Sunday, 30 May 2010

Are the Settlements an Obstacle to Peace?

I recently read an interview with Professor Alan Dershowitz that was published in the Jerusalem Post. Dershowitz has been a very vocal defender of Israel in his native USA, and has been particularly outspoken in his criticism of fellow juror, Judge Richard Goldstone, and the UN report into Operation Cast Lead that he authored. I could closely identify with most of the sentiments expressed by Dershowitz in the interview. One view that he expressed, however, gave me cause for a greater thought and reflection.

Dershowitz describes himself as "making the 80% case for Israel". By this, he means that he does not blindly support everything that Israel does, and the policies that the Israeli government pursues. In particular, he is opposed to the settlements. Although he is opposed to returning to the pre-'67 lines (especially relinquishing the Old City of Jerusalem and the Kotel), he makes no bones about his opposition to maintaining civilian settlements in the West Bank. The issue of the settlements has been on the forefront of all criticisms directed at Israel by the Palestinians and Israel's enemies over many years. It has been held up as the main obstacle to peace in the Middle East.

Over the years, I have regarded this criticism by the Palestinians in the same way as I have regarded other accusations levelled against Israel - an attempt to discredit Israel in the Palestinian pursuit to completely destroy the Jewish state. The settlement issue has been an additional and important bow in their quiver. When Dershowitz raised the issue of the settlements as something that he cannot support, it caused me to give the issue a second and deeper consideration.

Judea and Samaria (the so-called West Bank) were captured along with East Jerusalem, Sinai, Gaza and the Golan Heights during the 1967 Six Day War. The war was launched by Israel as a pre-emptive strike on the forces of Egypt, Jordan and Syria when Israel was on the verge of being attacked by these countries in an attempt to destroy her. The land that was captured during the war was regarded as an essential expansion of Israel's modest territory, thereby creating more distance between Israel's hostile Arab neighbours and the most populous part of Israel. Although East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights were formally annexed following the war, the remaining captured lands were not. Some attribute this decision to the demographic problem that annexation would have created for Israel, due to the large number of Arab inhabitants in the newly captured areas.

Following the 1967 war, successive Israeli governments have pursued a policy of establishing Jewish settlements in the West Bank in order to strengthen the security buffer between central Israel and the Arab enemies. This objective, and the building of settlements in pursuit of the objective, are entirely logical under the circumstances and can easily be defended. Only those who wish to see Israel destroyed, or those trying to destroy her would accept an argument that this additional land has not added to the security of Israel.

The policy of establishing settlements has also created its fair share of problems. It has been the root of many conflicts between the Arab residents of the West Bank and their Jewish neighbours, due to disagreements over the legal ownership over individual pieces of land. This, in turn, has been the source of many international diplomatic incidents. Jews have been accused of taking over land that is owned by private Arab individuals, or taking land which denies access to Arab-owned land. The army has been called out on more than one occasion when fights have broken out over olive groves, which provide vital income in an area which has otherwise little economic activity. There can be no doubt that the Arabs have used an uncertain situation to their advantage in creating diplomatic incidents and negative publicity for Israel. There is also no doubt that Jewish settlers have frequently overstepped their lines, and the government and the army has been forced to dismantle unauthorised settlements more than once.

The fact that Jewish settlers have behaved in a way that cannot be supported by their own government and army has certainly contributed to weakening the Israeli claim to its continued presence in the West Bank. This has allowed the Palestinians to exploit the situation to capture the hearts and minds of many governments and private individuals around the world. Most importantly, successive US governments have pressurised Israel to abandon its policy of settling the West Bank. Along with this view, it is also clear to me that unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank, similar to what was done in Gaza, will only relocate the border conflicts nearer to the heart of Israel. It will certainly not magically create a fix for the Middle East conflict. Although there may be some Palestinians who would be completely satisfied if Israel withdrew from the West Bank, most of them would only feel satisfied if this withdrawal was accompanied by a withdrawal from Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa, Netanya and the rest of Israel.

For now, maintaining an Israeli presence in the West Bank means that Israel is able to ensure that the border conflict is kept to the periphery of the country, and away from the main part of the country. This is vital for the safety of Israel. Leaving the West Bank will not bring any magical solution for peace, so there seems little reason to do so. In fact, it may create significantly more problems for Israel by putting its population at more risk. In the event that a comprehensive peace can be achieved, I would personally not oppose relinquishing the West Bank. This would only be in the context of a binding and comprehensive peace (if, in fact, such a thing exists). Having said that, I do understand the argument of those who oppose any land for peace arrangements. Their valid question is, what will happen if the peace is broken? Do we get the land back? For now, the Israeli government is taking the middle of the road approach which is not to relinquish any parts of the West Bank, but also not to actively create new settlements.

I can fully understand Dershowitz's 80% case that he is making for Israel. With such widespread opposition to Israel's continued presence in the West Bank, and with the ongoing attempts by Jewish settlers to act against the Israeli government and army, it is clearly difficult for him to defend this in the US. By defending the West Bank presence, he is in danger of discrediting and diluting the message of the other 80% which he wishes to promote. On balance, I think that his approach is probably the right one. At least he is able to convincingly promote an 80% message which Israel desperately needs. Israel needs more people like Alan Dershowitz in the USA to intelligently make the 80% case.

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