The goal of the Annapolis process, launched by President George W. Bush in November 2007, was to reach an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement by the end of 2008. Until now, U.S.-led diplomacy has failed to provide PLO chairman Mahmoud Abbas with any meaningful achievements on the two indivisible issues–settlements and borders–that will define the territory of the Palestinian state intended to be established by mutual agreement. The beleaguered Abbas has heard nothing from the Bush administration to buoy lingering hope for a deal by year’s end. “Frankly, so far nothing has been achieved. . . . All the files are still open. None of them is concluded. The situation is still as it was. . . . We demanded the Americans implement the first phase of the road map that talks about the cessation of settlement expansion,” Abbas told the Associated Press (AP) after an April 2008 visit to Washington.
The AP reported, “While discussing what a peace deal would look like, [U.S. secretary of state Condoleezza] Rice did not mention the Palestinian goal of creating a state based on borders before Israel captured Gaza from Egypt and the West Bank from Jordan during the 1967 Six-Day war.
"We demanded that they talk about the ‘67 borders,’ Abbas remarked angrily. ‘None of them talks about the ‘67 borders."
Abbas is not alone in his downbeat assessment. President Bush himself no longer talks about shepherding a signed and sealed arrangement to end the occupation. His vision has been reduced to “achieving the definition of a [Palestinian] state,” or as Rice explained in an April 29 speech in Washington, the goal is to “reach agreement this year on the basic contours of a peaceful Palestinian state subject to the fulfillment of road map obligations.”
Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat explained that Bush did not respond directly when Abbas brought up the issue of Palestinian objections to continuing Israeli settlement expansion.
“Bush told [Abbas] that ‘I’m focusing on the bigger picture,’” Erekat explained.
Rice too appears to view the Palestinians’ concern about Israel’s settlement policies as an unhelpful distraction. “It is my very strong view,” Rice noted in Amman on March 31, 2008, “that the best thing that we can do is to focus on getting this agreement, because then we won’t have these discussions about what belongs in Israel and what belongs in Palestine; we will know. That is why we need a Palestinian state.”
To break the diplomatic stalemate, Washington could put its own map of a Palestinian state on the table. Or it could endorse the Palestinian demand for almost complete Israeli retreat to the June 1967 border. Otherwise, the borders of the Palestinian state at the heart of Bush’s “big picture” will continue to be defined by Israel’s security and settlement policies. This latter option recalls the April 14, 2004, Bush letter to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in which the U.S. president wrote that, “In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli population centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949. . . .”
In contrast to the Bush administration, Israelis and Palestinians acknowledge the obvious–settlements are the key to the “big picture.” It is self-evident that Israel views settlement as the most effective instrument in reducing Palestinian territory, and guaranteeing its unrestrained security requirements and claim to sovereignty over a considerable percentage of the West Bank. Abbas, during his Washington visit, described Israeli settlement as “the biggest blight that stands as a big rock in the path of negotiations.”
In recent weeks, Israel presented maps outlining its permanent territorial demands in the West Bank. The maps are based upon the IDF Security Interests Map prepared during the mid-1990s. They reflect the “Continuous Movement” plan for Palestinian territorial contiguity via roads and tunnels outlined by Israel in late 2004 (see Settlement Report, vol. 16 no. 2) as well as Olmert’s “convergence” ideas abandoned after the summer 2006 war with Lebanon. These maps (See page 3) confirm wide-ranging Israeli security and settlement intentions throughout the West Bank and East Jerusalem that imperil the creation of a sovereign and independent Palestinian state.
Palestinian and Israeli press reports note that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has excluded from Palestine “Greater Jerusalem,” extending from the outskirts of Ramallah to the outskirts of Bethlehem. In East Jerusalem itself, Israel will maintain sovereignty in the Old City and the nearby village of Silwan, while arranging for worshipers access to their holy sites under international supervision. Olmert also excludes from Palestine the Latroun region, which along with the settlement blocs, will be annexed to Israel with “horizontal expansion” linking them. The Jordan Valley, according to Olmert’s map, is viewed as a vital security interest and remains under Israeli control, with a West Bank corridor linking Israel to the King Hussein (Allenby) Bridge. To create continuity between the disjointed territories that will comprise the Palestinian state, Olmert supports the road, tunnel, and bridges plan devised under his predecessor Ariel Sharon.
There can be no contesting the fact that continuation of Israel’s settlement enterprise, as a means of creating Greater Israel and as an instrument to assure Israel’s expansive security requirements, poses an existential challenge not only to Palestinian national life but to the viability of the Palestinian civic community as well.
According to a May 2008 World Bank report, continuing occupation is “undeveloping” the economies of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. “Beyond the impacts of the protracted economic downturn since restrictions were imposed after the Second Intifada, the Palestinian economy faces a more hazardous prospect–a fundamental change in its composition, with GDP increasingly driven by government spending and donor aid, leaving little resources for investment, thus further reducing the productive base for a self-sustaining economy.”
The Annapolis process, like those of the Madrid and Oslo eras that preceded it, has failed to constrain Israel’s policy of settlement expansion, the core indicator of Israel’s continuing appetite for territory. Indeed the opposite is the case. An objective analysis of the period since 1990 would conclude that the diplomatic process has accommodated Israel’s most expansive settlement and security objectives, enfeebling and marginalizing the Fatah leadership of secular Palestinian nationalists willing to reach a peaceful settlement with Israel while empowering Hamas and other Islamist and rejectionist opponents.
