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Israeli Settlement Decision: Yet Another Complication for Peace Advocates

Israel’s announcement of plans to build 3,000 new homes in the sensitive “E1” zone that would cut off Palestinian areas of Jerusalem from the West Bank is meeting the usual global denunciations. Israel is also cutting off $120 million in tax revenue that under normal circumstances it collects for the Palestinian Authority and has said it will use that money to pay down PA debts to Israel’s electric utility.

Via Meadia doesn’t think expanded settlements are a good idea. We think the two state solution is in Israel’s best interest as well as the interests of the Palestinians, and we think that any step by either side that makes that solution harder to achieve (it is already extremely difficult) is a bad thing. We didn’t like the PA’s decision to go for the UN upgrade, and we don’t like the Israeli retaliation.

A few points: first, in doing these things, Israel is carrying out very specific threats it made about the PA’s decision to go for upgraded status at the UN. There is nothing surprising about this.

Second, these are not simple fits of pique. Israel’s strategy is to create a sense of urgency about getting a two state solution among Palestinians by creating the risk that, if they don’t negotiate now, they will get less in a final settlement. That strategy works with Palestinians who already are basically ready to accept the two state solution, but it weakens their political position among the Palestinian people as a whole. There are those in Israel who would like to push beyond a “threat” strategy to an outright annexation and expansion policy; so far they have not quite managed to achieve this. One sign that Israel’s current measures are part of a “threat” strategy rather than part of a clear move to take the two-state solution off the table: the E1 announcement doesn’t mean the bulldozers are moving in tomorrow. Construction would not start for a year or two. Israel apparently hopes that this deadline will push the Palestinians toward a serious negotiation and increase public support, at least in the West Bank, for a deal.

Third, it remains almost comically unlikely that any authorized representative of the Palestinian movement as a whole is going to sign a peace treaty with Israel anytime soon. Hamas is committed, both by its own principles and by public opinion in Gaza, to push for the return of Palestinians to pre-1967 Israel. Given the way Islamists in Turkey, Qatar, and Egypt have raised its diplomatic profile recently, and given its ability to play Iran and its Sunni backers off one other, Hamas has no desire or need to change its stance. The PA is much closer to signing a deal, but it can’t deliver Palestinian acceptance of the deal: Israel won’t offer the PA much land because the PA can’t offer Israel much peace.

Fourth, given this standoff, the forces in Israel who want to use the absence of peace to expand the country’s narrow territory by moving into what some refer to as “Judea and Samaria” (the West Bank actually occupies most of the territory that the Israelites held during the times of the Bible, while much of Israel sits on coastal land that in Biblical times was controlled by the Philistines) will do their best to remove the ambiguity in Israeli policy and decisively transform a policy of pressure on Palestinians into a policy of expanding the Jewish state.

This is a royal mess, and there is no easy way out. The Obama administration has already lost almost four years by its early mishandling of the settlement issue. Let’s hope that very quickly it finds a way to relaunch a process that can deliver partial peace and an amelioration if not a solution to the conflict—for the sake above all of the innocents on both sides who suffer from the status quo and who live under the under the threat of violence.

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