What are the prospects for movement toward a Palestinian state while Benjamin Netanyahu is prime minister of a rightist, nationalist Israeli government? Many Palestinians and Israelis sense a gloomy déjà vu. The historian Avi Shlaim described the beginning of the hard-line Likud leader’s first term, from 1996 to 1999.
"As prime minister Netanyahu was not as bad as people thought he would be when he was competing for the top post – he was much, much worse. Within a very short time he succeeded in alienating most of his countrymen and all of Israel's allies abroad," Shlaim wrote in his excellent 2007 biography Lion of Jordan: the Life of King Hussein in War and Peace.
A few months after taking office in 1996, Netanyahu provocatively ordered the opening of a Hasmonean tunnel near the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City; rumors spread that the explosion had damaged the foundations of Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site in Islam. Shlaim wrote of the consequences:
By giving the order to blast open a new entrance to the 2,000-year-old tunnel, Netanyahu also blasted away the last faint hopes of a peaceful dialogue with the Palestinians. The action set off a massive outburst of Palestinian anger and ignited the flames of confrontation . . . the violence intensified and engulfed the entire West Bank and Gaza. In three days of bloody clashes 14 Israeli soldiers and 54 Palestinians died."
Although Netanyahu obstructed the Oslo process in those years, it's possible that this time around he could strategically shift to the center, if he can stave off the collapse of his coalition government. Much may depend on how he responds to pressure (if any) from President Obama and his regional point man, veteran diplomat and former senator George Mitchell, who has traveled this road before.
"I would have preferred that the next prime minister would be someone who was committed to an intensive peace process that would include the West Bank, Syria and Lebanon," the left-wing former parliamentarian Yossi Beilin politely wrote in February in Israel Hayom. "But the die has been cast. Netanyahu's political vision is unclear except for his general tendency not to believe that peace in our region is possible in the near future."
As the leader of a party which sees Israeli sovereignty from the Jordan River to the sea, Netanyahu's own vision has always seemed clear enough. He opposes Palestinian statehood, opposes returning the Golan Heights to Syria, and supports Israel's settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem. (Netanyahu did sign the Wye River Memorandum in 1998, as he likes to mention, transferring 13 percent more of the West Bank to the Palestinian Authority, but he was voted out of office the next year and Wye was never fully implemented.)
Israel's settlement enterprise is the core issue of the conflict, and will determine the future. Based on the historical record, the outlook for change is poor. The settler population has increased under every successive Israeli government since the first Israelis moved onto the Golan Heights in 1967. The settlers now number close to half a million. About 285,800 live in 121 settlements in the West Bank, another 193,700 live in East Jerusalem, and another 18,000 live in the Golan Heights.
Ehud Olmert and other former prime ministers at times promised to curtail settlement growth, and then either reneged or fell back on the old sham argument, much used by Ariel Sharon, that the settlements weren't really expanding, they were just "thickening" to allow for "natural growth."
After 42 years the weed-grown path to a Palestinian state is strewn with road maps, plans, demands, negotiations and conferences (not to mention a few wars) that emphasized the need to halt the settlements. Remember the Reagan Plan? Here's what President Ronald Reagan said in September 1982:
". . . the immediate adoption of a settlement freeze by Israel, more than any other action, could create the confidence needed for wider participation in these talks. Further settlement activity is in no way necessary for the security of Israel and only diminishes the confidence of the Arabs that a final outcome can be freely and fairly negotiated."
Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin later was quoted as saying that settlements could not be frozen "just as life itself cannot be frozen."
Nearly twenty years after that, in April 2001, the international Sharm El-Sheikh Fact-Finding Committee, chaired by U.S. envoy Mitchell, produced a plan to end the violence and revitalize what then was called the peace process. The Mitchell report, as it came to be known, said that "The GOI [Government of Israel] should freeze all settlement activity, including the 'natural growth' of existing settlements."
There was no freeze, and Ariel Sharon was prime minister. From his days as an army commander and later as a Netanyahu cabinet minister, Sharon aggressively promoted expansion. He spoke of settlement "fingers" running through the occupied land and even urged settlers to "seize the hilltops" as anchor points for settlements to come. His exhortations were not ignored.
