(The following article is based on a lecture given by the author at the Limmud Conference held at Warwick University on 27 December. By coincidence, similar points were subsequently made by a Washington Post editorial of 1 January.)
Two myths about settlements have become pervasive and should be challenged. The first is the idea that the biggest barrier in returning to peace talks is Israel's ongoing settlement construction. The second is that the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank is closing the door on a two-state solution by making it impossible to implement on the ground. Both these claims are misleading, and yet if repeated often enough, risk becoming self-fulfilling prophecies.
Settlements are of course a major issue in the search for peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Anyone seriously committed to the idea of two-states for two peoples understands that the fate of Israeli settlements in areas which will become part of a future Palestinian state is a major challenge. It is self-evident that as the population of those settlements grows, so the scale of that problem gets bigger. It is also clear that announcements of new Israeli construction in sensitive areas undermines international and Palestinian confidence in Israel's commitment to a two-state solution.
So why are those two myths misleading? Let's start with the idea that settlement construction is the biggest barrier in getting back to talks. It is true that the Palestinians have made a complete freeze on settlement construction a condition on returning to talks, but settlement construction is not the reason for the Palestinians not entering talks, but rather an internationally acceptable pretext. Settlement construction was not frozen by the Olmert government during final status talks in 2008, and yet the talks still advanced to an impressive degree and led to a substantial offer by the Israeli government at the time. In addition, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu imposed a ten month moratorium on new construction in the settlements in November 2009 to try and kick start talks, but the Palestinians still did everything they could to avoid entering negotiations.
The reality is that the Palestinians have made a choice not to negotiate with the Netanyahu government. One can take a more or less sympathetic interpretation of the reasons for that choice. A sympathetic interpretation would be that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is serious about making a deal but has no reason to trust Netanyahu. Certainly there are Israelis who have spent time in negotiation with Abbas who believe he is a genuine partner for peace. A far more worrying explanation is that the Palestinians have calculated that not negotiating with Israel serves Palestinian interests so long as they can convince the rest of the world that Israel is to blame for the lack of progress. The lack of negotiations in such circumstances increases Israel's diplomatic isolation and - some Palestinians believe - could ultimately shift the international consensus from supporting a two-state solution to supporting a single (Arab majority) state.
But aside from the reasons for the Palestinians not entering negotiations, what about the idea that the expansion of settlements is making a two-state solution impossible to implement on the ground? This is also misleading, as a new BICOM paper by former senior Israeli negotiator, Col. (res.) Shaul Arieli, argues. Arieli makes the case that regardless of where one stands on the wisdom or otherwise of past or future settlement construction in various parts of the West Bank, creating a border between Israel and the West Bank remains entirely possible. This is because most Israeli settlers are concentrated in a small number of large settlement blocks. To create a border which connects the major Israeli settlement blocks in the West Bank and the East Jerusalem neighbourhoods to Israel requires annexing around 6% of the West Bank, for which the Palestinians can be compensated with 1:1 land swaps. The built-up area of those settlements which lie outside the major settlement blocks covers just 0.4% of the West Bank, and consists of 20,000 to 30,000 households (depending where you draw the line).
Arieli argues that it is well within the capacity of the State of Israel to absorb these families back into its borders if they had to relocate. The picture he outlines shows that the real difficulty is not physical but political.
This claim that the window is about to close on a two-state solution is not only dubious given the facts on the ground; its political wisdom is also questionable. Members of the international community repeating this message risk inadvertently giving encouragement to opponents of the two-state solution on both sides who mistakenly think that there is a better alternative out there. In particular it may encourage those Palestinians who think that the tide of international opinion will swing behind a one-state solution to hold out against a two-state deal.
The reality is that there is no better option than the two-state solution to reconcile the legitimate aspirations of both peoples to national self-determination. The passage of time may be making the choices necessary to bring this about more painful, but an alternative is unlikely to emerge, and the international community should not encourage the parties to believe otherwise.