The idea of two states – Israel and Palestine – living side by side in peace is endorsed by most of the world. The one-state solution that some support is a non-starter. Yet the chance of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestine conflict is diminishing. It is imperilled by unceasing growth in the number of Jewish settlers on the West Bank, known officially in Israel by the biblical names of Judea and Samaria. In 1972, 1,500 Jews lived there; now, it is more than 289,000. The more settlers and the bigger their settlements, the less possibility of creating an independent and viable Palestinian state. The Gaza Strip is out of the equation at this stage because of failure by Fatah and Hamas to agree on a joint government.
Israel has repeatedly promised to halt expansion on the West Bank. It has done so through its leaders and by going along with the road map of 2003, the Wye Plantation agreement before that, the Annapolis accord and so on. Despite this, last year the number of settlers increased by 4.9%, and the year before by 5.5%.
The ongoing process will be challenged on 18 May when the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, will be in Washington DC for his first meeting with US president Barack Obama. The extent to which Obama insists that Israel keep its promises – and more importantly, how far he will go for fulfilment – will determine the future of the Middle East.
Obama has already declared his aim: the two-state solution. Secretary of state Hillary Clinton agrees. It’s also the policy of the Palestinian Authority. The European Union wants it. So does Russia. The Arab League has offered acceptance, with qualifications, through its Saudi peace initiative.
Former president George W Bush also wanted two states. Israel told him it would curb settlement growth. It did not. Every now and again secretary of state Condoleeza Rice visited Israel and gave a press conference to announce that she was telling the government to curb settlements. She was ignored.
The three years up to January this year tell the story. Ehud Olmert was prime minister. He began as a rightwinger, believing in Israel’s continued settlement of the West Bank, which it has occupied since the 1967 war. But he changed: during his last two years in office he increasingly supported a Palestinian state; by his last cabinet meeting he was saying passionately that Israel had to end its occupation. He warned that Israel was doomed if it stayed: its Jewish majority was threatened by Arab numbers and an apartheid situation would arise if it remained.
However, his government’s actions consistently contradicted his words. Statistics provided by the Peace Now movement, using census and UN details show that 5,111 new “housing units” (meaning anything from one to 20 apartments) were built from January 2006 to January 2009, and tenders were issued for more than 1,500 housing units.
The same pattern occurred in the “illegal outposts” set up without formal government permission. Israel has promised to evacuate them. But not one was evacuated during the three years; instead, the outposts acquired 560 new structures – mainly caravans but also permanent buildings. At the start of Olmert’s tenure, 475 roadblocks and checkpoints existed in the West Bank. Their purpose was and is security. With less tension and suicide bombings ended, the number was supposed to be reduced. Instead, according to the UN, by January this year there were more than 600.
East Jerusalem also features. It is intended to be divided and be a shared capital for Israel and Palestine. But the 250,000 Palestinians who live there have vast difficulty in getting permits to build houses and when they build illegally they are targets for demolition orders. At the same time, housing for Jews is fostered: during the three years, tenders were issued for 2,437 new housing units. These will add to the existing Jewish residential areas in East Jerusalem, which occupy 35% of the area and house 190,000 people. As far as is known, Olmert – who resigned as prime minister to face corruption charges – has never explained the discrepancy between his words and official deeds.
The fact is that the settlers do pretty much as they want. Many are driven by religious messianic belief that God gave Judea and Samaria to Jews and it is their right and duty to keep it so forevermore. Although the settlers are a tiny minority of the Israeli population they have become the tail that wags the dog. Successive governments have backed away from reining them in out of fear of violent resistance.
The settlers and their supporters – who include those who believe in possession of the West Bank for security purposes – permeate the government. That has enabled the illegal siphoning off of millions upon millions of shekels from departmental budgets to provide houses, build roads and lay on electricity and water to settlements and outposts – and to guarantee permanent protection by the army.
A government lawyer, Talia Sasson, appointed to investigate the illegal outposts, reported four years ago that the state was undermining its own rule of law. She has been ignored. None of it could be possible without the army’s active connivance. No Israeli can do anything on the West Bank unless the army agrees and helps. That is also a cause for government apprehension: the officer corps has changed in character and the proportion who are religious has increased to about one-fifth. They live in settlements, or have family or friends there. Will they accept orders to evacuate, if necessary by force?
The settlers and others who support them are deliberately creating facts on the ground to undermine the chance of a Palestinian state; and even if one comes into being to ensure that it is so divided and weak as not to present any security threat. The intention is also to establish a ring of Jewish settlements around Jerusalem to cut off the city from the West Bank so that it cannot serve as a Palestinian capital. Meanwhile, the new rightwing government’s policy on dealing with Palestinians is still being prepared and its statements are confused. Netanyahu, for example, says he wants to resume peace negotiations without conditions with Palestinians; in the next breath he says Palestinians must first accept Israel as a Jewish state.
Washington is sending strong signals: on Tuesday, Joe Biden and John Kerry told the pro-Israel Aipac lobby annual conference that Israel must freeze all West Bank building and make further concessions to the Palestinian Authority. It’s also reported that two weeks ago Obama proposed a new deal on Palestinian refugees to Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah.
But will Obama wield a stick if Israel does not embrace a two-state solution and work with Palestinians to get swift agreement on the core issues of ending the occupation, borders, Jerusalem, the Holy Basin and refugees? How big a stick is available as he contends with the economic catastrophe, domestic problems and Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and Pakistan? How can he drive an Israeli government to do what it doesn’t want to do?
Benjamin Pogrund advocates peace – a two state solution – on Comment is Free.