On my way to JStreet
[JStreet] How Jews, Christians and Muslims Can Work Together For Peace

[JStreet] West Bank Settlements: Obstacles on the Road to Peace

I'm blogging this week from Driving Change, Securing Peace, the first JStreet conference in Washington, DC. You can follow my conference posts via the JStreet category. If you want to watch the conference as it unfolds, it's being streamed live here.

If you're new to Velveteen Rabbi, welcome. Here's some information about me, and here's my comments policy -- please read it, especially if this is your first time here. Enjoy the conference posts! And regular readers, have no fear: I'll return to my more usual balance of blogging fare in a few days.

AMERICANS FOR PEACE NOW PRESENTS: West Bank Settlements: Obstacles on the Road to Peace - A View From the Ground and From the Diplomatic Arena

Featuring Akiva Eldar, Chief Political Columnist and Editorial Writer, Ha'aretz; Hagit Ofran, Director, Settlement Watch, a project of Peace Now; and Scott Lasensky, Senior Research Associate, Center for Conflict Analysis and Prevention, United States Institute of Peace.

Finding the hotel and registering was more of a challenge than I expected, so I entered this session about 20 minutes late. My deep thanks to Jerry Haber (Magnes Zionist) for yielding his chair to the visibly pregnant lady (that'd be me) -- you can't begin to imagine how much I appreciated having a place to sit in this overcrowded room! (And wow, is the room full; every seat is filled and people are crowded into standing room as though this were a subway car at rush hour. Near as I can tell, the other 4 sessions are also this packed.)

"There are people who believe in the two-state solution -- like President Obama. People on the other side of the aisle are undermining Zionism," says Akiva Eldar. A few weeks ago, a settler was invited to a discussion; he was Netanyahu's chief of staff during his first term as PM. He said the following: "The land of Israel is like my wife. The state of Israel is the cleaning lady. I have married my wife. If I had to choose between the two, I would choose my wife." Which means: the land of Israel is the most important thing; the state of Israel is in a way an instrument to me. It's not part of my ideology.

There are, he says, ideological settlers; Hareidi settlers who are becoming the majority of settlers in the Occupied Territories and Gaza; there are those who are happy to get compensation to move into the territories. "Some with time get more addicted to the ideology...you need to justify, emotionally and rationally, your existence there." The declaration of independence, he says, "suggests that Israel is to be Jewish, democratic, safe. [The question is] If the settlements are helping Israel to reach those different visions, or not?"

Making change conditional on the Palestinians recognizing Israel as a Jewish state puts the Zionist dream at risk. If you look at the figures, Eldar says -- "right now, we don't live, in Israel, in a Jewish reality. The reality is that we have six million Jews and five million non-Jews that Israel controls, in Israel, in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza -- according to international law we are still responsible for Gaza."

Are the settlements supporting the need for a Jewish state? Within the "green line" there is still a clear Jewish majority, 80% Jews. Looking ahead to 2020, if we include Occupied Territories, the picture will be different. Is Israel assuring freedom and quality of life for all of its inhabitants regardless of religion? "Do the settlements enhance democratic values? We have 3 sets of laws in the West Bank," Eldar tells us. "Israeli law applies to the settlers; for Palestinians, there is Israeli military law and Jordanian law and leftovers from Ottoman law." There is discrimination in distributing resources. 63% of "State Land" is off-limits to Palestinians entirely -- "when we say that Israel refuses to freeze settlements, it's not accurate, because we are freezing Palestinian settlements."

Israel was supposed to be a safe haven, "the safest place for Jews," Eldar says. "Israel turned out to be the least place for Jews in the world because of so many wars. The idea to build a safe haven after the Holocaust so Jews everywhere could know that there is a place which is safe to bring up their children..." He lets the idea trail off.

In 2002, the Arab League offered Israel not only peace but normalization. "Imagine that we would have said, we're waiting like Moshe Dayan used to say for a phone call. Now after so many years they called us, but the line is busy. A part of it is because I don't see a coalition in Israel which will be willing to pay the price of real confrontation with 100 or 120,000 settlers that have to be relocated as part of any kind of agreement. There's no question that with the settlements, it's much harder to reach this dream of peace with our neighbors."

