On settlements and violence

Most observers welcomed President Obama’s speech in Cairo last week, but some pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian commentators have taken issue with the President’s emphasis on ending Israeli settlement activity and Palestinian violence, respectively, as crucial measures in laying the groundwork for a successful peace agreement. These choices were not arbitrary. They reflect the principal commitments and obligations of both parties under Phase One of the Roadmap. The reason the Roadmap emphasizes early action on settlement activity and violence is that these are the most important elements to the political psychology of both parties and their perceptions of each other’s intentions. Obviously, their effects go far beyond the psychological, and have significant negative political, practical and, in the case of settlements, topographical and infrastructural consequences. However, understanding why both the Roadmap and the President’s speech place such emphasis on these two responsibilities requires honestly evaluating and taking seriously both Palestinian and Israeli perceptions of each other’s intentions.

Some supporters of the settler movement argue simply that any objection to Israeli settlement activity is invalid. David Horowitz sees the entire thing as motivated by anti-Semitism, writing: “The worst aspect of the speech, the remarks about settlements is a bad policy the Obama Administration has been pushing for weeks. If settlements are unacceptable then the 1.2 million Arab Muslims settled in Israel should be removed to the West Bank or Jordan or Gaza. The only reason Jewish settlements are regarded as unacceptable is because the Muslim Arab states are bigoted racist regimes that can’t tolerate non-Arabs and non-Muslims.”

It is hard to know where to begin with any formulation as wrongheaded and mendacious as this. But obviously, it’s preposterous to describe the Palestinian citizens of Israel (who are Christian as well as Muslim, as Horowitz should know) as “settlers” since they are living in their own homes in their own villages in their own country. They have not been brought to Israel by an occupying foreign army in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention and a mountain of international law. They are the lucky remnants of those Palestinians who escaped the wholesale dispossession experienced by the overwhelming majority of Palestinians in what became Israel during the 1947-1948 war. In the past, Horowitz has argued that Israel should have annexed all the territories conquered in 1967 and expelled its Palestinian inhabitants. Obviously, the idea of further ethnic cleansing in Israel proper continues to carry some kind of twisted appeal for him. Moreover, the spectacle of the proprietor of frontpagemagazine.com daring to describe anyone else as “bigoted racist” is more chutzpah than anyone should be asked to endure.

The actual reasons that Israeli settlements are regarded as unacceptable is first and foremost that they are in absolute violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention’s Article 49 prohibition on the transfer of populations into territories under foreign military occupation. That Israel is indeed a foreign military occupier in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip has been established beyond debate by countless UN Security Council resolutions (voted for and many drafted by the United States). The argument advanced by supporters of the settler movement that the use of the word “transfer” in Article 49 implies involuntary resettlement and therefore does not apply to the Israeli settlement project in the occupied territories is completely specious. Other articles in the Convention already prohibit forcible resettlement of populations, making Article 49 redundant and unnecessary if this is its meaning. In fact, it plainly and obviously refers to the practice of foreign occupiers attempting to settle external populations in conquered territory, precisely as Israel has been doing in the occupied Palestinian territories since 1967.

The Fourth Geneva Convention is a human rights instrument that pertains to the rights of civilians in time of war and under military occupation. The reason that the Convention bans settlement activity of the kind that Israel has engaged in is that it inevitably involves the displacement of civilians living under foreign military occupation, the usurpation of land by occupiers and an attempt by occupying forces to consolidate occupation and make it permanent by introducing new populations into the occupied territory (in explicit violation of the UN Charter’s prohibition on the acquisition of territory by war, as acknowledged in the preamble to UN Security Resolution 242 and numerous other resolutions pertaining to the Israeli occupation). In other words, settlement activity is framed as both a violation of the laws of war and occupation by the Convention, and as a human rights abuse against civilians living under occupation. Therefore, while Palestinians had every right not to be ethnically cleansed and to remain in their homes and villages during the 1947-1948 war, Israel has no right to violate the Convention and introduce Israeli settlers into occupied Palestinian territory. Observing that Israeli settlement activity is illegal, immoral and in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention is not anti-Semitic and does not reflect on the rights of Palestinians in Israel to continue to live in their homes and villages as they always have.

