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ISRAEL: On settlements, blocs and borders [Updated]

October 3, 2010 | 11:51 am


Barring a breakthrough proving that the former settlement freeze was a stroke-of-genius gamble, for now it seems to have frozen peace talks more than anything else. Genius or not, the now-thawed freeze presents quite a quandary.

But in the past you negotiated with us during construction, says Israel. Yes, well. We're not repeating that mistake, the Palestinians say.

One possible solution to the moratorium mess is for Israel to limit construction to the settlement blocs, large, populated areas in the West Bank it believes it can retain under most scenarios. 

The Palestinians reject this. No freeze, no talks.

Settlements and borders are among the final-status "biggies," along with Jerusalem and refugees. Israel has insisted security comes first and will dictate everything else. This position got a temporary boost when a shooting attack killed four Israelis in the West Bank the day before talks were relaunched in Washington. If the blocs are on the table, Israel may consider now what has always been saved for "later" -- borders.

Israeli Minister Dan Meridor, who raised the subject toward the end of the moratorium, said it didn't make sense for Israel to build in places it wasn't going to keep, neither was it logical to refrain from building in places it would. This requires deciding what it wants to, and can, keep.

UnfreezeEven in Israel, the blocs are a vague issue to many.

Peace Now counts six: Maaleh Adumim (about 23 square miles), Givat Zeev (9.5 square miles), Gush Etzion (27.7 square miles), Modiin Ilit (4.3 square miles), Ariel (31 square miles) and Karnei Shomron (30 square miles).

When the barrier went up, Israel called it a "security fence." Dictated by security (and occasionally the supreme court), it could be undone any time, officials said, repeating that its purpose was to keep suicide bombers out, not mark the border. But, nowadays, even officials call it the "separation fence."

Of the tens of thousands (today more than 100,000) of settlers who found themselves on the east -- and wrong -- side of the fence, some were quick to take the hint.

Like Beni Raz. The settler from Karnei Shomron was active in the "One Home" initiative advocating early voluntary evacuation. With lawmakers, he pushed for an "evacuation-compensation" bill to help settlers willing to move back inside the Green Line get on with their lives instead of languishing as bargaining chips until an agreement was reached. This fizzled.

Now, Raz said, the idea was "more relevant than ever." The government should tell people the truth and help those secretly slated for evacuation with timely compensation. Everyone will benefit, he says, including the peace process and the government.

Don't talk to us about blocs, said veteran settlement leader Benny Katzover last Sunday as construction resumed. What they really meant was that from 100,000 to 150,000 settlers would be uprooted, he said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has yet to sign off on what many see as the practical parameters for an agreement -- the 1967 borders as a baseline, with a 1:1 landswap in return for what Israel would keep and annex (that's unpopulated land Israel would give, not be to confused with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's notion of a population swap). Israel's potential for swap is limited (4% of the West Bank, max), according to Shaul Arieli, peace and security expert and mapmaker. The informal "accord" of the Geneva Initiative (recently running the Partner Campaign) includes a map suggesting a landswap of 147 kilometers, about 91 miles (link in Hebrew). Ariel and its environs weren't included, a key difference between this and former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's reported offer.

The reported letter of assurances -- which the U.S. has denied offering Prime Minister Netanyahu and which Netanyahu is said to have rejected -- contains some carrots. But an Israeli rejection of the incentives the U.S. is reportedly offering in return for extending the freeze could activate a stick, speculates David Makovsky, in the form of the U.S. explicitly adopting the Palestinian position that the 1967 borders be the baseline for talks.

Israel rejects returning to the 1967 borders. Not (only) because of the settlements but for security (also a leading factor in determining the settlements' location). Withdrawing to these lines would undermine Israel's security, states the Defensible Borders project. An animated clip illustrates what they define as Israel's critical security needs for a viable peace, including retaining control of the Jordan Valley, key areas of the mountain ridge dominating Israel's coastal plain, airspace over the West Bank and key traffic arteries.

It's all about space and time, says former government spokeswoman Miri Eisin*, a retired colonel who guides helicopter tours for journalists on the topic of borders for the Israel Project. Scarcity of the first affords very little warning time, she says, around 400 feet or so above where Israeli and Palestinian towns are separated by only 800 meters -- and the fence.  Space and time, she repeats.

[*A previous version of this post said Miri Eisin is a government spokeswoman. She held that post in the past.]

-- Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem

Photos: Balloons celebrating the end of the construction freeze, in Revava, West Bank; lots of journalists and one cement mixer, renewing West Bank construction at Kiryat Netafim. Credit: Batsheva Sobelman

Video: "Israel's Critical Security Needs," from the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. Credit: YouTube