Op-Ed: Settlement freeze? OK … but what next?


WASHINGTON (JTA) — Despite more than six decades of historical evidence showing that settlements have nothing to do with peace between Israel and the Arabs, including the Gaza disengagement, President Obama has called on Israel to freeze settlements. Fair enough; Israel agreed to this step as part of the "road map" peace plan, and everyone outside (and some inside) Israel has been clamoring for such a policy.

That was the easy call. The tougher one is, what next?

Before deciding, the president should consider that the secret to the settlement movement’s success has been the Palestinians’ refusal to accept Israeli peace overtures and their failure to fulfill the commitments in their signed agreements. Before Israel offered the Palestinians autonomy in 1978-79, 6,000 Jews lived in the disputed territories. Had the Palestinians accepted even that admittedly limited proposal, the Palestinians undoubtedly would have had a state within a few years and no more Jews would have moved to the territories. Instead, by the time of the Oslo accords in 1993, 130,000 Jews were living there.

After Palestinian terrorism sabotaged the Oslo process, then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered in 2000 to dismantle more than 100 settlements, withdraw from 97 percent of the West Bank and establish a Palestinian state with eastern Jerusalem as its capital, but the Palestinians rejected the deal. At that time, the settler population was 200,000.

While the notion of America dictating policy may be irksome to many Israelis, today 275,000 Israelis are living in communities throughout Judea and Samaria. To create the Palestinian state Obama envisions will require him to make some very difficult decisions.

First, should Jewish communities be uprooted from the West Bank? If so, this endorses the Palestinian idea that Jews should not be allowed to live in the state of Palestine. Does President Obama want  to endorse the idea that Jews can live anywhere in the world except in the country America helped create?

Is this consistent with the belief that Palestinian Arabs should be allowed to live in Israel, or does the president favor a transfer of populations, Jews from the West Bank to Israel and Arabs from the Israeli triangle to Palestine?

Second, must Israel dismantle cities such as Ma’ale Adumim with a population comparable to Annapolis, Md.? Most Israelis believe the settlement blocs with roughly 70 percent of the settlers should be incorporated into Israel. Is President Obama prepared to support this? If so, that is an endorsement of President George W. Bush’s 2004 letter to Ariel Sharon acknowledging that future borders must take into account demographic changes since 1967.

Finally, what if the Israelis say no? They have just fought three wars in the last nine years during which more than 1,000 people were killed. They continue to face terrorist threats and rocket bombardments. Does the Obama administration expect them to accept the possibility of a Palestinian state in the West Bank with the capability of launching rockets into Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, or targeting commercial jets at Ben Gurion Airport?

How much pressure is the president prepared to apply? Cutting off military aid and other forms of military and political cooperation? Asking the United Nations to impose sanctions against Israel? Israel’s enemies have called for such steps, but would the United States do so to a friend and ally, the only democracy in the Middle East?

Finally, does President Obama believe that the Jewish people, who survived the Holocaust, built a haven in their homeland, and have overcome the odds and the wars and the terrorism of the last six decades, can be bent to his will?

This entire approach is predicated on the notion that pressuring Israel will change the attitude of the Arabs and that they will abandon six decades of hostility, and that the radical Islamists of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah will suddenly accept a Jewish state in the Muslim heartland.

What will the president demand of the Palestinians and Arab states, and what pressure will he exert on them? If they do not make reciprocal gestures — and history is not encouraging on this point —  the president’s initiative is bound for the same scrapheap with every other president’s peace plan.

Mitchell Bard is the author of "Will Israel Survive?" (Palgrave) and "48 Hours of Kristallnacht: Night of Destruction/ Dawn of the Holocaust" (Lyons Press).

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