“Israel’s settlements block peace....”

Published: 9 September 2011
Briefing Number 298

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Summary and key messages: It is very widely claimed that Israel’s settlement policies block peace.  After all, they perpetuate and tighten the unjust Israeli occupation of Palestinian land. This Briefing outlines the following arguments which call into question the claim that it is Israel’s settlements which are the primary block to peace:

- The conflict predates West Bank settlements by generations

- Israel has an interest in negotiating a viable, independent Palestinian state, and to make the concessions needed to make that happen

- Israel regards the West Bank as “disputed territories” over which it has legitimate claims, but nonetheless wishes to negotiate over the future of the territories and the settlements, without conditions

- Palestinian intransigence on core issues, and their refusal to negotiate, causes
the impasse over settlements

- Israel’s past proposals to withdraw extensively from the West Bank, and evacuate West Bank settlements, were rebuffed by the Palestinians

- Israel’s uprooting of all Gaza settlements in 2005 triggered more, not less,  Palestinian violence, disproving the idea that the settlements are the root cause of the conflict

- The large Jewish settlement blocs in the West Bank could co-exist side-by-side with a viable and contiguous Palestinian state

- Palestinian negotiators have recognised in private, face-to-face talks that Israeli settlements are not a practical obstacle to peace     

Of course, Israel will need to make further real sacrifices over settlements in a peace treaty.  But we show that it is not Israeli settlement policies which ultimately block peace, but Palestinian and wider Arab rejectionist attitudes towards Israel.  If those attitudes changed, then peace and a viable two-state solution could be achieved, including a pragmatic compromise over territory and settlements.

The Western preoccupation with Israeli settlements actually hinders peace.  It causes the conflict to be mistakenly reduced to a territorial conflict, and draws attention away from Palestinian intransigence on core issues.


“Israeli settlement block peace...”

This claim is very widely held.  Most commentators and journalists believe it.  Most governments around the world believe it.  And many critics of Israeli policies, including many critics within diaspora Jewish communities, believe it.  The Palestinians and Arab states claim to believe it: it is certainly a convenient tool for drawing attention away from their own policies and attitudes on core issues.    

Here are several arguments which call this claim into question:
The Israeli-Arab conflict predates Israel’s West Bank settlements by generations, and the claim that it is settlements which block peace rewrites history

  • The conflict between Israel and its neighbours, and with the Palestinian Arabs, is over 100 years old 

  • Prior to 1967, Israel repeatedly faced war, the threat of invasion, terrorism, attempts to isolate it diplomatically, and many other types of attack 

  • At that time there was not a single Israeli West Bank settlement: the West Bank was controlled by Jordan, and was completely empty of Israelis

  • The claim that Israel’s West Bank settlements block peace simply ignores the history of the conflict, and wrongly implies that the conflict started in 1967   

Israel has an interest in negotiating a viable, independent Palestinian state, and to make the concessions needed to make that happen: 

  • For nearly 20 years the official position of successive Israeli governments has been to seek the creation via negotiation of an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza

  • Israeli leaders and the Israeli people overwhelmingly recognise that it has an interest in negotiating such a state: Israeli leaders frequently make clear that they do not wish to rule over the Palestinian people, or run their affairs.  Israel has an interest in ensuring that such a future Palestinian state is viable, stable, self-sufficient and prosperous.  A failed and dangerous Palestinian state on Israel’s borders is obviously not something that Israel welcomes 

Israel regards the territories as “disputed territories” over which it has legitimate claims, but nonetheless wishes to negotiate over the future of the territories, and settlements, without preconditions

  • Israeli leaders have repeatedly declared their readiness to make “painful” territorial concessions over the West Bank in exchange for genuine peace. This is the approach required by the legally binding UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338 

  • “Painful” territorial concessions by Israel would certainly involve settlement evacuation, and Israeli leaders in their candid moments say this publicly 

  • Settlement construction in 2011 is small-scale, and has no geographic or demographic impact upon a final status agreement

  • Settlements are in any event not an unchangeable reality.  Israel has proved this in the past. In 1982 it destroyed the Yamit settlement in North Sinai, as part of the peace treaty with Egypt.  In 2005, it destroyed all its Gaza settlements. But if the Palestinians do not even negotiate with Israel, the agreement which could create a sustainable two-state solution cannot be achieved

  • Israel has long held that such negotiations should be unconditional – ie there should be no bar to starting negotiations at once

  • Settlements are not a reason not to negotiate, but one of the topics to be resolved in those negotiations

Palestinian refusal to recognise Israel as a Jewish state, and their refusal to negotiate towards compromise on core issues, causes the impasse over settlements

  • It is Palestinian refusal to recognise Israel as a Jewish state which is the real “block to peace” 

  • If they accepted Israel as a Jewish state, then this could kickstart a process of good faith negotiations in which all issues – including refugees, permanent borders, security arrangements, Jerusalem and settlements – could be negotiated.  This is the reality which Israel wishes to see 

  • The Palestinian refusal to compromise on core positions, and their refusal even to negotiate at all, are the biggest obstacles to peace, not the Israeli policy on settlements

  • The Palestinian demand that Israel freeze all settlements before they rejoin talks is just an excuse to enable them to blame Israel for the impasse, while avoiding facing up to the sacrifices they would need to make to sustain peace      

