This is a new series of posts I’m going to work on, in which I debunk BA’s (bogus arguments) that are often made, on one side or the other, about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (or the wider Arab-Israeli conflict, etc.).
Today’s Bogus Argument: “Settlements aren’t really an obstacle to peace,” often claimed by AIPAC supporters and other apologists for the Netanyahu gov’t. Actually, even though the argument often gets stated the way I just phrased it, what those making the argument usually mean when they say this is that Israeli announcements of plans to build new housing units within the large settlement blocs abutting Jerusalem are not really an obstacle to peace.
Let’s consider this argument.
Usually it is supported by two claims: one, that Palestinian complaints are disingenuous because both sides already know that a final status agreement would preserve the major Jerusalem settlement blocs within Israel and there would be compensatory land swaps to the Palestinian state; and two, that the Palestinians had previously engaged in negotiations w/o too much fuss despite periodic new Israeli building in the blocs.
Therefore, the argument goes, these Palestinian complaints (and those made by groups like Peace Now, J Street, and various Knesset members in the opposition) are disingenuous. The Palestinians, according to this theory, only complain over this for strategic and negotiating purposes, not because they are actually upset about new Jewish housing being built in neighborhoods that everyone knows will eventually be part of Israel. No, they press these complaints fully knowing them to be without merit, because they are actually not interested in going back to negotiations with Israel, and because they are not serious about accepting Israel’s right to exist as part of a two-state final status agreement. By insisting that Israel cease and desist from new construction in all the settlements, the Palestinians are, supposedly, making an unreasonable demand they know Israel won’t accept, and by doing so they are deliberately sabotaging peace talks and building up global animosity towards Israel as part of a long-term plan to one day get back all of what was British-ruled Palestine.
This line of reasoning, and its dismissal of Palestinian objections to new settlement construction, is, in my humble opinion, completely bogus. It’s wrong.
The main reason why Israeli announcements of new housing units in the settlements cause serious damage to the possibility of peace has little to do with the fact that most of the time the new construction is located within settlement blocs that are likely to become part of Israel in a final status agreement. The main reason is tied to the double standard the Israeli government has used for decades in its housing permit policies and housing planning policies, both within the Green Line and in the territories.
Basically, it’s common for Arab-Israeli citizens and Palestinians under Israeli military authority to wait forever to get any new housing approved, whether it’s new units or upgrades to existing housing units. This has been especially true in East Jerusalem but also has gone on and on in the triangle region in the Galilee and in the Negev. Recently the Israeli police demolished homes in a legally unrecognized Bedouin town in the Negev desert, and in the course of protests and a police raid, one Bedouin Israeli and one Israeli police officer were killed. I understand that all countries need laws and that law enforcement is part of civil society, but when a government declares a Bedouin or Arab village to be illegal while continuing to build illegally in the West Bank, the whole notion of fairness becomes completely unraveled.
Last week a similar thing happened in the central Israeli town of Qalansuwa, where 11 homes were demolished for having been built illegally. Abd al-Basit Salame, the town’s mayor announced his resignation to protest the demolition, noting how long people there had been waiting for permits to be considered and approved. Here’s a quote from a recent Al-Monitor story by Israeli journalist Shlomi Eldar:
“I expected the prime minister to find solutions for us, to expand zoning plans [in the Arab sector], to greenlight construction plans. There are plans awaiting approval for years in the planning commissions. The minute you destroy a house, you’re destroying human beings. That’s why I thought that if all the local municipal and council heads step down, this could lead to a solution. We’re not wild about illegal construction, but give us an alternative. When I have a way to offer residents legal housing, I will tear down illegal buildings. There are now families of 10 or more people who are left without a roof over their heads,” he told Al-Monitor.
Eventually, as babies grow up, and in communities with cultures of multi-generational families living together, people have to add on to their homes or build new ones. When your ongoing policy is to make it almost impossible for people of a minority group to build new homes in their own neighborhoods and towns, and you bulldoze those homes when they get built w/o permits, but you constantly are plowing gov’t funds (including taxes that Arab-Israeli citizens pay) into new Jewish-only housing developments, within the Green Line and in the settlement blocs, then each new public announcement by Israel of new construction is an insult and an act that erodes the possibility of trust.
As for the argument that there are things going on with Palestinian leadership that are obstacles to peace, well, indeed, yes there are some very big Palestinian-generated obstacles to peace, and it’s completely fair to object to them. But that fact doesn’t cancel out or erase the reality that Israel’s actions re the very sensitive issues of housing, land, dispossession, and facts on the ground matter. They matter a lot. To pretend Israel’s actions regarding issues of housing are unimportant is to lie not only to others but to oneself as well.
Here’s another way to frame this issue:
If the leadership of Israel and the Palestinian Authority already know and accept that a final status agreement will give the settlement blocs to Israel in exchange for some other territory that will go from Israel to the new State of Palestine, why is it so important to Israel to build new housing units in those blocs now, when doing so appears to kill the possibility of reaching a final agreement? If Israel genuinely wants a two-state solution and really thinks it’s going to get the settlement blocs in such a deal, why not freeze construction now and do all kinds of things to show goodwill towards the Palestinians (like, maybe, speeding up the approval process for those long-languishing Arab-Israeli housing permit requests), so that the final status agreement can be reached ASAP? See what I’m saying?
Once a two state final agreement has been established and the UN and US and EU all approve of it, then Israel would finally be in the clear to build as much as they want in the settlement blocs, because the blocs would be recognized under international law as part of Israel. What’s the emergency requiring Israel to keep dribbling out announcements of 2500 new housing units here, 400 there, 200 there, every few months, when doing so humiliates the Palestinian Authority’s leaders and weakens their ability to make compromises on behalf of Palestinians as part of a final peace agreement? It’s not like there’s no room anywhere else in Israel proper for Jewish Israeli newcomers and growing families to live.
If Israel really wants the two state solution and knows it’s getting the blocs as part of that deal, again I ask, why not do all you can to try to get that deal finished? Then you can announce plans to build a gazillion new housing units in the blocs and nobody will be able to say a word.
And if the claim that the Palestinian objections to new settlement construction are all a rouse are really true, why not call their bluff? Why not freeze all new construction and throw out the welcome mat for Abbas to come talk peace, having removed this objection on his side from consideration? If Abbas & Co refuse after Israel met this standard, then they’ll be exposed as not really wanting to get to peace with Israel. But as things stand right now, we can’t really know what Abbas’ intentions are because . . . wait for it . . . SETTLEMENTS REALLY ARE AN OBSTACLE TO PEACE.