Sunday, May 24, 2009

Lots of "Settlement" Activity

An opinion piece on the YNet site asks the question of whether Israeli settlements are truly a problem. The author's position is that no, they are not a problem at all. The author repeats the arguments that terrorism existed before the existence of settlements and than when settlements were dismantled (i.e. Gaza) they were met with terrorism. The author further argues that the growth in many settlements is not part of some colonial design, but rather children who have grown up in settlements wanting to purchase or build their own homes in or near the communities in which they were raised and that this is only natural.

This opinion piece appears at the same time as a flurry of trans-Atlantic statements were made on the settlement question. Israeli cabinet ministers spoke publicly in response to the meetings between Netanyahu and Obama about a week ago. The public statements were to the effect that Israel would not bow to US pressure on settlements, would not have its policy dictated from Washington and presented arguments similar to the one in the YNet opinion piece: settlements are not the problem. The cabinet member, who was speaking to Israeli television also commented that Israel would "...not permit illegal settlement..."

Hillary Clinton, speaking earlier in the week, was equally blunt and unequivocal. She called for an immediate freeze on all types of settlement activities, including what Israelis have termed natural growth.

Both these strong statements, however, from Israel and the US are contradicted by Netanyahu's request to Obama to extend an informal Israel US agreement on settlements made between Bush and previous Israeli Prime Ministers. The agreement divides all settlement activities into four types. The first type are settlements linked to Jerusalem, which Israel insists be unencumbered in any way. The second type are settlements in major existing blocks, which will be allowed to extend beyond their current borders, so long as all new developments are directly adjacent to existing developments. The third category of settlements would be isolated settlements outside of the major blocks which would not be allowed to extend beyond their current borders. The fourth type of settlement are the unauthorized outposts, the ones Israel terms illegal which under the agreement would have to be evacuated. The agreement also prohibits the authorization of any new settlements by Israel.

This request from Netanyahu is interesting because it contradicts both his own cabinet minister who says that policy will not be dictated from Washington and settlements are not a problem. Yet, here is an Israeli Prime Minister asking a US president for permission to conduct certain activities in territory it controls. It also contradicts Clinton though because rather than halting all settlement activities, this agreement would actually have the effect of explicitly allowing some.

Israel seems to be playing hardball on the unauthorized settlements though. Defense minister and Labour party member of the coalition government Barak kept his promise to the settlers that he would remove illegal outposts by force when Israeli police destroyed such an outpost earlier this week (a "photo essay" of the removal is here.) Barak described the dismantling of the outpost as a question of upholding the rule of law, but many in Israel were quick to criticize it as bowing to US pressure.

It's most probable that the dismantling of the unauthorized settlements was not related to US pressure. Barak has a Labour constituency to represent (not that he is insincere about the Labour position) but removing the settlements fit both within his mandate as defense minister and within the platform of his party. Combined with the statements he had made earlier to the settlers, it seems like this was a decision made without any additional or special US pressure.

More interesting is the question this agreement Netanyahu seeks to renew with the US. Somewhat more information on the agreement that previously existed between the two countries is here. What is still not explicit, however, is that if Israel were to limit itself in terms of settlement activity and make these promises to the US, what was it receiving in return? Was it only obliging itself to the US or was this agreement a two-way street? There's no clear answer to this question and as the article linked two just above points out, much of these previously existing agreements were agreed to orally and so there's no paper trail to see who gave what. That being said, it's possible to surmise that what was being agreed upon here were the rules of fair play. Israel receives a great deal of support from the US, both diplomatically and financially. This agreement was likely the parameters within which Israel could act without incurring pressure from the US on this issue. Violate this agreement with the US, and Israel could hear US diplomats making harsher statements, not vetoing or abstaining from UN resolutions unfavorable to Israel at the UN security Council or General Assembly (as the case may be) or even the application of less obvious pressure. Now, with US officials calling for a complete freeze on all settlement activities, it will be very interesting to see if Obama continues with the policies of his predecessors on this matter or if he calls for new rules of the game.

Settlements are not the obstacle to peace between Israel and Palestinians but they are an obstacle. It's true that there will be no holding hands and singing and rainbows when all the settlers are gone and that peace will burst forth. It's also true that settlements can and have been evacuated in the past--in Gaza where the results were decidedly negative and in the Sinai peninsula, where peace remains--and so they should not be viewed as irreversible facts on the ground. They are in no way, however, helpful. They impose a heavy security and financial burden on Israel, they add fuel to anger against Israel both in the middle east and around the world and in some cases, settlers have proven to be less than hospitable neighbours to the Palestinians they live near (granted, the Palestinians are not good neighbours to the settlers either.) In any final agreement, many of the settlements will have to go and a freeze on the ones that exist is a good idea. It will show Israeli commitment to peace, place Israel in the good graces of the new US administration, help reduce the security burden the settlements represent to the country and begin to change the facts on the ground. If, however, any settlements are to be removed, the lessons of the past have been that this cannot be a unilateral withdrawal. The results of unilateral withdrawal from Gaza was rocket attacks. The results of negotiated withdrawal from Sinai has been peace.


