Why, after all these years, are we still writing about settlements?
This tiresome controversy has been raging ever since Israel captured the West Bank and the Gaza Strip (along with the Golan Heights and the Sinai peninsula) in the 1967 Middle East War. The first settlement was built in the Golan a month later. That’s four decades ago. Four decades during which the international community has been demanding that Israel step back to the pre-1967 lines, four decades during which Palestinians have called for an end to Israeli efforts to redraw the political map. It’s been 35 years since the first Los Angeles Times editorial on the subject called the settlements an “obstacle to peace.”
At the time that editorial was written in 1975, there were fewer than 5,000 settlers in the West Bank. Today there are nearly 300,000. That doesn’t count those living in the Golan Heights or the 190,000 Israelis who have moved into traditionally Arab East Jerusalem.
In the early years, Israel offered a range of justifications — historical, archaeological and religious as well as military — for these fortified, walled-in communities that were beginning to dot the West Bank landscape. In the 1970s, the group Gush Emunim emerged on the scene, arguing that God gave the Jewish people the biblical regions of Judea and Samaria, and that they must not be returned.
But those days supposedly ended in the 1990s, when Israel officially declared its support for a two-state solution.
So why, after another decade and a half, are settlements still in the headlines? Why were new housing starts so cavalierly issued early this year on the very day Vice President Biden visited Israel? Why was it announced in September that a 10-month partial moratorium on building in the West Bank would not be extended, even as peace talks were being restarted? Why did we learn Tuesday that 1,300 more Jewish housing units would be built in the Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem and that 800 new units had been approved in the West Bank settlement of Ariel?
Most of the world agrees that the settlements are illegal under international law. Even the United States, Israel’s most loyal ally, has been clear that, as President Obama put it Tuesday, settlements are “never helpful” and “break trust.”
If Israel were serious about negotiating a peace deal, wouldn’t it stop building? The short answer is yes. The longer answer is that a segment of the Israeli political establishment simply refuses to accept the new reality — and that segment, mostly made up of right-wing and religious political parties, is crucial to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s delicate coalition government. Truthfully, the settler movement’s political power extends beyond the right wing; that’s why settlements have grown steadily regardless of what government was in power, including those of Labor Party Prime Ministers Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres and Ehud Barak.
This page continues to believe, as it did in 1975, that settlements are an obstacle to peace. There’s plenty of blame to go around, to be sure, for the absence of a final deal, but on this issue, the Israelis are squarely in the wrong. As long as they continue building in the occupied territories, the world will continue to question the depth of their commitment to peace.