Monday, April 6, 2009

A Settlement Settlement

Credit where credit is due to David Schraub for highlighting this interesting story from the Jerusalem Post on Israeli settlements in the West Bank. The article is about settlers who, the article claims, would voluntarily pick up and leave the West Bank for Israel proper if they could be assured of fair compensation when they exchange their inexpensive land in the West Bank for a more costly life within Israel proper. David's analysis focuses on the fact that many of the settlers in the West Bank live there for practical, not ideological reasons. He makes the comparison to North American suburbanites who trade expensive urban living for large inexpensive tracts of land away from the hustle and bustle. This is an accurate analogy and the settlers that fall into this category are referred to by Israelis as "quality of life" settlers, as opposed to the religiously motivated "ideological" settlers who, by some accounts, make up only 20% of the entire settler population.

David also correctly points out that the settlements are perceived to be a serious obstacle to peace in the region. This is why having settlers leave voluntarily rather than in a dramatic confrontation, as was the case when the settlements in Gaza were removed, is preferable for multiple reasons. Not only does it make the removal of settlements easier and ensure that the majority of settlers left are the extremists, but by having the settlers leave, and discouraging them from returning will mean fewer people to defend, fewer targets for terrorism, fewer soldiers needed to guard them, less friction between Israelis and Palestinians and another demonstration that Israel is capable of removing the settlements in the interests of peace.

The angle David's interesting post doesn't delve into is the "how" to get these settlers to leave voluntarily when for many of them, the financial cost of leaving makes it unrealistic. The "how" would be a bill proposed in the Israeli Knesset known as the "Evacuation-Compensation" bill which was first presented in April, 2005 and has been languishing in legislative purgatory in the Knesset since then. According to the proposed bill, the Israeli government would take possession of the homes of settlers in the West Bank, compensate them, seal off the houses to prevent them from being occupied by new settlers, and then, in a final peace settlement, the homes could be sold.

The plan sounds encouraging, and received support from both the US and the EU. The problem is, it is deeply divisive within Israel. In 2007, then Prime Minister Olmert expressed support for the bill, but because of the fear of parties supported by the "ideological settlers" bolting from his coalition, even Olmert's support did not result in much traction for the bill. Those parties that count on the settlers for their political lives, and who themselves are settlers, suggested that such a bill would not only be a rejection of religious ideological values, but would reflect capitulation to terrorism, and that Israel may as well offer compensation to residents from Kassam-stricken Sderot, within Israel proper.

Many other questions have been raised about the bill as well. In terms of the application and final iteration of the law, nobody is sure which settlers will be entitled to compensation. Will it be anyone living beyond the pre-1967 borders, or only the settlements that Israel does not hope to keep in a final peace settlement with Palestinians? Will compensation for the settlers be fair enough so as not to create the significant social problems any country would face by suddenly absorbing thousands of new residents into its cities? Can Israel afford this compensation, or will it need to come from abroad, and if so, from whom? There is also concern that by diminishing the size of these settlements in advance of a final peace negotiation, there is the implication that Israel is ceding its control of these areas without actually negotiating for them; a semi-unilateral withdrawal, so to speak. This could harm Israel's negotiating position.

The fact remains, however, that settlements are perceived as a major obstacle to peace. Pragmatists in Israel realize that most, if not all settlements will need to be evacuated and in some cases, this will need to be done by force. There is also the Israeli domestic concern of "the day after" an evacuation. This is why the Israeli government should be considering how to ease this transition now. The concerns that Israel is ceding control of parts of the West Bank are easily dismissed: if soldiers are there, there's still control, all that's happening is that Israel is planning ahead to ease the transition for these settlers and at the same time is demonstrating to the world, clearly, that they are interested in removing settlers. If 25% of settlers would be willing to leave their homes in the West Bank immediately (and these are only the ones who would move right away, as opposed to those would would be willing to leave, just not right away), provided they are fairly compensated, then the benefits of this bill in its ability to move closer towards peace outweigh the concerns and its critiques.

Nonetheless, the bill is stalled, but based on the facts, not indefinitely. It's true that the current Israeli government is supported to a degree by the settler movement. Even the new Foreign Minister lives in a settlement. Nonetheless, the Foreign Minister has stated that he would be ready to peacefully leave his home if he knew it was part of what would be a lasting peace. The current Israeli government, however, is not one that would be naturally predisposed to the compensation bill. In fact, the two Knesset champions of the bill Colette Avital and Avshalom Vilan (a founder of Peace Now, whose name, incidentally, means father of peace in Hebrew) no longer sit in the Knesset.

All hope should not be lost though. The bill was also supported by Ehud Barak and the Labour party. Barak now sits in the government and has stated that he hopes to be able to moderate the government's position and pull it away from the settler movement. Furthermore, the former Minsiter of Justice Haim Ramon now sits in the opposition Kadima party and has been a forceful advocate of the bill. This creates a situation where there are supports for the bill both in the government, in the opposition, amongst the general population and amongst all but about 20% of the settlers themselves. At the risk of being overly optimistic, though the bill languishes, it is certainly not dead.

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