Last week, James Zogby, the founder and president of the Arab American Institute (AAI), published a post entitled “The Politics of Palestine.” It’s the usual lament about the endless oppression inflicted upon Palestinians by Israel (and its US supporters), and of course, there is the inevitable reference to the “ever-growing settlements” that make the Palestinians feel “increasingly squeezed.”
The fact that Zogby can rightly assume that even people who have only the foggiest idea about the Middle East will think that these “ever-growing settlements” are a major obstacle to a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict illustrates perfectly how divorced from reality much of the commentary and debate on this subject really are.
As Zogby knows full well, the “ever-growing settlements” haven’t grown for many years.
Veteran Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat acknowledged as much publicly when he stated in an interview last November that “despite Israel’s continual policy of ‘occupation and settlement building,’ an aerial photograph provided by European sources shows that settlements have been built on approximately 1.1% of the West Bank.”
Even before, this was no secret – though there were definitely attempts to conceal this fact: a news report from mid-2010 was featured in Ha’aretz with a headline announcing that “Israeli settlements control 42 percent of West Bank;” the subheader highlighted the claim that “21 per cent of the settlements’ built up areas lie on private Palestinian land,” but the report itself finally acknowledged that “the settlements’ built-up area is just one per cent of the territory.”
Years earlier, a report published in January 2003 documented that settlement watchdog groups like Peace Now and B’tselem estimated that the settlements were taking up between 1.4-1.7 percent of the West Bank. The report also pointed out that
“since their establishment nearly three decades ago, settlements have been the cause celebre of critics seeking to attribute the persistence of the conflict to Israeli policy. The criticism falls into two categories: moral/political arguments that settlements are ‘obstacles to peace,’ and legal claims that settlements are illegitimate or a violation of international norms. The pervasiveness of these claims masks the fact that, upon closer scrutiny, they are false, and they hide the true source of grievances and ideological fervor that fuel this conflict.”
When Saeb Erekat acknowledged last fall that just 1.1 percent of the pre-1967 West Bank territory had been gobbled up in some forty years of relentless Israeli settlement expansion, Evelyn Gordon asked at Commentary’s Contentions blog: “So if settlements cover only 1.1 percent of the West Bank, why does the entire West deem them the main obstacle to peace?” Answering her own question, she argued:
“Because admitting that settlements aren’t the main obstacle to peace would force it [i.e. the West] to confront an unpalatable truth: that the real obstacle to peace is Palestinian unwillingness to accept a Jewish state in any borders.
It’s not that evidence of this has ever been lacking. In July, for instance, a poll found that 66 percent of Palestinians view the two-state solution as a mere stepping-stone to Israel’s eradication. Last month, a whopping 89.8 percent of Palestinian respondents in another poll said they opposed waiving the “right of return” – their demand to eradicate the Jewish state demographically by flooding it with five million descendants of refugees – “even if [that means] no peace deal would be concluded.”
Similarly revealing is the fact that in the very same interview in which Erekat admitted that the settlements take up just 1.1 percent of the West Bank, he also acknowledged “that former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had offered a final peace settlement that would include territorial concession equivalent to the entire West Bank, the return of thousands of Palestinian refugees into the West Bank,* and the division of Jerusalem.” Yet, Palestinian President Abbas explained in an interview with the Washington Post in May 2009 that he had not accepted Olmert’s proposals because the “gaps were wide.”
In this context it is also noteworthy that at the outset of the negotiations, Abbas had explicitly stated that the Palestinians were open to adjustments of the 1967 lines as long as they would end up with an equivalent of the “6,205 square kilometers” of territory that made up the Jordanian-ruled West Bank and the Egyptian-controlled Gaza Strip before the Six-Day-War in 1967. But when Olmert presented an offer that fulfilled these demands, Abbas still felt justified to claim that the “gaps were wide.”
Needless to say, none of this prevented the Palestinians and their supporters to continue repeating the popular mantra about the devastating impact of the “ever-growing settlements.” But anybody really interested in peace would have to address the problems of the ever-growing Palestinian “refugee” population consisting of millions of Palestinians who nurture the fantasy that they can claim a “right of return” to the places their grandparents left when the Arab states failed in their attempt to undo Israel’s establishment in 1948.
[*Note: since the return of Palestinian refugees to the West Bank would be something decided by the Palestinians, Erekat presumably meant Olmert’s offer to accept some Palestinian refugees into Israel]
At The Atlantic, Zvika Krieger has been debating with Robert Wright whether a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is still possible. Krieger, who argues against Wright’s contention that it is “too late” because of the settlements, has outlined some of the long-known options for a border, and he has also provided an interesting post with some less well-known information about various plans and initiatives to deal with the challenges involved in moving up to 100 000 settlers out of the territories that would become part of a Palestinian state. Both of Krieger’s posts include a number of informative links; of particular interest is perhaps the website of the organization Blue White Future, which tries to work for creating conditions conducive to a two-state solution even in the absence of negotiations.