To provide some practical suggestions, it is necessary to break down the Israeli settlers movement into its three basic constituencies. In doing so, some interim solutions can realistically be made to satisfy the American demands, meet the Palestinian and Arab requirements for resuming negotiations, and to provide Netanyahu with a face saving way out that he can bring to his coalition.
The quality-of-life settlers are those who moved to the West Bank primarily for economic reasons, the majority of whom live in the block of settlements located closer to the green line. According to Peace Now statistics, there are about 196,000 residents in these settlements, several of which are no longer considered settlements and resemble large cities, home to more than 30,000 people each including Ma ale Adumim, Modi in and Beitar Illit.
The routing of the security fence leaves most of these settlements on the Israeli side of the fence, though some deep inside the West Bank may not be included into Israel proper. The pressure on the government to allow for natural growth in these settlements is enormous and it is here where the Netanyahu government will experience the greatest difficulty in trying to implement the moratorium. This can be done however, because American overt pressure offers a high degree of political cover and limited options.
The second group consists of ideological settlers who use religious arguments to justify their presence in the West Bank. They view the return of the Jews to the land of greater Israel as a fulfillment of God s will. They occupy settlements located for the most part deep inside the West Bank and often in the heart of Palestinian populated areas. It is quite evident however that the public support for these settlements is declining. A growing majority of Israelis accept the fact that Israel will need to evacuate most of these nearly 100 settlements that dot the West Bank. The pressure to expand these settlements is minimal and it can be denied without considerable cost in political capital.
The third group is made up of Ultra-orthodox settlers in the West Bank who are a function almost exclusively of cheap and segregated housing close to the Green Line. They are descendents of devoutly religious Jews who oppose change and modernization. They have historically rejected active Zionism and continue to believe that the path to Jewish redemption is through religious rather than secular activity. There are eight ultra orthodox settlements that were built in the 1980s and 90s with roughly 80,000 residents, all of whom are located within the settlement blocs that Israel wants to incorporate into Israel proper. These settlements are currently expanding more rapidly than others due primarily to a higher birth rate. Here, once an agreement on the borders is achieved, the expansion can then be quickly resumed within Israeli lines.
Based on the settlers ideological leanings and location of the settlements, and considering the political constraints under which Netanyahu s coalition government operates, the Obama administration should focus on four possible areas where it can persuade the Israeli government to take action. First, the US should push for the dismantling of all illegal outposts, which the government has already begun, but must also insist that no new outposts be allowed to rise under any circumstances.
Second, the United States should focus on removing small clusters of settlements occupied by ideological activist settlers in places such as Nablus and Hebron that are troublesome and heavily tax Israel s security forces. All of these settlements are deep in the West Bank and most Israelis agree that they must eventually be evacuated for any peace deal as soon as there is an agreement. Third, Israel must create a program of diminishing incentive that will provide settlers who are willing to relocate voluntarily with equal housing an extra incentive if they leave within the first year from the initiation of the program.
The incentive will then be reduced every few months thereafter. The idea is to create reverse migrations to Israel proper while psychologically preparing the Israeli public and the Palestinians for the inevitability of ending the occupation.
While many settlers will not accept the compensation and try to hold out for a better deal, the government must be resolute and not give into blackmail. There have been some discussions about the fate of a few thousand Israeli settlers who simply refuse to relocate to Israel proper. Some suggest that they may continue to live in their homes under Palestinian authority, though neither side has reached an understanding on this issue in previous negotiations. This idea remains a viable one as a matter of principle, and can be worked out between both governments. Finally, as difficult as a complete moratorium on expansion of settlements will be, the United States must still exert sufficient pressure on
Israel to be sensitive to Palestinian and Arab sensibilities and stop major development projects in and around East Jerusalem.
The Obama administration is likely to intensify the pressure on Netanyahu to make meaningful concessions for advancing peace. Although Netanyahu as a Prime Minister will be a tough negotiator and will demand full compliance in return from the Palestinians for any concession he makes, he may also prove to be the more worthy interlocutor and more trusted by the public. It should be noted that the largest territorial concessions-the Sinai, Hebron and Gaza were all made by Likud leaders Begin, Netanyahu and Sharon respectively.
Special envoy George Mitchell, who is now President Obama s Arab-Israeli point man, concluded his report of the Sharm El-Sheikh Fact-Finding Committee with the following words, Israelis and Palestinians have to live, work, and prosper together. History and geography have destined them to be neighbors. That cannot be changed. Only when their actions are guided by this awareness will they be able to develop the vision and reality of peace and shared prosperity.
No American president has taken such a keen and immediate commitment to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict this early in his term as President Obama. And no agreement between Israel and the Arab states has been achieved without direct American involvement. If time, resolve and visionary leadership matter, there may not be a better time to push for a solution than now.
Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies. [email protected]