Israel’s proposals in 2000 and 2008 to evacuate settlements and withdraw from the equivalent of the entire West Bank were rebuffed by Palestinian leaders, whose own decisions thus perpetuate the presence of settlements

  • In 2000-2001, as part of the negotiations with the Palestinians at Camp David and at Taba, Israel proposed to withdraw from around 97% of the West Bank and Gaza in exchange for peace.  (See Beyond Images Briefing 21, dated May 2003: Camp David and Taba: what did Israel offer?) The Palestinians rejected this offer

  • In 2008, in the course of further face-to-face talks, Israel proposed to withdraw from the equivalent of 100% of the West Bank, with 7% involving territorial landswaps.  The Palestinians rejected this offer too (see Beyond Images Briefing 225, dated 5 December 2008: 2008: Israel offers to pull out of 93% of the West Bank, plus give 7% more land – Palestinians say no)   

  • It is ironic that Israel is so widely blamed for blocking peace by means of its settlements.  In fact it is the behaviour and policies of the Palestinians themselves which perpetuate settlements, not Israeli policy

The evacuation and destruction of all Israel’s settlements in Gaza in 2005 triggered more violence, not more moderation, from the Palestinians  

  • In 2005 Israel evacuated all Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip and physically destroyed them.  The entire Israeli military and civilian presence in the Gaza Strip was uprooted 

  • Far from prompting Palestinian moderation, Israel’s move was followed by an intensification of Palestinian violence and incitement, including rocket and missile assaults on the Israeli town of Sderot, and other targets in southern Israel (see Beyond Images Briefing 150 – Israel’s Gaza Pullout and Palestinian Extremism, 14 July 2005). 

  • The narrative of Israel which infuses Palestinian political culture and society states that all of Israel lacks legitimacy, and is in a sense a “settlement”.  Any withdrawal by Israel is in that sense a “victory” for the “resistance” against the “illegal” and “colonial” Israel
  • Hamas portrayed the Gaza settlement withdrawal as capitulation by Israel and as a victory for the “resistance” 

  • It is these types of Palestinian attitudes which are the biggest block to peace, not the settlements themselves
  • Israel’s experience of the Gaza pullout demonstrates that it cannot be Israel’s settlements which are the root cause of the conflict. 

  • On that occasion, Israel’s destruction of its settlements did not produce Palestinian moderation, but instead triggered fanatical Palestinian extremism and rejectionist triumphalism.  Those who demand Israel’s withdrawal from West Bank settlements need to address how this Palestinian reaction could be avoided in the future  

The large Israeli settlement blocs in the West Bank could coexist side-by-side with a Palestinian state

  • Most Israeli settlers live in the so-called ‘settlement blocs’ which are located near the so-called Green Line. These blocs and the areas around them occupy at the very most about 7% of the West Bank territory (calculations vary) 

  • Successive Israeli governments have proposed withdrawing from most of the West Bank, while retaining the settlement blocs and reaching a negotiated land swap deal with the Palestinians to compensate for the retained territory

  • Such a negotiated solution would enable the settlement blocs to remain in place, while enabling the formation of a contiguous and viable Palestinian sovereign entity.  The practical details of such a solution are complex, and would need to be negotiated

  • But under such a model, the settlements in which most Israelis live would not be an obstacle to a peace deal, but a feature of such deal.  If you take a pragmatic, and forward-thinking approach, the settlements are not a block to peace  

Privately, Palestinian negotiators recognise that West Bank settlements are not the core issue, and that there is a practical solution

  • Publicly, the Palestinians reject the idea of landswaps involving the settlement blocs, as they portray all Israeli West Bank settlements as criminal and unlawful (see Beyond Images Briefing 273, dated 15 December 2010  – Land swaps for a peace deal: Palestinian ‘moderates’ reject the idea)

  • But in private face-to-face talks they have shown willingness to consider such arrangements

  • For example, the so-called ‘Palestine Papers’, leaked in January 2011, reveal that their negotiators were willing to consider agreeing to the Jewish ‘settlements’ around Jerusalem staying.  And on other occasions, landswaps have privately been considered, on a one-to-one basis (see Beyond Images Briefing 297 – Palestine Papers)

  • It is symbolic and ideological opposition to settlements from the Palestinians which are preventing such a solution, not practical considerations

  • The more time the Palestinians spend criminalising settlements in legal, cultural and diplomatic forums around the world, and demonising Israel for building them, the less likely a solution becomes.  That is another reason why the unilateral declaration of Palestinian statehood via the UN will not bring peace or a practical solution any closer   

Some related Beyond Images resources

Beyond Images Briefing 280 – 26 March 2011
“The international community must pressurise Israel more on settlements...”: David Horovitz and Alan Dershowitz respond

Beyond Images Briefing 274 – 17 December 2010
Jewish settlements: complex realities behind the headlines
Beyond Images Briefing 262 – 15 July 2010
“The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is about territory.  The solution is ‘land for peace’....”

Beyond Images Briefing 248 – 8 December 2009
How Israel’s West Bank checkpoints restrict movement of Palestinians

Beyond Images Briefing 247 – 19 November 2009
“Israeli settlements in the West Bank are illegal under international law....”

Beyond Images Briefing 25 – 9 July 2003
Why settlements? Israeli arguments for and against