In 1993 when the Oslo Accords were signed, there were 109,000 settlers not including those in East Jerusalem. Today there are 300,000. What message are the Palestinians getting from the Israelis, when more settlements and outposts keep being created? When they signed Oslo, Eldar says, they had in mind that at the end of the day the process would end with Israelis getting out of the territories, not bringing more people to the territories! "If I were a Palestinian, opening my window in Ramallah and seeing every few days a new settlement, I would question Israeli goodwill and good intention."

If settlers had succeeded in showing that "we can be a Jewish state, we can be a democratic state, Israel will still be Jewish and will be just, one could look at it. But the bottom line is, the settlement movement is a political marvelous outstanding success -- there is no precedent in modern history of a minority so able to impose its interest on the majority! -- but the settlement movement has failed... People are voting with their feet against the settlers," Eldar says. "There is no two-and-a-half state solution" -- we need a genuine two state solution with two viable states.

Next up is Hagit Ofran. What's going on, on the ground, is undermining the state of Israel. "I will try to bring you today what is going on now on the ground, and a little bit about the context," she says.

As Akiva said, we are crossing the line of 300,000 settlers (not including the 190,000 Israelis who live in East Jerusalem, which is also a crucial development issue.) Many of them came after Oslo, which undermines the whole negotiation process. Most of the settlers came to the settlements or were born there after Oslo -- 60% of settlers came to the settlements after Oslo, so the Palestinians, if asked today to sit together with Israel and discuss the peace process, "they say we cannot have it unless you really freeze or stop settlements; we don't believe you will not continue [with the settlements]."

Another important subject are illegal outposts; 99 of them now exist, home to 4,000 Israelis. One such is Nigron, built on private Palestinian land. Outposts are settlements, Ofran says; "Because the Israeli government decided in '96 not to build new settlements anymore, they started to build new settlements but to do it without official decision, often on private Palestinian land." Peace Now went to the Supreme Court with the Palestinian owners of the land and demanded demolition of the outposts because that's what the law demands. "If you ask our leaders, we are a nation of law," she quips, and rueful laughter rolls across the room. Remarkably, the government agreed that Peace Now is right and that the outposts have no right to be there -- but still, nothing has been done.

Two months ago the Labor minority whip came with Peace Now to the outposts, and promised that the outposts would be gone within two months. "We were planning to remind him this week that two months ago he promised, but last week he resigned from being the whip of Labor," Ofran says. But there is reason for optimism. Obama's presidency "changes the status of the peace camp in Israel." It was very hard for eight years to work for peace, she says, but she is hopeful that things will be different now. "For once we have an American administration which is serious about a settlement freeze, and it makes our Prime Minister to be more under pressure."

The paradox is that Netanyahu is the Israeli PM, but he's distinct as being "a right-wing, pro-settler prime minister, which we didn't have for eight years. We find ourselves more and more in the public debate as an opposition -- we as Peace Now, and also the members of Knesset who are part of the opposition -- but what do we see on the ground today? Foundations of houses" [in settlement communities.] "What we see today is that the settlers are in a panic in terms of starting construction. The bad news is that they're building and building; the good news is that they're hysterical because they know the settlement freeze is around the corner."

Jerusalem is a major issue. The Kotel is right under the Haram al-Sharif. Ofran shows us a map of Jerusalem at the end of the '48 war, then in '67. "Israel decided to have a new municipal border," she says, showing us the line drawn by three military generals, "which reflected only security thinking." East Jerusalem was annexed and Israel built settlements there. The Palestinians in East Jerusalem have Israeli resident cards -- it's not citizenship but allows them some rights. "Everybody knows the two-state solution will be based on a compromise in Jerusalem; it's a symbol for both sides." Whatever is Palestinian will be part of the Palestinian state and whatever is Jewish will be part of Israel. This is possible, she says, because the two societies have never really mixed in Jerusalem.

"This is the battleground of Jerusalem." Settlers now are trying to undermine this possibility (of a divided Jerusalem) -- "if they are able to mix the population then there is no line [to draw] to have a shared capital in Jerusalem." (This is fascinating to me; I would have regarded racially/religiously mixed neighborhoods as a peacenik sort of thing, but I hear what Ofran's saying, and it troubles me.) Silwan is adjacent to the Old City; in the 1990s the settlers had help from Ariel Sharon, then minister of housing, to begin building there. There are settlements there today, with guards protecting them. "As we look around the Old City there are 2,000 settlers who live within Palestinian neighborhoods within the Old City." There are settler organizations, she says, which are doing most of the work of making that happen. "They are strong. However, they do have governmental support" -- suggesting that if perhaps the governmental support changed, the picture might be different.

