S. support is absolute, it has no incentive to make difficult choices.   

In February 2011, the Obama administration cast its first veto at the United Nations blocking a Security Council resolution that reiterated the illegality of settlements under international law, and indeed, said basically what these anonymous U.S. officials have said now: The settlements are a key impediment to a final agreement. The veto saw the U.S. standing alone against the rest of the Security Council plus the resolution’s 100 other co-sponsors, isolating the U.S. from even its closest allies, with France, Germany and the UK issuing a statement in support.   

U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice justified the veto by saying that its adoption would risk “hardening the positions of both sides.” Yet here we are. 

So, once again, what now? Will the Obama administration heed the growing calls for it to put a U.S. framework on the table, as Secretary Kerry indicated in recently leaked remarks that he might do? Will it use its considerable leverage to put pressure on Israel to accept the terms of such a framework? Will it take steps to create genuine disincentives for Israel’s continuing defiance over settlements? Or, if it feels it cannot bear the domestic political costs of doing so, will it at least step out of the way of those who will?

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