Anonymous said...

Another suggestion:

Thank you for responding so thoroughly on my last suggestion. I left a comment there are well.

A friend.

Anonymous said...

Hello Charlie:

"The results of unilateral withdrawal from Gaza was rocket attacks. The results of negotiated withdrawal from Sinai has been peace."

Fact 1: Rocket attacks from Gaza occurred with the same frequency on southern Israel even before the unilateral withdrawal.

Fact 2: Israel refuses to negotiate with Hamas, just as it refused to negotiate with Lebanon before the unilateral withdrawal from the south.

So the real lesson, I think, is that rocket attacks continue when you refuse to recognize the other side or to talk to them. And they stop when you sit down with them and talk (Sound a little like the Obama doctrine doesn't it?), and not as you framed you sentence.

Let me put this way:

You have a dispute with your neighbour across the street. You refuse to speak to him, but you speak with his brother, who also happens to live across the street, but in a different house. And you are asking the brother to control the one you have a problem with, even though they happen not like one another very much!

Does that make any sense?

A friend.

Steve Lieblich said...

Why are settlemts "an obstacle" to peace??? Is it so disgusting to have jewsih neighbours?
Are the 1.5 million Arabs living in Israel "an obstacle to peace" because they're not Jewish?

If Arabs can live in a Jewish state, then why can't jews live in an Arab entity? ..especially considering that we are talking about palces where jews lived for thousands of years, where there people's history was made, and where their forefathers are buried...

Charlie H. Ettinson said...

Steve, you don’t need to sell me on the idea that Jews should be allowed to live in an independent Palestine just as Arabs live in Israel. I think I have said before on this blog that there should be no problem with Jews living in an Arab state if they choose to and to insist that it be Jew-free is at best undemocratic, at worst fully racist.
The problem with the settlements, however, is that they are large blocks of Israeli citizens, some of whom are very bad neighbors. The settlements are often on very desirable land in the West Bank that Palestinians would want when building their country. You don’t need to convince me of the importance of that part of the world to Jews, nor do you need to remind me that settlements can and have in the past be dismantled, that nothing is permanent. On the other hand, having a large number of Israeli citizens moving into a territory that will eventually need to be returned complicates an already complicated situation. They also remain an irritant, in that settlements mean the need for more soldiers, and checkpoints to protect them and create more friction amongst a population that is mostly intolerant of them. Wouldn’t it be best to avoid any additional problems by promising not to build any new Israeli communities in what could become a Palestinian country and to limit the size of the ones that do exist?

Charlie H. Ettinson said...

In response to the anonymous comment...I didn't forget you, but I've been busy!

I'll accept your 1st fact, but disagree with the 2nd. I can't point to a source to support this position, but I recall reading that at the time of the withdrawl, Israel refused to deal with Hizbollah, not with Lebanon. Indeed, Israel did indirectly deal with Lebanon through the UN.

Israel's policy, is not to negotiate with terrorists. I can't say I disagree with that. There is value to speaking to your enemies, in the hopes of making them your friend, but when groups like Hamas begin from a position of rejection, and adhere to a charter chock full of some of the most ugly antisemitism, continues to attack after they have been given them what they ostensibly wanted--a Gaza free of Jews--I would conclude, as the Israelis have, that all Hamas wants is to wipe Israel out. Israel is not opposed to Hamas because it's Hamas, they're opposed to Hamas because Hamas openly states they want to drive all the Jews into the sea. Prior to peace, Egypt made similar statements, but Egypt is a state, and it's quite clear that Egypt is not gonig anywhere. Hamas, is a political party with an army. The army can be hurt militarily, and the political wing can be isolated and politically defeated.

Sometimes I think, maybe Israel should swallow it's pride and talk to these terrorists, maybe an understanding can be reached. Every time I begin to think in such rosy terms though, I answer myself, that such talks are futile as long as Hamas continues to demonstrate through words and deeds that their goal is the violent elimination of all of Israel. Rockets continue when the attacker is completley rejectionist. Even most Arab states are no longer in this camp as they have endorsed the Arab peace plan, ergo recognizing that Israel could be legitimate.