Stopping the Settlement Machine
From the outset of Israel’s settlement project after the June 1967 war, neither diplomacy nor armed insurrection has stopped the machine of settlement expansion in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Severe international criticism of Israel’s settlement policies did not affect the creation during the 1967–77 period of the infrastructure for settlements vital to the subsequent expansion that Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon inaugurated during the first era of U.S.-led diplomacy. During the 1983–1993 decade, the settler population of the West Bank (excluding East Jerusalem) increased fivefold, from 22,800 to 111,600 . During the next 10 years, the Oslo years, notwithstanding episodic settlement restraint, “peace” and settlements co-existed as settlers, enjoying unprecedented government support, increased by 110,000, doubling to 224,669.
The second intifada that began in late 2000 initiated an era of unprecedented physical insecurity for West Bank settlers. The separation barrier built as a consequence has marginalized some but by no means all of the settlements on the “Palestinian” side, some of which were failing as new communities in any case. The Palestinian rebellion also produced a marked decline in housing starts in settlements, from 6.6 per cent of all starts nationally in 2000 to only 2.5 per cent in 2001, with only marginal increases since.
Notwithstanding this “achievement,” armed Palestinian insurrection and terror have failed to undermine the West Bank settlement enterprise, which continues to grow and expand with catastrophic consequences for Palestinian political, economic, and civic life. For example, despite the reduction in new housing, the West Bank settler population grew to 282,000 at the end of 2007, an increase of 5.2% over the year before and a rate of growth three times higher than the rate of population increase in Israel. The population in East Jerusalem is almost 200,000.
Israel has gone to extraordinary lengths to restore to settlers a sense of security. The separation barrier is part of a draconian “closure” system that accompanied the direct reoccupation of the West Bank in April 2002. This system is designed not only to free Israel from Palestinian terror attacks but also to reaffirm the IDF’s foremost commitment to preserve settlers’ “normal, everyday life,” at great and continuing cost to Palestinians.
The End of Settlements in Sinai and Gaza
There are two noteworthy exceptions to the rule of permanent and unchangable Israeli security and settlement policies. In Egyptian Sinai, where Israel had once famously declared its preference for Sharm el Sheikh over peace, the “settlements equals security” equation was shattered by the October 1973 war. As part of a peace treaty with its most powerful Arab enemy, Israel retreated to the international border, abandoning an extensive settlement infrastructure that required the removal of more than 5,000 settlers.
In the Gaza Strip, almost two decades of insurrection and terror forced Israel to make a similar reappraisal of the settlement equals security equation. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s dramatic decision in 2004 to “disengage” from the Gaza Strip repudiated the conventional diplomatic approach to solving the Israel-Palestinian problem. Sharon ignored appeals for a settlement freeze of the kind at the center of U.S.-led diplomacy for almost three decades. Nor did he condition the destruction of Gaza settlements and the evacuation of their inhabitants upon a negotiated agreement with the PLO, or Gaza’s demilitarization.
Sharon’s pathbreaking decision to remove settlements owed nothing to diplomacy of the Oslo-Annapolis era, which had created a conducive environment for settlement expansion. Sharon rejected these failed recipes for resolving the conflict, reluctantly concluding that Israeli security could be enhanced by the evacuation of all settlements in the Gaza Strip and the defense of Israel from within its own borders. Where Gaza’s settlements had once provided an instrument and a rationale for continuing occupation, there was no place for them in the new security doctrine defined by Sharon.
This dramatic change in Israel’s security concept was the product of a sustained Palestinian rebellion against Israeli rule in Gaza that began in December 1987 and has yet to cease. Sharon abandoned Gaza and its settlements when the costs of occupation and settlement became too high. The successful Palestinian effort to force Israel to remove settlements, like Sharon’s policy, owed nothing to the stalled diplomatic framework long championed by Washington. Force and terror rather than diplomacy led Israel out of Gaza.
The West Bank, however, is not the Gaza Strip. On this front, as the map on page 3 illustrates, Israel is not prepared to defend itself from within its own borders. West Bank settlements were originally created as an instrument of this policy, helping to transform the IDF in the eyes of most Israelis from an occupying army to a force defending the homeland. Settlement long ago became an end unto itself, complicating and undermining Israeli security. Yet neither diplomacy sponsored by successive U.S. administrations, terror nor armed or popular rebellion against Israeli rule has prompted a change in Israel’s West Bank settlement map.
President Bush recently “assured” Abu Mazen “that a Palestinian state’s a high priority for me and my administration: a viable state that doesn’t look like Swiss cheese, a state that provides hope.” There is little prospect, however, that in his remaining months, Bush will challenge Israeli policies meant to prevent the kind of Palestinian state-in-the making he claims to support. The next president will confront the challenge of reversing this legacy of failure.
[T]here is one more thing we should bear in mind–that Israel has never removed even a single settlement as part of negotiations with the Palestinians. Any settlement that has been removed, including all those in the Gaza Strip, were removed solely because of the pressure of Palestinian terror. In other words, from a purely Palestinian perspective, there is nothing to discuss with Israel, since dialogue gets them nothing. Israel, they think, only understands the language of terror.
Apart from that, let’s leave the Palestinians to one side for the moment and ask ourselves what we really want. Are we ready, for the sake of real peace in the Middle East, to withdraw fully to the 1967 borders, without any tricks, without any settlement blocs and without expanding Jerusalem? On that issue, we are one united front, one front of rejectionism, declaring for the whole world to hear: “No!”
Kobi Niv, Ma’ariv, April 7, 2008
[T]he issue of colonization and its expansion has been–since 1967–the main obstacle in front of a peace settlement. If some extremist rightist sectors [in Israel] consider colonization as being a national and religious duty, all the subsequent Israeli governments are fully responsible for giving a free reign and a green light for these sectors to take over Palestinian territories by the power of Israeli authorities and then build settlements in the West Bank, although achieving just peace requires primarily returning the lands to the Palestinians.
al-Quds, March 12, 2008