The settlement obsession
Israeili flags flutter near construction of settlements in the West Bank. (Getty Images)
July 21st, 2011
01:22 PM ET

The settlement obsession

Editor's NoteElliott Abrams is former senior director for the Near East and deputy national security adviser handling Middle East affairs in the George W. Bush administration. He is now a senior fellow for Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, where he writes the blog Pressure Points.

By Elliott Abrams, Foreign Affairs

On taking office in 2009, U.S. President Barack Obama put Israeli settlements at the center of U.S. policy in the Middle East. In Washington's view, a complete construction freeze in the West Bank and East Jerusalem became not only desirable but also a prerequisite to Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.

Previous U.S. administrations of both parties had never taken such a stance, and in fact, there had been years of negotiations (not least at Camp David in 2000 and after the Annapolis meeting in 2007) while Israeli settlement activity continued. But the Obama administration stuck to its demand, and when Israel refused to freeze construction, 2009 and much of 2010 went by without negotiations. This only changed in November 2010, when the White House abandoned the entire approach and began to search for a new one.

This single-minded focus on a construction freeze was clearly a mistake in the sense that it failed: the Israeli government did not agree to a freeze in East Jerusalem. Nor could any earlier Israeli governments have accepted such a demand, even if they, like Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, had been open to partial or time-limited freezes in the West Bank. John Kerry (D-Mass.), chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, expressed the situation well when he said in April 2011, "I was opposed to the prolonged effort on the settlements in a public way because I never thought it would work and, in fact, we have wasted a year and a half on something that for a number of reasons was not achievable."

What is more, the Obama administration's demand had the effect of cornering Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who could not ask for less than Washington; if the U.S. president thought a total freeze was a prerequisite to negotiations, Abbas would have to think so, too. As a weary Abbas told Newsweek in April, the Obama administration led him up a tree and then "removed the ladder."

But the tactic also was a mistake in a deeper sense: current construction in the settlements is not a critical issue, and the expansion of construction into additional lands has been minimal. At Camp David in 2000, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered the Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat 94 percent of the West Bank; ten years later, Ehud Olmert offered Abbas 93.6 percent with a one-to-one land swap. So it is clear that settlement expansion has not significantly eaten away at the territory of an eventual Palestinian state. The far more serious issues are wholly outside the short-term question of a freeze: namely, the future of the settlements if and when a Palestinian state is created, their impact on the maneuvering that will advance or impede that objective, and the conflict between the settlers' ideology and that of mainstream Zionism.

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This is not the view taken in the handsome new collection Occupation of the Territories: Israeli Soldiers' Testimonies 2000-2010. The volume is a product of Breaking the Silence, an Israeli nongovernmental organization that presents itself as the conscience of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and indeed of the nation, explaining its role as "pushing Israeli society to face the reality whose creation it has enabled." In this book, Breaking the Silence advances two conclusions. The first relates to the morals of Israel's army and, by extension, Israel itself: "Soldiers who serve in the Territories witness and participate in military actions which change them immensely," the organization explains.

"Cases of abuse towards Palestinians, looting, and destruction of property have been the norm for years, but are still explained as extreme and unique cases. Our testimonies portray a different, and much grimmer picture in which deterioration of moral standards finds expression in the character of orders and the rules of engagement, and are justified in the name of Israel's security." The second conclusion is that the presence of Israeli settlers and IDF soldiers in the West Bank is laying waste to the area, reducing it to misery.

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Some of the testimonies are deeply affecting, and there is no doubt that occupation duty brings out the worst in some soldiers: violence, bullying, vandalism, and theft. Official accounts of the U.S. occupation of Germany after World War II, for example, make clear that there is no such thing as an immaculate occupation. But in this book, Breaking the Silence appears less interested in the current impact of the settlements and the backdrop to the IDF's actions in the West Bank than in advancing particular ideological and political points.

For one thing, why produce a volume in 2010 that has so many testimonies about Gaza, from which all Israeli forces withdrew in the summer of 2005? Why include so many interviews from 2000-2002, the years when the second intifada was at its height, rather than interviews from more recent years? In the section on the methods the IDF uses to prevent terrorism, for example, there are 67 interviews, but only five are from 2008 or later; similarly, a section on how the IDF carries out a "policy of control, dispossession, and annexation of territory" contains 44 interviews, of which just six are from 2007 or later.

A logical inference from this data would be that the IDF's conduct is improving, but Breaking the Silence does not discuss this possibility. Nor does it discuss what the IDF was attempting between 2000 and 2002, namely, trying to stop terrorist acts that were maiming and killing thousands of Israelis. There is just one sentence about terrorism in this entire volume, acknowledging that "it is true that the Israeli security apparatus has had to deal with concrete threats in the past decade, including terrorist attacks on Israeli citizens."

Moreover, the descriptions of life in the West Bank presented here are inaccurate or at best outdated. A soldier interviewed in the book describes the West Bank city of Nablus as "sealed hermetically." But just last November, The New York Times described Nablus as follows: "The city is open to visitors from all over the West Bank, as well as to Arabs from Israel. In the streets, new cars, including sport utility vehicles, point to growing prosperity." Put simply, the book's description of a West Bank living in deliberately inflicted misery does not comport with reality.

