Life involves tradeoffs at every turn, and so does foreign policy. The perfect often becomes the enemy of the good, and pragmatic solutions require jettisoning principles. So too in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, where each side must at times set aside deeply held beliefs and principles in order to achieve a realistic balance on the ground. Yitzhak Rabin’s realization that he was going to have to shake Yasser Arafat’s hand on the White House lawn, or the PLO’s realization that it would have to recognize Israel, were not steps that were taken lightly or that came easily. However, they had salutary effects that necessitated a sacrifice of principles and for each side created the risk of moral hazard in rewarding behavior that had been deemed out of bounds.
We are now at a similar crossroads when it comes to settlements. As a result of nearly five decades of settlement policy, Israel now has over half a million Israelis living in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Even if they are not the root of the conflict, there is simply no question that settlements are an enormous and seemingly insurmountable obstacle, one that is diverting Israel’s political development to a frightening place. Israeli leaders present at the creation of the settlement project, from Rabin to Moshe Dayan, recognized the folly of occupying the West Bank, let alone settling it, and what it would mean for Israel to control millions of Palestinians in a state of political limbo. Nevertheless, here we are, and the fact is that removing half a million Israelis in an eventual peace deal will be an impossible task, and one that Israel is never going to attempt. As has been clear for decades and was formally laid out in the Clinton Parameters, Israel is going to end up keeping the large settlement blocs, allowing the most settlers to remain in Israel on the least amount of land, and will eventually have to evacuate the rest.
Given that it is clear to nearly everyone what the end result will be, there are two ways to approach current settlement construction. One is to treat all settlements as the same and condemn all new building in the settlements, irrespective of where the settlement is or how large it is. This has been the policy of the U.S. government since 1967, and it treats Gilo and Alon Shvut the same as Ofra and Elon Moreh. A settlement is a settlement, and thus any further construction is problematic, no matter the particular settlement’s eventual disposition. The other approach is to differentiate between settlements, and to recognize that building in an area that everyone knows that Israel will keep in any peace deal is not the same as building in areas that effectively bisect the West Bank or cut off Palestinian contiguity or prevent access to Jerusalem. While settlements are generally problematic, not all settlements are equally so.
Proponents of the first approach argue – not without merit – that to create a distinction between settlements now, outside the parameters of negotiations, would be to reward Israeli bad behavior. After creating a network of settlements in the West Bank of dubious legality at best, for external actors to recognize them as effectively part of Israel proper by not registering any complaints over their continued growth is to incentivize Israel to keep on building anywhere it likes in the hopes that creating facts on the ground will subvert Palestinian efforts to halt the settlement project.
As I said, this approach is not without merit, and it is certainly the morally satisfying one for those who have spent decades working to counter Israeli building outside the Green Line. The problem with it is that in occupying the moral high ground, it makes a solution harder rather than easier. The reality is that if a two state solution is to happen, it will require settler buy in, for better or worse, and getting settlers to support two states means recognizing that for the majority of them, expanding their current communities does not create an impediment to a final status agreement. For many on the left, this is a wholly unsatisfying and bitter pill to swallow, but it is also a fact of life that cannot be wished away.
To take an example from the other side of the spectrum (and this in no way suggests any type of moral equivalence), Hamas currently governs Gaza and does not appear to be going away. Hamas is a terrorist group with blood on its hands, and Israel is entirely justified in refusing to deal with it or acknowledge that it has any legitimacy at all. By the same token, rational people understand that as unpalatable as it may be, accepting that Hamas is in Gaza and that it cannot be simply wished away means crafting policies that take this into account, and even communicating with Hamas through back channels, as the current Israeli government has done. Rational thinking on settlements must prevail as well.
One of the striking elements from Israel Policy Forum’s trip to Israel last week was that the people working hardest to implement a two state solution and alleviate conditions for Palestinians in the West Bank are adamant that an all or nothing approach to settlements by calling for a complete settlement freeze would be the death knell for two states. Pragmatism must win out over principle in this case, which means pushing the Israeli government to define just what it means by the blocs – since this can be a nebulous moving target at times – and then creating a policy that distinguishes between kosher and non-kosher settlement growth. The Palestinian leadership and Mahmoud Abbas advanced this approach themselves in 2007 at Annapolis in presenting a proposal that involved Israel keeping 1.9% of the West Bank with equivalent land swaps, and while Israel’s preference is to keep 6.5% of the West Bank with equivalent land swaps, there is a compromise to be had that reconciles these two positions. This is not to accept Netanyahu’s reported position of recognition of the blocs as a quid pro quo for gestures in the West Bank – gestures that he should be taking anyway – or to treat the blocs as annexed to Israel before any final status negotiations have been concluded. It is to understand that while no building in the West Bank is helpful or desirable, one kind is a lot worse than another. While a change in how the U.S. views and treats settlements will lead to frustration for many and engender resentment among Palestinians, it is also the epitome of solutionism.