In the latter half of 1967, while Israel’s supporters around the world were still celebrating its stunning six-day victory over three Arab armies, leaders in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem were already beginning to plan for Jewish settlement in the newly conquered Palestinian territories.
Some believed that the presence of Israeli civilians in the occupied areas would strengthen Israel’s security. Others were driven by religious zeal. Some felt the pull of the historic homeland, the “greater” Israel that so many Jews had dreamed of for so long. “They have divided my land,” roared Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook in a sermon just weeks before the war. “Yes, where is our Hebron? Have we forgotten it? And where is our Shekhem? And our Jericho -- will we forget them?
Over the next four decades, the number of Israeli settlers climbed steadily. There were none at all on the West Bank at the time of the 1967 war; 10 years later, when Menachem Begin was elected prime minister, there were more than 4,000. By 1993, when the Oslo peace process began, that number had grown to 116,000.
At that point, one might have expected the settlement movement to have collapsed. After all, in the months and years after Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat shook hands on the White House lawn, most Israeli leaders -- not just from the left but from the right as well -- endorsed the concept of a two-state solution, which was generally agreed to involve giving up the occupied territories.
Yet settlement building has not stopped. Instead, the number of West Bank settlers has more than doubled again; today, nearly 300,000 Israelis live in 120 settlements there (not including Jerusalem). Driven by internal politics and the need to keep smaller political parties happy, Israeli governments of both the left and the right have allowed growth to continue; even when new settlements or illegal “outposts” aren’t being established, the existing ones are getting larger, as houses are added and expanded under what Israel insists is “natural growth.”
The United States has long opposed settlement construction, but its criticism has been far too muted. Now, perhaps, that will change. Last week, President Obama said unequivocally after meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that “settlements have to be stopped.” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was even more specific when she added on Wednesday that the administration wants “a stop to settlements -- not some settlements, not outposts, not ‘natural growth’ exceptions. That is our position.”
We are relieved to hear that. Settlements are not merely “unhelpful,” as U.S. officials have sometimes called them. They’re significant obstacles to peace. By redrawing the demographic map, they create “facts on the ground” that can’t help but shape the final status of the territory. Establishing Jewish communities in the midst of Arab areas makes a contiguous Palestinian homeland less and less likely -- yet uprooting them, should it come to that, will be bitterly divisive, politically difficult and potentially violent. For as long as they are there, settlements require the presence of armed Israeli troops in the heart of Palestinian territory to defend lives and property. Not to mention the roadblocks, checkpoints and bypass roads that restrict Palestinian movement in the name of protecting settlers.
Over the years, settlement growth has undercut the faith of Palestinian moderates in a two-state solution because it symbolizes an Israel that wants to grow beyond its borders. And continuing expansion has increased antipathy to Israel abroad because so much of the world has concluded that settlements violate international law.
It’s time for an absolute freeze on settlement construction, and the United States should use its considerable leverage to see that it happens. In the end, when and if Palestinians and Israelis make new progress in their long-stalled journey toward peace, they may hammer out a deal in which some of the existing settlements survive. It’s possible that land swaps can be arranged so that some of the larger suburban settlements close to the Israeli border can be annexed, while Palestinians get other territory in return. That may turn out to be a good deal for both sides, but it should be determined by the parties together, not decided by fiat before talks even begin.
To be clear: We do not believe that Israeli settlements are the whole problem or even the worst of the impediments to a meaningful peace. And Palestinians, to be sure, have plenty of their own problems to work out. The divided Palestinian leadership must pull together and speak with one voice -- and that voice must be committed to a two-state solution and to ending violence. Without that, it’s hard to see how the peace process can move forward.
The nature of a negotiated peace agreement is that it requires sacrifices and compromises from both sides. For Israel, a freeze on settlements would be a good place to start.