"An act of deliberate vandalism" was how Nick Clegg described Israeli settlement building on Monday. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who was in London, cheered him on; his negotiators having made a full settlement freeze a precondition for the resumption of direct negotiations with Israel.
The deputy prime minister was not wrong to articulate widespread international concern. And he was clearly following his Foreign Office briefing. But the demand for a complete halt to all Israeli construction over the Green Line is now a road-block preventing the commencement of bilateral talks. This may not seem fair, but it is the hard reality that we must confront if we want to help rather than hinder the parties reach a final resolution of the conflict.
I am no apologist for settlements, but I want a settlement more. By focusing obsessively on the short-term (something for which we are over-fond of criticising Israel for) we have given ourselves less scope to solve the problem in the long term. We need to practice what we preach and be strategic. Instead, we are too often becoming an unwitting impediment to peace by making settlements the issue - ironic, sad, and maddening, but true.
Yes, Israel must give up all but a small percentage of the West Bank in any conflict-ending agreement. In 2007 Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert offered the Palestinians 93% plus land from Israel to compensate for land annexed from the West Bank. But that's the point - he made the offer inside the negotiating room, face to face with the man with whom the agreement must be struck, when the subject was borders.
By making Israeli settlements (plural) the issue, we inadvertently make the settlement (singular, and conflict-ending) almost impossible to reach because we block the direct negotiations which alone can secure a Palestinian state. No matter how overwhelming the desire to speak out, there are times when we need to practice a self-denying ordinance if we are to help the parties back to the table. We need to ask ourselves religiously whether what we are doing or saying is more or less likely to get the parties to negotiate which we all accept is the only way we will get a deal that both peoples will accept.
Anyone who reads this post as in praise of settlements is missing the point and not listening. I want a settlement but as the Prime Minister said on Tuesday, we can't want it more than the Palestinians or the Israelis.
For four reasons, the way in which settlements are often discussed is counter-productive for all of us who want a lasting settlement and justice for both peoples.
First, settlement policy has never stopped or started negotiations before
The historical record does not bear out the idea that a settlement freeze is the indispensable condition for solving the Israeli-Arab conflict. From 1949-67 Jews were forbidden to live on the West Bank but that did not mean the surrounding Arab states sought peace. After 1967 for a decade only a few strategic settlements were built in the territories, but still the Arabs states refused to negotiate peace with Israel. But once the settlement project got under way after 1977, after the Likud government came to power, Egyptian President Sadat signed a peace treaty with Israel, as did Jordan in 1994 at a time when the number of Jews living in the territories was growing. The Oslo Accords in 1993, Camp David in 2000, the near-thing negotiations at Annapolis in 2007, were all conducted without a settlement freeze.
Conversely, in August 2005, when Israel evacuated all of the settlements in the Gaza Strip and four in the Northern West Bank the result was...more terror attacks.
Let's be clear: the Palestinians are using settlement construction as an excuse for not talking because they don't see negotiations as in their interests. They negotiated with the Olmert government in 2008 with no settlement freeze. And even when Netanyahu went a considerable way to meeting the Palestinian demand, and created a window of opportunity by imposing a ten month moratorium on new construction in November 2010, the Palestinians prevaricated for nine and half months before entering talks. As the US Special Envoy George Mitchell noted "The Palestinians opposed '[the freeze] on the grounds, in their words, that it was worse than useless ... then [it] became indispensable and they said they would not remain in the talks unless that indispensable element were extended."
The inconvenient truth is that when we made settlements the precondition for talks, we made talks absent from the peace process. And there can't be a process without talks.
Second, by making settlements the issue, Abbas and the Palestinians have been put 'up a tree without a ladder'
President Abbas has complained that 'It was Obama who suggested a full settlement freeze... I said OK, I accept. We both went up the tree. After that, he came down with a ladder and he removed the ladder and said to me, jump.'
As we noted in a BICOM analysis at the time, The Bush Administration and Israel had reached a tacit agreement that construction in isolated settlements East of the Security Barrier was effectively frozen, while construction on the basis of 'natural growth' continued in those large settlement blocs close to the Green Line - settlements which at the Camp David negotiations, and at Taba (Clinton Parameters), Geneva, and Annapolis were expected to be retained by Israel in a final status agreement. In a policy error, the Obama administration - seeking to distance itself from Bush-era policies in the Middle East and rebuild America's image - insisted that Israel had to freeze all building, including 'natural growth' to demonstrate good faith. Obama then changed his mind, after wasting two years, but it was too late: Abbas could not look more accommodating to Israel than the US President. We are still wrestling with the consequences of that policy error.
Third, a 'full settlement freeze' is impossible to deliver for Israel
No Israeli government has ever enforced a complete 'freeze' on settlements, i.e. a freeze on all building not just in the West Bank but even those parts of East Jerusalem that are not even seen as 'settlements' in Israel. It is impossible politically, for coalition governments. But it is also impossible in human terms; existing communities, which have typically young and growing populations, cannot freeze their natural growth. Even dovish Israeli President Shimon Peres has pointed out the impracticability of a total freeze, stating that "Israel cannot instruct settlers in existing settlements not to have children or get married." Think of a family with married children living at home with them, who then become pregnant and need extra room. And in time the nursery school or health centre needs expansion. And all this within what the leaked 'Palestinian Papers' tell us even the Palestinian negotiators recognised will remain in Israel proper after a deal.
Fourth, the settlements are almost all concentrated in areas that both sides agree will remain Israel anyway
Settlements are Israel's past. Israel has not built a single new 'settlement' since Oslo in 1993. The unhelpful announcement (and reannouncement!) of historic contracts and the running commentary on each step of the planning process for every extension may make it sound like there are lots of new 'settlements' being built but there simply are not.
The era of Israel grabbing every hill top has long gone. Today, IDF troops play cat and mouse with 'hill-top youth' chasing them off illegal outposts. Slowly, and too infrequently, demolitions have been conducted, recently at Havat Gilad.
Abbas knows that between two thirds and four fifths of the population growth in West Bank settlements since between 2005 and 2010 was within settlement blocks which Israel can expect to keep in a final status agreement. According to data provided by Peace Now, population growth in West Bank settlements between 2005 and 2010 was 63,760. Crucially, approximately two thirds of this growth was West of the border proposed in the Geneva Accords, and four-fifths was West of the proposed route of the Security Barrier.
Settlements have not eaten up vast tracts of the West Bank. The Palestinian Monitor notes that "Settlements are built on less than 3% of the area of the West Bank." Lead Palestinian negotiator Saab Erekat puts the figure at 1.1%. Yes, the surrounding municipally controlled land, and the roads and checkpoints associated with occupation means that a much larger area is currently beyond Palestinian control, but the answer to that is a conflict-ending agreement about borders.
Everyone accepts East Jerusalem will be the capital of a future Palestinian state if there is to be a deal. The Clinton Parameters drawn up at the Taba negotiations in January 2001, stipulate that Jewish neighbourhoods are to go to Israel and Palestinian neighbourhoods are to go to Palestine, while the future of disputed neighbourhoods should be determined through direct negotiations. Sadly, 10 years on, the lack of success in talks means that settlement building in East Jerusalem has made the clear demarcation of a Palestinian capital more complex but not impossible: another reason for urgent direct negotiations which is the only route to a final settlement.
Finally, settlements are reversible. Most Israelis favour withdrawing from all but the largest communities in a conflict-ending agreement. In 2005 Israel pulled out 9,000 settlers from the Gaza Strip, facing down fierce internal opposition.
If we are really serious about peace and statehood for the Palestinians we will focus more on the final settlement and - objectionable as they are - focus less on temporary settlements.