But having settlers in Palestinian neighborhoods doesn't really change the demographic. If there are 7000 Palestinians and 300 Jews in a neighborhood, it doesn't really change reality. "They realized it's not enough to settle, so they settle in the public domain." There's a lot of tourism in Silwan -- which the settlers call "The City of David." This place, Silwan, is archaeologically important; it's part of the ancient city of Jerusalem. "For me as a Jew, it's part of history, I'm excited to see what the find in their excavations -- but there are people living there; you cannot do it unilaterally." The settlers partner with the IDF to bring soldiers to visit this place, as a way of ensuring that soldiers see the situation their way. If we visit Israel and visit this remarkable place, the guides we'll encounter are most likely working for the settlers. They're sophisticated; they don't speak overtly anti-Arab rhetoric, but it's there.

"For us, it's a real challenge; how can you be against tourism? I'm a professional tour guide," says Ofran, "how can I be against it? But it's a problem because it's in the hands of these very extreme settlers." And then there is the issue of the excavation itself. Excavations are interesting and exciting things, she says, but in Silwan and in the Old City it's done in tunnels. Often the tunnels are under Palestinian houses, which may collapse when archaeologists dig underneath.

The Palestinians Ofran knows are all pro-peace lefties who are ready to make peace... but even they believe that Israel is secretly digging under the Temple Mount in an attempt to destroy it, as happens in Silwan with homes all the time. In this way, the archaeology being done is exacerbating the existing mistrust. "For the Muslims, it's frightening," she says. "We're around their holy places. It's very sensitive. And unfortunately it's all in the hands of the messianic movements of settlers."

"With all of this, I still believe that most Israelis will support a peace deal." Can we get from this situation to a peace agreement with land swap etc? Ken anu yecholim, she says -- "Yes, we can."

Our third speaker is Scott Lasensky. "The Institute of Peace, where I work, is 'settling' the corner of 23rd street and Constitution; we've built an outpost for peace," he says, and the room chuckles.

What's the Obama administration's objective; why an early and determined push for a settlement freeze; and third, a word about the test of wills that's developed. "The immediate objective from day one has been to resume negotiations. It doesn't sound like rocket science," he says, but the President is clear about this and it's a dramatic contrast from the previous administration. "It's the best route to a 2-state solution and the best route forward." It's in the context of trying to press the parties to return to the negotiating table that the President is pressing both parties to "fullfil their obligations" -- that's how he's formed his policy. Palestinians have obligations on security and incitement of violence, and Israelis have obligations in terms of stopping the settlements -- not only are these the right thing to do but they've also been promised to the United States.

Lasensky cites four principles he thinks are at the heart of the Obama administration's work in this arena. First: slowing, and ultimately reversing, the settlement enterprise is fundamental to a two-state solution. Secondly, there's a demonstration effect; "the administration believes there will be a demonstration effect achieved through settlement freeze" -- Palestinians and the larger Arab/Muslim world will understand a settlement freeze as a big symbolic victory. Third, this is a step which, difficult as it is for Israel to take, does not endanger Israel. And fourth, this is an administration which understands Israeli dynamics and understands that the settlement issue can't be tackled by Israelis alone, but is going to require American assistance. Ze'ev Schiff wrote, in a column called Spreading A Big Lie (about how the Israeli government lies to its own people about settlements), that American pressure is the only way out of the settlement issue.

Lasensky sees the focus on Iran as an attempt to turn our attention away from the settlement issue, but he says this isn't dissuading the Administration from its route. "There's been a campaign of gross distortion here in Washington from allies of the previous administration, trying to distort and inflate," he says, but despite this campaign there seems to be a deal in the making. The question is, how much of a freeze will there be, since it looks likely that it won't be a complete freeze.

"The issue that this whole issue hinges on is the resumption of negotiations." The Obama Administration is optimistic that if there is a settlement freeze, negotiations can resume. "Then we'll see a deal, and when a deal comes out, we can judge it on its merits."

(As we move into Q and A, I'm ceasing with my note-taking so I can get this post online before the next session begins.)