Other defenders of the Israeli position make a more complex argument, that has been floated recently by the Israeli Foreign Ministry and many Israeli diplomats, and repeated by their supporters in the United States and elsewhere, to the effect that because some settlements will undoubtedly be retained by Israel in any final status agreement with the Palestinians involving a land swap, concern about settlement expansion is therefore irrelevant. This argument was recently advanced by Charles Krauthammer in the Washington Post, who argues, “No ‘natural growth’ means strangling to death the thriving towns close to the 1949 armistice line, many of them suburbs of Jerusalem, that every negotiation over the past decade has envisioned Israel retaining. It means no increase in population. Which means no babies.” He continues, “why expel people from their homes and turn their towns to rubble when, instead, Arabs and Jews can stay in their homes if the 1949 armistice line is shifted slightly into the Palestinian side to capture the major close-in Jewish settlements, and then shifted into Israeli territory to capture Israeli land to give to the Palestinians?” The Washington Post itself made a similar argument in a lead editorial last Sunday.

Apart from this silliness of suggesting that President Obama was saying that Israeli settlers should have “no babies,” this argument fails to recognize the serious political harm settlement expansion of all kinds does to the prospects for peace. It is the single most significant element of Israeli behavior that undermines Palestinian and Arab confidence that the Israelis are interested in any kind of reasonable final status agreement. It raises fears that Israel is simply trying to buy time to increase settlements until the day when Palestinian statehood is no longer a viable prospect. Obviously, every increase in settlements and settlement size makes the final border more difficult to draw. Therefore, it undermines both the credibility and the viability of peace negotiations. This is the political and psychological reality with which Israelis have to contend, whether they like it or not. In addition, settlement activity expands the rather belligerent constituency among Israelis that militates against necessary territorial compromises. This is not to say that all settlers are opposed to peace, but rather that increasing the size of settlements and the power of the ideological, political and financial interests invested in the settlement project makes overcoming resistance to a reasonable agreement within the Israeli society more complicated. Simply put, it is digging the hole deeper rather than moving towards climbing out of a very dangerous situation that puts Israelis, Palestinians, Arabs and all others involved at considerable risk.

The bottom line is that, whether Israelis like it or not, settlements are the main issue on the Palestinian agenda since they strike at the heart of potential Palestinian statehood. For whatever set of reasons, many Israelis and their supporters may prefer to see the issue as “irrelevant” or as a “myth,” but the political realities are quite clear. Continued settlement activity is perceived by Palestinians and other Arabs as quite incompatible with an Israeli intention to achieve a reasonable peace agreement. This is also the perception of the United States government. Secretary of State Clinton has made it quite clear that despite claims to the contrary, the United States government never entered into any “secret agreement” under the Bush administration that Israel could continue settlement activity. Its obligation under the Roadmap is clear, logical and indispensable.

The same significance applies to the question of Palestinian violence, which is likewise dismissed by some pro-Palestinian voices, citing the fact that at almost every stage in history, more Palestinian civilians have been killed by Israel than vice versa. Generally speaking, this is true, and obviously Palestinians have as much of a right to and an interest in security as Israelis or any other people. However, the political significance of Palestinian violence to Israeli perceptions of Palestinian intentions means that violence and efforts to curb it play the same role for Israel as a litmus test of Palestinian commitment to peace as settlement activity does for the Palestinians.

The reasons for this are not particularly mysterious, but understanding this distinction requires seriously appreciating the political psychology of both parties. Palestinian concerns about Israeli violence are part and parcel of the whole opposition to occupation, which is the principal source and the main context for violence. Violence is an unavoidable and inherent element of any occupation, particularly one that includes ongoing aggressive settlement activity. Resolving the occupation will remove both the context and the need for all varieties of Israeli military violence against Palestinians. Therefore, for Palestinians, a settlement freeze and moving quickly towards an agreement that will end the occupation by definition means moving towards a resolution of Israeli violence against Palestinians.