With regards to your neighbour analogy: I think arguing by analogy, especially in this unique case, is almost always doomed to fail. Your anaolgy implies that Israel is asking Fatah to rein in Hamas. I disagree. More precisely, Israel is supporting Fatah in the hopes that it will eventually defeat Hamas.

If I were to fall into the analogy trap, my analogy would go as follows:

My neighbour and I argue over the line between our homes. To secure my claim, I build some structures on his side. He gets mad, and throws debris at me every chance he gets. He even begins insisting that my whole house is his and that my family should be sent away. Fed up, I tear down my buildings, remove all evidence of my presence in that area, build a fence on what is agreed was my property line and hope that'll be the end of it. Instead, now, my neighbour is throwing rocks at my house, and he's spoken to some of my business rivals who are so delighted with what he's doing, that they've given him a catapult so he can hit nearly much of my house. I speak to another neighbour, this first guys estranged brother. He tells me that similar things have been done to him by the same guy. So, I build my fence higher, and occasionaly, when I get a good view of his catapult, I try and throw a rock at it to break it, but he keeps getting new improved ones. I've appealed to the city council. They tell my neighbour he shouldn't be attacking me but he couldn't care less and ignores them. I'm at my wits end. I've warned him to stop, or I'll have to respond to his force with force, but he ignores me. My family can't sleep, some of them have been hurt by these rocks, my house has been damaged...I storm over to his side, block the path he needs to wheel in his new catapults and go about looking for his stockpiles of projectiles...

Anyway, I think you see where I'm going. I told the neighbour to stop, I tried to stay out of his hair, the city council is ineffective. I would be convinced my neighbour will only be happy when I'm gone. Talking to him, dosen't seem like it will help.

Anonymous said...

I like your analogy. It is a good one, except for these issues:

(1) "Fed up, I tear down my buildings, remove all evidence of my presence in that area, build a fence on what is agreed was my property line and hope that'll be the end of it". What is agreed was my property? really? Who agreed? The common international consensus, including the Arab states and the Palestinian Authority is that the agreed property is the 1967 border, not the one arbitrarily chosen by Israel when it moved out.

(2) Your property does not exactly border your neighbours, now you know that... Actually, you own a mansion by the lake, that completely surrounds this annoying little snit sitting on his insignificant piece of land on the edge of the lake, and which he refuses to give to you or sell it even though you made sure you made life as difficult for him as possible without actually running him out with a bulldozer. Also, this annoying little neighbour can't even get out to visit his family and friends because in order to do so, he must necessarily pass through your land, for which you forbid him, refusing to unlock the fence and allowing free access to the road, and also, you refuse him the use of a boat even though he has land on the lake. Furthermore, he must rely on you letting food and water and medicine in, and whenever he gets uppity, you lock the gate for an indeterminate period of time, leaving on his plot to stew... I think that is what Hamas thinks of the situation.

Now as for the withdrawal from Lebanon, I remember reading articles that Israel's withdrawal took Lebanon by surprise. However, I haven,t looked for them and will try to find them. I really don,t think Israel did any negotiating with Lebanon before withdrawing and that it was unilateral. I will find the references...

A friend.

Charlie H. Ettinson said...

Well, I've found nothing to suggest that the Israeli withdrawal was anything short of the 1967 borders, so I'm not really sure what you mean by your first point. I'd be interested in evidence to the contrary, but I've looked, and haven't found anything. One of the reasons Israel withdrew was to remove claims of occupation of Gaza, certainly, Israeli soldiers no longer patrol Gaza streets and the "elected" Hamas government have the opportunity to renounce violence and work towards building an independent Palestinian state. This does not seem to be the path they've chosen.

Which leads to your second point. There are severe limitations on residents of Gaza. This clearly leads to some unfair, unintended consequences, but war is unfair. The blockade of Gaza began after Israel withdrew from the strip. There was a period of time when there were both no Israelis in Gaza and no blockade, but attacks against Israeli civilians continued. The blockade began when the elected Hamas government chose to wage war against the Israelis that had left all (or in the case of uncertainty, most) of the strip. The Hamas narrative as you outline in your second point ignores Hamas launching rockets at Israel prior to the existence of any blockade. It also doesn't answer the question of why Israel should provide anything to a government whose charter calls for the destruction of Israel and who are actively engaged in efforts to kill them. I cannot think of another example of a war where one party was required to supply its opponent with sustenance or allow its people to cross freely between the territories of the warring parties.

As for the Lebanon point. I agree, the withdrawal was unilateral. There's no debate there. What I said was that Israel worked with the UN prior to their withdrawal and the UN in turn worked with Lebanon. I don't suggest there was direct coordination of any kind between Israel and Lebanon prior to the withdrawal.