You often hear defenders of the Netanyahu government say, in opposition to demands for a settlement freeze, “Settlements are not the issue. The issue is the Palestinian refusal to accept the existence of Israel as a Jewish state.” The unspoken subtext behind this argument is that if only the Palestinians would accept the existence of Israel, the issue of the settlements could easily be resolved, with Israel retaining some and abandoning others. And it is certainly true that the Palestinians have never accepted the existence of Israel and have always found one pretext or another to avoid a peaceful resolution of the conflict. But even if the Palestinians would formally accept Israel, it is far from clear that a compromise on the question of settlements is either possible or desirable.
In the first place, although some Palestinian negotiators have given the impression that they would accept Israeli retention of the large settlement blocs in return for the surrender of some Israeli territory elsewhere, the official Palestinian and Arab position has remained that Israel must withdraw to the 1949 armistice lines, which are invariably referred to as the “1967 borders”. When the Palestinians ask individual countries to declare their support for the unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state, the boundaries of that state are always described as the “1967 borders”. All this creates the impression that one of the main reasons why the Palestinians are not interested in a negotiated settlement is precisely because they are not willing to accept the existence of any Israeli settlements, whether big or small, beyond the 1949 armistice lines. This impression is further reinforced by the repeated statements by Abbas and other Palestinian leaders that they do not intend to accept the presence of even one single Jew within the territory of their new Palestinian state.
In the second place, even if the Palestinians were willing to accept some Israeli settlements while insisting that others be dismantled, Israeli agreement to this demand would not in fact represent a compromise but rather a capitulation to Palestinian anti-Semitism. In return for voluntarily evicting tens of thousands of Jews from their homes, with all the attendant strife and dislocation which such a step would engender within Israeli society, Israel would receive nothing in return save a meaningless promise of future peaceful intentions. A genuine compromise on the issue of the settlements would see some placed under Israeli sovereignty and some under Palestinian sovereignty, but no one thinks in these terms because everyone knows that the Palestinians would immediately move to attack any Jewish settlements placed under their authority. While the supporters of the Palestinians rave and rant against Israel as an “apartheid state”, the Palestinians themselves loudly proclaim their refusal to permit any Jews to live under their rule. And this stance is not unique to the Palestinians but is true of the entire Arab world, where hardly any Jews now remain from what were once large communities dating back literally thousands of years.
In the third place, even if a genuine compromise on the issue of the settlements were possible, there are so many other issues on which the Palestinians are not willing to compromise that no peace agreement between them and Israel is conceivable any time soon. In particular, for 20 years the Palestinians have not budged one inch from their demand for the “right of return” of millions of Palestinians to “Israel proper”. They have also continued to demand full sovereignty over the Temple Mount, plus a corridor under their exclusive jurisdiction between Gaza and the “West Bank”, plus sufficient control over their borders and air space to enable them to import offensive weapons. It would be suicidal for Israel to agree to these demands, nor do the Palestinians expect Israeli agreement. For the Palestinians, the whole point of persisting with impossible demands is to validate their strategy of trying to secure United Nations approval of the unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state. Such approval would not actually give the Palestinians physical control over the territory which they claim, but what it would do is create the basis for a political, diplomatic and military offensive against the Jewish settlements. Eradication of these settlements is the Palestinian short term goal, which means that for Israel as well as for the Palestinians, the settlements are indeed the issue.
The Palestinian campaign against the settlements has won broad international support on the grounds that Israeli settlement of the territory conquered in 1967 is contrary to international law. This perception ignores the fact that prior to 1949 there were numerous Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria. In particular there was a large Jewish community in Hebron which dated back to the 16th century. But in 1929, this entire community was destroyed by the Arabs and its inhabitants massacred. In the late 1940s, the Arabs also destroyed all the other Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria, including the large settlement bloc of Gush Etzion, whose inhabitants were also massacred. It was no coincidence that two of the first places which were settled by Israelis after 1967 were Hebron and Gush Etzion, and in both cases among the settlers were descendants of the Jews who had been killed there prior to 1949. So when the Palestinians now argue that Jews have no right to live anywhere beyond the 1949 armistic lines, what they are actually saying is that Jews have no right to return to areas where they were previously murdered or driven out by the Arabs. Under the guise of an affirmation of international law, what is actually at work here is an affirmation of the Arab right to kill or expel Jews at will.
The more the Palestinians claim this right, the more they reveal their underlying lack of faith in the mantra of the “international community”, namely “two states living side by side in peace and security”. They assume, probably correctly, that a Palestinian state that really was at peace with Israel would soon gravitate into the Israeli social, economic and cultural orbit. Both Fatah and Hamas are determined at all costs to prevent this from happening, which means that their real goal is not a viable state but a platform for aggression against Israel. Unable to mount an effective military campaign against Israel at the present time, they therefore focus on the settlements, which do not enjoy the support of the “international community”, and try to get others to force Israel to dismantle all or most of them. The only way that Israel can counter this strategy is to make the defense of the settlements, including even the small and isolated ones, a major priority. They can no longer be viewed as bargaining chips, because there is no longer even the semblance of a bargain to be had.
Jewish settlement of Judea and Samaria is the only effective response that Israel can make to the Palestinian refusal to make peace. It is neither just nor reasonable to expect Israel to maintain Judea and Samaria in the same Judenrein condition in which the Arabs left it in 1967. Judea and Samaria formed the heartland of the ancient Jewish kingdoms of Judah and Israel, and Jews have every right to settle there while waiting for the time, perhaps many years from now, when the democratization of Arab society has proceeded to the point where the Palestinians are ready to make peace with Israel. If the Palestinians are concerned that the progress of Jewish settlement will gradually shrink the area available for a future Palestinian state, they have only to make peace now in order to stabilize the situation. It is both just and reasonable that they should stand to lose something by persisting in a stance of relentless hostility towards the state of Israel and the Jewish people.
However, the stronger the Jewish presence in Judea and Samaria, the greater the potential for the integration of the Arabs living there into the Israeli economic system. Even if there were a peace settlement tomorrow it is hard to see how the resulting Palestinian state could avoid close ties with the Israeli economy. The Palestinians in Judea and Samaria simply do not have the resources nor the infrastructure nor the technology to create an independent economic system of their own. The only reason why they are able to report rapid economic growth at the present time is because of the huge amounts of financial aid – more per capita than any other nation on earth – which they receive from the US and the EU and which are funnneled into the purchase of consumer durables by the paid employees of the Palestinian Authority. Without the massive injection of foreign aid, which cannot go on forever, the Palestinians would be forced to adopt a more cooperative attitude towards Israel – or else stake everything on yet another round of senseless violence.
Fatah and Hamas have already made it clear which alternative they are going to adopt. Utilizing the recognition of a Palestinian state by the General Assembly of the United Nations as a pretext, the Palestinians clearly intend to attack the Jewish settlements and mobilize their supporters around the world to impose sanctions on Israel. In order to oppose this strategy, Israel needs to declare in advance that the unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state “within the 1967 borders” will be met by the unilateral annexation of the Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria by Israel. This warning needs to be accompanied by a sustained political and diplomatic campaign setting forth the historical, strategic and moral basis for Jewish settlement in Judea and Samaria. But at the same time, Israel also needs to project an alternative to Palestinian rejectionism in the form of a vision of what a more cooperative relationship between Israel and the Palestinians in Judea and Samaria might look like. Real peace implies some degree of integration of those Palestinians into the Israeli economic and political system, and despite the storm clouds on the horizon, it is not too soon to begin discussing just how this integration can be achieved.