Israel Pulse

More settlements, no peace

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Article Summary
Rampant settlement construction has got to stop for any Mideast peace plan to be feasible.

President Donald Trump’s envoy for the Mideast peace process, Jason Greenblatt, is urging people to stop their “guessing games” about the administration’s yet-to-be-unveiled “deal of the century” for Israeli-Palestinian peace.

“We’ve been working hard drafting what we believe is a fair, realistic & implementable plan,” he tweeted on April 16. “Fair agreements require compromises.” Several hours later, Israel shared its idea of “fair” and “compromise” when bulldozers stormed the Palestinian neighborhood of Wadi Yetzol, established some 30 years ago at the foot of Jerusalem’s Old City, turning a string of shops, warehouses and barns into rubble. After the Supreme Court rejected their petition against the Jerusalem municipality, residents fear the city will now demolish the neighborhood’s 60 homes housing 500 people.

The houses are built on private land owned by residents, but unfortunately for them, the area is designed in zoning plans as “green and open land.” The non-profit Elad organization has also built in that area without benefit of a building permit, but things are different for Jews, especially those affiliated with the radical right. The municipal authorities recently asked the local zoning committee re-zone the land in order to provide the NGO with permits for the illegal structures it erected there. Ironically, the disputed zoning request pertains to land known as the “Peace Forest.”

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told CNN April 13 that he does not believe Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s declared intention to annex the West Bank would be detrimental to a two-state solution. It is unclear whether Pompeo believes Netanyahu’s annexation declarations would harm the US peace plan because he doesn't take them seriously, or if he was hinting that annexation of the West Bank or of 60% of its area (designated as West Bank Area C, under Israeli control) is part of Greenblatt's “fair” compromise. It doesn't really matter. The Peace Forest case proves that annexation is already underway. It started off at a crawl, but with generous government support, it's picked up speed. In recent years, hailed by senior politicians, the annexation has been galloping wildly ahead without any domestic or foreign impediment. As a result, in the quarter century since Israel and the Palestinians signed their historic 1993 Oslo Accord, designed to bring Israel’s occupation of the West Bank to an end, the number of Israeli settlers there has quadrupled — not even counting Jewish residents of predominantly Palestinian East Jerusalem.

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The latest report issued on April 8 by the Peace Now organization indicates that under Netanyahu, from the end of 2008 to the end of 2017, some 132,300 new settlers moved into the West Bank. Some 50,000 of these residents moved into homes outside of what are termed “settlement blocs,” meaning into areas from which Israel would surely have to withdraw under a two-state agreement with the Palestinians. The recently built housing units in the settlements could potentially house 60,000 additional settlers, according to the report.

For the settlers, even these gains are not enough. In 2018, according to the report, construction began on 2,100 new housing units in the settlements, about 9% more than the annual average since 2009. Only a quarter are located west of the security fence between Israel and the West Bank. At least 10% of the new construction is illegal, not only under international law but also under the laws that Israel has imposed in the settlements. Last year, plans were promoted for 5,618 additional housing units in 79 settlements, the vast majority (83%) east of the settlement blocs. The number of construction tenders — for 3,808 units in the West Bank and 603 in East Jerusalem — has broken a 10-year record.

Data obtained by Peace Now indicate that in the decade of Netanyahu’s regime, government ministries allocated over 10 billion shekels ($2.8 billion) in extra budgets for the settlements — unique expenditures that do not include defense and protection services the settlers would have received even had they lived inside sovereign Israel. As the report notes, even if one does not believe peace with the Palestinians is attainable in the near future, massive construction that thwarts all future prospects of a two-state solution defies logic.

This conclusion brought President George W. Bush to insist that the peace plan he initiated in 2003 include a demand that Israel freeze all settlement activity and would not even accommodate natural growth. April 30 will mark 16 years since the government of Ariel Sharon's decision to adopt it. The government’s 14 reservations about the plan did not include the freeze demand. However, American evangelists and Republican donor Sheldon Adelson are highly unlikely to let Trump hold the Netanyahu government to its predecessor’s decision.

The prospects that Netanyahu’s colleagues in the Likud and members of his new ultra-right, messianic coalition government will allow him to even broach the idea of a settlement freeze are even lower. For them, freezing the settlement enterprise is sacrilege, a violation of the pledge God gave the Israelites to inherit the land from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River. For them, annexation of the West Bank is merely a next step toward Israel conquering the land all the way to the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers in modern-day Iraq.

With far-right Zvi Hauser as one of its Knesset members, a call for peace, however faint, is unlikely to emerge from the opposition benches of the Blue and White Party. Hauser, one of the authors of the controversial nationality law and a former Netanyahu cabinet secretary, said in a February interview with Yedioth Ahronoth that he sees no difference between Netanyahu and his rivals on the settlement issue. Netanyahu, Blue and White leader Benny Gantz, head of center-right Kulanu Moshe Kahlon and right-wing Yisrael Beitenu leader Avigdor Liberman all hold similar views on the matter, he said. Hauser even complained about the current Netanyahu government allegedly freezing construction in areas beyond the Green Line.

Greenblatt wrote that he and his colleagues had worked hard to come up with a fair, realistic and feasible plan, yet the first sentence of any viable plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace is easy to write. One look at the pile of rubble in Wadi Yetzol or the settlement construction sites dotting the West Bank landscape should suffice to understand that galloping annexation means the demise of peace. With or without Trump’s deal, this process must stop before it's too late.

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Found in: peace plan, settlements, construction, peace process, israeli settlements, donald trump, middle east peace, mideast policy

Akiva Eldar is a columnist for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse. He was formerly a senior columnist and editorial writer for Haaretz and also served as the Hebrew daily’s US bureau chief and diplomatic correspondent. His most recent book (with Idith Zertal), Lords of the Land, on the Jewish settlements, was on the best-seller list in Israel and has been translated into English, French, German and Arabic.

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