Israel and its settlements

I have a lot to learn about peace settlements. I was interested to find out from Jonathan Rynhold (Bar Ilan University) at the recent SOAS-hosted Israel and the Great Powers conference that Annapolis falls into the category of what he confidently termed ‘conflict management’ – not conflict resolution but instead an affirmation of the goals, restatement of endpoints, a maintenance of communication calculated to prevent a regional escalation and keep the paths to a final settlement open – but with nobody really expecting to reach it. The reason conflict management is adopted is that it’s low stakes negotiations in a situation where neither party is in a position to make peace – because their respective publics aren’t – and consequently where no third party state wants to take on the role of backer, or guarantor, picker-up of pieces if it all goes wrong and erupts again as happened at the end of Oslo in 2000. So we are in a phase of conflict management, rather than conflict resolution, then? And how does this fit with the polls which consistently show a desire for a two-state solution?

Considering Israel’s ongoing settlement expansion, I grudgingly entertain the idea that there is a case, of one sort or another, to be made for them but I have yet to come across it. How has the settler movement made settlements desirable? It seems that the Defence Ministry is involved in approving a number of projects in the haredi settlement cities of Modi’in Illit and Betar Illit, as well as in Ma’aleh Adumim, which has a mixed Orthodox and secular population.

Annapolis was only the most recent agreement to commit Israel to “freeze all settlement activity” in the Occupied Palestinian Territories – in accordance with the Road Map (which itself was based on the Mitchell Report into the origins of the Second Intifada). Mark Regev says that Israel did not undertake to stop building in the large blocs planned to remain with Israel according to current peace agreements. So why is Condoleeza Rice so disappointed with the cabinet, then?

This demand for a freezing of activity is of enormous importance to final status negotiations, not least because it would restore badly-needed confidence in the Fatah leadership – the ones Israel prefers to negotiate with.

And then there’s the issue of the illegal outposts, often populated by dangerous militant nationalists. A recent Israeli High Court ruling decided that the “outpost” of Migron, which was “unauthorised”, is to be evacuated by August, and 17 other outposts will also go. This is welcome – these are the first since Olmert took power. It’s not easy to negotiate evacuation without violence, but Sharon managed it with authorised settlers in Gaza.

But instead Israel has approved 300 new apartments at Har Homa. After the suicide bombing which killed 8 pupils at the Mercav Harav seminary, the religious right threatened more settlements. Shas took credit for 750 new apartments authorised in Agan Ha’ayalot project north of Jerusalem by a weak Prime Minister who admits that he did it to keep Shas in his coalition. There’s even talk of 10,000 new apartments planned for a new neighbourhood near Atarot, although Mark Regev distanced the Israeli government from these.

Although I have some sympathy for an attachment to land and support people’s right to negotiate to live wherever they want to live, providing it doesn’t avoidably interfere with the interests of the people already living there. It shouldn’t need repeating that the religious justification for the settlements is no justification. It’s no surprise if this ongoing settlement activity is interpreted as a provocation. Based on everything I’ve found, it’s counter to both humanitarian and diplomatic interests.

What I don’t seem to be able to find out is the extent to which diplomatic interests share common ground with security interests, because in practice Israel’s security interests trump all the other cards. I think I share this difficulty with boycotters and anti-Zionists – but unlike them I allow it to stop me from scoring easy points.That said I would not want these religious nationalist people – the ones who want to expand – in my government. They’re a liability to peace.

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