Today we are witnessing the re-emergence of an old idea that has popped up periodically over the years: a belief that political processes that will ultimately lead to a two-state outcome can be re-started based on based on the embrace of an approach to settlements that differentiates between areas inside and outside the settlement “blocs*.”
*Note: The quotation marks around the word “blocs” are substantive, not editorial or stylistic; the “blocs” have no formal or legal definition and the word is used (and understood) to mean different things to different people.
At the core of this old idea is the notion that giving a green light to unrestrained settlement construction inside the “blocs,” while freezing settlement construction outside of them, would (a) represent a major Israeli concession (an argument bolstered by settler opposition to such a policy), (b) signal to the Palestinians and the world a genuine readiness of Israel to make peace, and (c) put the Israeli government in a position to mobilize greater domestic political support for a peace agreement.
Advocates of the idea also suggest that a shift in international policy, and especially U.S. policy, to cease opposition to construction within settlement “blocs” would represent nothing more than a pragmatic alignment of foreign policies with political realities and facts on the ground (and, for those making the case to the White House, it is argued that such a shift would be merely a return to the policy embraced but never formally announced by President George W. Bush). Indeed, it has been suggested that failure to adopt such a shift – that is, the continued international insistence that all settlement construction is equally illegitimate and must be protested – is one of the reasons that peace efforts have until now failed and for now remain stalled.
This idea has emerged over and over in the past, promulgated both by forces both within Israel (from various parts of the political spectrum) and in Washington (longtime Washington peace-processor Dennis Ross has repeatedly made the case for such an approach – see 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2016, 2017, 2017). The last time it was raised formally, in the context of peace efforts, was during U.S. Secretary of State Kerry’s final visit to Israel in November 2015, during which he categorically rejected it.
The temptations to accept this idea are today much greater than in the past. The political horizons are so desolate, the lack of political movement so palpable, and the sense of imminent loss of the two-state solution so great, that people are – understandably – grasping at straws. In this context, arguments like “a partial settlement freeze is better than no settlement freeze,” and “this will enable and promote the emergence of a new political process that can address the core issues and lead to a two-state outcome,” and (the always beloved in “pragmatic” policy circles, “don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” will likely seem compelling.
However, rigorous examination of what such a shift in settlements policy would mean reveals that such an approach is arguably the most dangerous option being put in front of the international community today, and that, in and of itself, adoption of this idea would likely destroy the very prospect for a two-state solution.
Jerusalem & the “Construction-Only-In-Blocs” Trap
Looking at the entire West Bank and the broader peace process, there are strong arguments against a new policy giving a green light to construction in the “blocs” (while freezing construction outside the “blocs”). For the purposes of this analysis, we will focus largely on the implications of such a policy shift in and around Jerusalem.
Jerusalem is a key part of the settlement “blocs” agenda. As articulated by Netanyahu and others, holding on to settlement “blocs” around Jerusalem is a critical means to ensuring Israeli permanent control over “Greater Jerusalem” – an area defined geographically (and expansively) by the blocs themselves. Settlement advocates argue, in effect, that the blocs both define “Greater Jerusalem” and the blocs are legitimized by being part of “Greater Jerusalem.” Notably, “Greater Jerusalem,” as defined by the “blocs,” is a massive metropolitan area:
- It stretches south, well past Bethlehem, encompassing the Etzion settlement bloc (and permitting construction of the planned settlement of E-2);
- It extends north, into or beyond Ramallah, encompassing a swathe of settlements reaching up to Psagot or even Beit El;
- It spreads east, nearly to Jericho, encompassing Maale Adumim and surrounding settlements (and permitting construction of the planned settlement of E-1).
- It encompasses all of East Jerusalem (permitting construction inside East Jerusalem of the settlement of Givat Hamatos, as well as further settlement expansion inside Palestinian neighborhoods like Silwan).
The effort to formally define “Greater Jerusalem” in this manner is by no means hypothetical. Earlier this month, Likud MK Yehuda Glick introduced legislation entitled the “Greater Jerusalem Sovereignty Law” to formally annex these areas as part of Jerusalem; not long before that, Likud Minister Yisrael Katz introduced legislation to annex much or all of the same area, entitled the “Greater Jerusalem Law.”
To understand how such a policy shift would impact on the prospects for a permanent status agreement in the context of Jerusalem, we must look at three questions.
(1) What would it mean for the emergence of a viable, contiguous Palestinian state with its capital in East Jerusalem? A two-state peace agreement requires a border, based on the 1967 lines, that establishes Israel and Palestine. Both of these states must be to the greatest degree possible territorially contiguous, permitting each to be viable politically, economically, and socially. However, Israeli annexation of the blocs around Jerusalem, as described above, would mean that any future Palestinian state in the West Bank would be cut into pieces.
