Tuesday, September 08, 2009

West Bank settlements are good for peace

By Raphael Israeli

One of the axioms of the "peace process" is that the settlements are "an obstacle to peace," as if removing them would instantly bring peace on earth. It's well known, however, that before 1967 there were no settlements, and no peace - unless, of course, you consider the communities within Israel "settlements," since the Arabs considered them occupied territory. The greatest contribution of the settlements, then, is that they took the place of Israeli towns as occupied territory, except perhaps for Hamas and considerable parts of the Arab world. Therefore, the formula that removing settlements equals peace is laughable and baseless. The Arabs' total-denial approach to Israel never depended on settlement on a particular parcel of land. They are bothered by Jewish settlement in Israel in general. It's enough to browse through the books of the "moderate" Palestinian Authority to see that Haifa, Jaffa and even Tel Aviv are considered Palestinian cities, while Hamas believes the Wakf land of all Palestine should be expropriated from the Jewish state, which doesn't have the right to land on either side of the Green Line.

In 2000, Yasser Arafat was offered an Israeli withdrawal from 95% of the territories in exchange for agreeing to end the conflict. He refused, because he didn't consider this a full withdrawal from Palestinian land. Although Israel made yet another step in leaving the Gaza Strip, not only freezing construction there but evicting the settlers, all it got in return was more war and destruction, a far cry from the peace that removing this "obstacle" was supposed to create. In other words, not only did the Arabs not consider Israel's older settlements different from the new ones that "endanger peace," but the eviction of the latter drove them to begin attacking the former.
We know now that one thing that motivated Anwar Sadat to come to Jerusalem was his fear that unless settlements in the Rafah area and Sinai were uprooted, they would grow into large cities that no peace agreement could remove.

The Syrians and Palestinians, on the other hand, believed they had nothing to lose if they maintained their refusal to negotiate, since their land would wait for them, frozen in time, until they could graciously take it back from Israel and then attack again from these positions. They can't comprehend that they have lost their lands because of their aggression, and that it is immoral to return to an aggressor the positions from which he might renew his aggression, since letting him escape without harm only encourages him to attack again. There can be deterrence only once the aggressor has paid a price that dissuades him from attacking at whim. This is what happened to Germany.

So until there is a permanent status agreement, only Jewish settlement activity can be enough of an incentive to make the Arabs, like Sadat, hurry up and seek peace, because their losses will multiply the longer they wait. We know from the Gaza example that the Arabs' goal was not to remove Israel from precious land, but to uproot Jews and fight them from the land they left. It is better, then, to keep with the peace-building construction in communities beyond our borders, and only when we see genuine signs of a culture of peace and good neighborliness next door to talk about evacuation - with due consideration to the new reality on the ground, which will change all the more if the Arabs don't rush toward an agreement.

The author is a professor of Islamic, Middle Eastern and Chinese history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

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