Eight years on, the settler population has grown by 95,000, including 35,000 new settlers during Olmert's three years in office. The numbers paint an unambiguous picture of what Israelis call "facts on the ground." Today's West Bank is a patchwork of settlements designed (by Sharon and others before him) to make a contiguous Palestinian state impossible. A United Nations map shows the reality. But control of the land is more than numbers. Settlers, usually unhindered by the Israel Defense Forces, have been assaulting Palestinians, uprooting fruit trees and burning olive groves for years, and violent attacks are on the rise.
Then there is the West Bank road system, which bizarrely attempts to separate two peoples on a piece of land. The dual-layer system, enforced by the army, smoothes travel for the settlers and forces Palestinians to use secondary roads, and even tunnels underneath the roads, to access their own land. The roads for Palestinians are studded with checkpoints and roadblocks. Israeli authorities, always citing security needs even within all-Palestinian areas and even in quiet times, call the roads the "fabric of life." Palestinians weren't allowed to choose the fabric, and it's not much of a life.
Journalists and Israeli human rights and advocacy groups, such as Yesh Din, Peace Now and B'Tselem regularly ferret out new plans for expansion. Various plans (not all have been approved) for tens of thousands of new housing units could double the West Bank settler population, Peace Now has reported.
A confidential report by European Union ministers last December confirmed what all Jerusalemites know: that settlement building in and around East Jerusalem continues "at a rapid pace," and, coupled with draconian policies that regulate Palestinian housing, undermines the possibility of a two-state solution. "Israel is, by practical means, actively pursuing the illegal annexation of East Jerusalem," the report said.
The obverse of settlement construction is demolition on the Palestinian side. Since 2004 around 400 houses have been demolished in East Jerusalem, the EU report said, and more orders are pending, in the city and in the West Bank. The Jerusalem municipality announced it will demolish an additional 88 Palestinian homes near Silwan. For Palestinians, construction permits from the Israeli authorities are prohibitively expensive or are hard to get. If you build on your own land without a permit, your house is blown up, "the consequence" of breaking the law, as Jerusalem's mayor says.
Politically, the settlers enjoy benefits disproportionate to their numbers. Israel's system of proportional representation allows small political parties to wield enormous influence. The immediate post-election arena features sharp-elbowed (and sharp-tongued) bargaining that can necessitate distasteful alliances and, eventually, a coalition government that ties itself in knots. Despite the wrangling, the extremists' ideology – meaning the desire to hang on to the West Bank – has never been fully disavowed by mainstream politicians and much of the public who vote for them. The settlers are in the catbird seat.
The settler movement also stays vigilant for opportunities to put down the slenderest of new roots. Political deadlock or a military operation often provides such an opening, and one came in January. "The weeks that the international media were following the atrocities in the Gaza Strip were very well used by the settlers in the West Bank, who realized that it was the right time to get the bulldozers out and prepare the ground for the next step of the ongoing land grab," Dror Etkes, Yesh Din's Land Advocacy Project Coordinator, told me.
If formal government policy seems imprecise (the authorities avoid talking about it), the determination of the settlers who drive policy is starkly unequivocal. Meet Daniella Weiss: "I think that settlements prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state in the land of Israel. This is the goal. This is the reality," Weiss, one of the most vocal extremist settlers, told Bob Simon of 60 Minutes. "The experience shows that the world belongs to those who are stubborn, and we are very stubborn. . . . We will stay here forever."
Or will they? Israel ultimately will have to decide what kind of state it wants to be. It can have peace and security or it can have land, but cannot have not both. As a prime backer of Israel ($3 billion a year in military aid until 2017), the Obama administration is in a position to exert pressure. Whether it sees it as a strategic U.S. interest and finds the political will is another question.
Israeli politicians have been playing the game for more than 40 years, and tend to tell Washington what it wants to hear. In The Iron Wall Avi Shlaim recalled what the late warrior-general Moshe Dayan said about the special relationship: "Our American friends offer us money, arms and advice. We take the money, we take the arms, and we decline the advice."
You might also be interested in Philip Winslow's previous Beacon Broadside posts: on life in the West Bank, the failures of the Palestinian leadership, and the use of white phosphorus in the recent Gaza war.