Likewise, a two-state agreement depends on the ability of the sides to delineate a border that carves out an Israeli capital and a Palestinian capital in Jerusalem. These capitals must be politically, economically, and socially viable, meaning that, to the greatest degree possible, the must be connected to and integrated into the territory of their respective states.
For years, we have been warning of the grave implications of the implementation of any of three “doomsday” settlements, E-1, E-2, and Givat Hamatos.The establishment of a vast, sovereign “Greater Jerusalem,” as defined today by the blocs, would not only allow for these three settlements to be built, but would enable this to happen with the blessing of the international community – thereby foreclosing any possibility for establishing a viable, contiguous Palestinian capital in Jerusalem.
(2) What would it mean for land swaps as a mechanism to reach an agreement? Any two-state agreement will require that changes in the 1967 lines be achieved through land swaps, with land taken from the West Bank and East Jerusalem compensated, on a one-to-one basis, with land taken from current-day sovereign Israel. Achievement of such an agreement is predicated on borders that minimize the size of such land swaps, maximize the number of settlers brought under Israeli sovereignty via these swaps, and end Israeli occupation over all Palestinians living in East Jerusalem, as well as in the West Bank.
A policy of permitting construction inside the blocs – even as defined by the route of the barrier, as is done by some “minimalists” (unlike some of their compatriots, who define the blocs to include settlements beyond the barrier, like Beit El, Ofra and Hebron) – would for all intents and purposes remove even the possibility of one-to-one land swaps as a basis for an agreement. It would do so be in effect cementing Israeli de facto annexation of 8% of the West Bank, as delineated by the security barrier and encouraging more Israelis to move into these areas (and could include even more land than that, depending how the blocs are defined).
Such an annexation – much of which would take place around Jerusalem – is many magnitudes greater than what the Palestinians presented during the Annapolis negotiations (they proposed a land swap of 1.9%). Perhaps more importantly, it is nearly triple the size of the land swap that, consistent with past negotiations (including the Geneva Initiative) and the exigencies of territorial contiguity and political viability, is the only border to which an Israeli Prime Minister and a Palestinian President could conceivably agree. Such a land swap would be around 3%-4%, and include the urban centers of Maale Adumim, Givat Ze’ev and in the Etzion bloc, but exclude their isolated satellite settlements that are inside the barrier. The territory delineated by incorporating these urban centers is less than 35% of the size of the blocs, as designated by the separation barrier.
(3) What would it mean for Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem under an agreement? Finally, rarely addressed in the context of discussions of a new policy on settlement blocs is the question of what this would mean for settlement activity in East Jerusalem. The implications here are stark. A policy of allowing Israeli construction in the settlement blocs around Jerusalem grants legitimacy to the establishment of a massive “Greater Jerusalem” under permanent Israeli sovereignty. This, in turn, implies acquiescence to the view that East Jerusalem – both its settlements and its Palestinian neighborhoods – will be permanently under Israeli control.
In immediate terms, such a policy shift would give Israel license to go ahead with continued Israeli settlement inside East Jerusalem (including Givat Hamatos and in Palestinian neighborhoods like Silwan). In terms of the two-state solution, such a policy shift would contradict what negotiations have shown to be a core requirement of the Palestinians with respect East Jerusalem: that a permanent status agreement must mean an end to Israeli occupation, including in East Jerusalem. While land swaps can help accommodate Israeli desires to bring many settlers under Israeli sovereignty, the Palestinians will never accept an agreement that leaves any Palestinians of East Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty – and unlimited implementation of pending settlement schemes in East Jerusalem (such as Givat Hamatos) will inevitably leave tens of thousands of East Jerusalem Palestinians under Israeli rule. Hence, unbridled settlement activity in East Jerusalem alone would suffice in making a two-state solution impossible; proponents of “limiting” construction to settlement blocs – and by extension, opening the door for unlimited settlement activity in East Jerusalem – are asking the international community to give its blessing to its demise.
The suggestion that limiting settlement construction to settlement “blocs,” however defined,– would be a positive step toward peace – politically, diplomatically, or in terms of facts on the ground – reflects a lack of information about what settlement blocs entail, a lack of understanding of what this information means, denial/delusion about what a two-state agreement will require, or an intellectually dishonest effort to promote a political or ideological agenda.
Continued settlement expansion within the settlement “blocs” – even at current levels – would not only unilaterally pre-determine borders in areas very much in dispute (consist with Israel’s longtime policy of “spatial shaping” on the ground), it would pose a real and present danger to the very possibility of the two-state solution. Rather than promoting peace or even keeping the two-state solution on “life-support,” adopting a policy of allowing settlement construction “only in the ‘blocs’” would likely hasten the demise of the two-state solution, with the tacit consent and legitimization of the international community.