For Israelis, the perception is somewhat different. For many Israelis, including some who are otherwise well disposed towards ending the occupation, the principal fear is that this will not in fact resolve the conflict, and that Palestinian violent opposition to the continuation of Israel as a Jewish state would continue even after an end-of-conflict agreement is signed and ratified. There are concerns that the Palestinian state would be either unwilling or unable to contain attacks against Israel or Israelis. There is also a deep-seated anxiety that the formation of a Palestinian state would be the first step in a “plan of phases” that would sooner rather than later result in renewed conflict aimed at the eventual elimination of the Israeli state. Therefore, the continuation of Palestinian violence, and perceptions that the Palestinian Authority is doing less than everything it can to quell such violence undermines Israeli confidence that Palestinians really intend to reach a permanent reconciliation with Israel.

Many of the Palestinians and their supporters who were critical of President Obama’s speech in Cairo cited his emphasis on Palestinian violence at the exclusion of any consideration of Israeli violence as a major flaw in the address. Writing in the Saudi newspaper the Arab News, Samar Fatany summarized this perspective writing, “Obama lost many of us when he chose to stress that ‘the Palestinians must abandon violence,’ but omitted to show any condemnation of Israeli atrocities and war crimes. Instead he described Palestinians’ legitimate resistance as violence, which he thinks would lead to a dead end… What about Israeli use of lethal weapons and the destruction of Palestinian homes and schools?” Most critics of the speech on all sides took issue with what was supposedly missing in it, although one can hardly mention every possible issue in a 60 minute address. What President Obama was doing, and rightly so, was focusing on the most important political issues. That he placed emphasis on Israeli settlement activity and Palestinian violence was politically and diplomatically appropriate as it addresses the main concerns the two parties have about each other’s behavior

Moreover, Palestinian violence undermines the authority of the PA, and undercuts its ability to govern effectively. This is not to mention its corrosive effect on Palestinian society and culture, which is something to which friends of Palestine ought to give serious consideration. In his recent statements, President Obama has also emphasized the need to combat incitement, and this too goes to the health and well-being of Palestinian society and culture, and the character of the future Palestinian state. In other words, it is in the Palestinian interest to take seriously their commitment to combat violence and curtail incitement. Pointing towards Israeli violence and incitement is, in this context, politically and diplomatically pointless, and changes the subject from what ought to be the principal consideration: what effect are violence and incitement having on the fortunes of the Palestinian national movement and its legitimate ambitions, and the character of Palestinian society?

It is therefore pointless and even counterproductive for Israelis and their supporters to dismiss the settlement issue as irrelevant or a myth. All well-intentioned and serious friends of Israel should recognize the profound political damage done to the long-term future of Israel by settlement activity, not least by making an end-of-conflict agreement with the Palestinians less likely and undermining Palestinian and Arab perceptions of Israeli intentions. All responsible and constructive friends of Palestine should recognize that it is not strategically useful to counter critiques of Palestinian violence by focusing on Israeli violence against Palestinians, or even pointing to the Jewish terrorism that was a significant feature of the struggle for Israeli statehood in the 1940s, and instead think clearly about how Palestinian violence affects Palestinian interests and the perceptions of Israelis about Palestinian intentions.

These are not minor matters, irrelevancies, sideshows or red herrings. They go to the heart of the willingness of both peoples to see the other as sincere, legitimate partners for a peace agreement. This is not a game of one-upsmanship or a debate to be won or lost a scoring rhetorical points. It is a delicate process of balancing the core interests, fundamental requirements and deeply-rooted perceptions of two national societies that have been at odds for at least 100 years. The fact that there are readily available arguments that can be deployed to dismiss or downplay the centrality of settlements and violence is not the point. The only question worth asking is, how does this help us get towards a peace agreement and an end to the conflict and the occupation? Anyone who thinks about these questions in that context, with a due regard for the perceptions and interests of both Israelis and Palestinians, will no longer have to wonder why President Obama emphasized settlements and violence in his Cairo speech, and will not see any utility in dismissing them as irrelevancies or myths.