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Last April, Robert Serry, the UN special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, provided an update to the international donor group dedicated to assisting the Palestinian Authority. According to the UN's official summary, the report concludes that, "in the limited territory under its control and within the constraints on the ground imposed by unresolved political issues, the PA has accelerated progress in improving its governmental functions. . . . Governmental functions are now sufficient for a functioning government of a state. . . . In parallel, Israeli measures to facilitate movement and access have also supported economic activity."

Denying such progress, ignoring the withdrawal from Gaza, and relying on interviews from a decade ago suggest that Breaking the Silence is pursuing its own political goals in Occupation of the Territories rather than offering a fair and current documentary account of the occupation. It should come as no surprise, then, that the group is highly controversial in Israel. Amos Harel, a veteran journalist at Haaretz, is typical of the critics, writing that Breaking the Silence "has a clear political agenda, and can no longer be classed as a 'human rights organization.'"

Redemption Song

Whereas the dated testimonies and the refusal to acknowledge the slightest progress in the West Bank mean that Occupation of the Territories ultimately fails to persuade, Gadi Taub's The Settlers: And the Struggle Over the Meaning of Zionism offers a profound and fascinating account of the practical and ideological challenges posed by the settler movement. In the book, Taub, a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, describes a fundamental clash between the religious settlers and mainstream Zionism, one that has existed for more than a century. "No dispute has divided Israeli society more deeply," Taub writes. But it is also clear that however deep the divisions, the two sides are not equal in number. By Taub's count, "only about a third to a half of the West Bank's Jewish population, some 100,000 to 130,000 people, are religious Zionists," which would make this religious group around two percent of Israel's Jewish population.

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The term "religious" is critical, for in the eyes of most Israelis, many settlers are simply suburbanites who commute to work in Israel's cities. Most of those who live in, for example, Maale Adumim, a city of nearly 40,000 in the West Bank just outside Jerusalem, moved there because they were priced out of the Jerusalem housing market. Maale Adumim is typical of the major blocs of which President George W. Bush spoke in 2004, when he said that "already existing major Israeli population centers" constituted "new realities on the ground" that any peace negotiation must reflect and that would realistically require changes in Israel's previous borders.

In other cases, Israelis have returned to areas where Jews lived not only in antiquity but in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, before being forced out by pogroms. For example, Hebron, the largest city in the West Bank, had a Jewish presence up until a massacre in 1929 eradicated the Jewish community there. Jews returned after 1967, and around 500 live there now under IDF protection; 6,000 more live in the nearby settlement of Kiryat Arba. Gush Etzion began as a collection of villages with about 450 Jews, founded in the 1920s just south of Jerusalem. During Israel's 1948 War of Independence, Arab forces overran the town and killed nearly everyone. An Israeli presence was reestablished after 1967, and today the population totals around 60,000 in two dozen small settlements and the town of Beitar Illit.

In the eyes of many Israelis, settlers have every moral right to reestablish communities in places where Jews lived before 1948 and left only because they were driven out violently. (Of course, Palestinians assert a similar claim, "the right of return," to places where they lived before 1948 in what is now Israel. Leaving aside moral and historical arguments, the difference is that the rebuilt Israeli settlements do not prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state, whereas the movement to Israel of millions of Palestinians who claim refugee status - those who lived before 1948 in what is now Israel plus all their children and succeeding generations - would destroy Israel's identity as a Jewish state.)

I remember taking part in a discussion of Gush Etzion with then Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in 2005, when he was visiting Bush at his ranch in Texas. In a dinner with high-ranking U.S. officials the evening before Sharon met the president, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice pressed Sharon to stop settlement expansion. His reply started diplomatically and gained energy; by the end, he was pounding the table. "People in Israel don't understand, for example, why we can't build in Gush Etzion, an old community where everyone was killed in the 1948 war," he said. "Never will this area be handed to the Palestinians. Never. I am not going to negotiate this area. The Palestinians will never be able to come there - never. They already destroyed it one time, and murdered hundreds."

In contrast to communities established to improve Israelis' security or quality of life or to reclaim places where Jews lived in previous decades, a minority of settlements reflect a more ambitious, deeply religious goal: obeying the biblical commandment to settle the land. From its earliest days in the nineteenth century and until the Holocaust, the Orthodox rabbinate in eastern Europe was not enthusiastic about the Zionist movement, which at the time was led by irreligious Jews. To the rabbis, seeking a return to Zion on a human, rather than a heavenly, timetable seemed almost sacrilegious.

But a compromise of sorts was reached in 1948: the creation of the Jewish state was seen as, in the words of the official prayer for the state, "the first flowering of our redemption," an act that, whatever its material goals, was also performing a religious mission. Israel's Declaration of Independence refers to "the fulfillment of an age-old dream - the redemption of Israel," but the document is mostly a reflection of the secular Zionism of the state's founders, whose mission is stated in the declaration as "the natural right of the Jewish people to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations, in their own sovereign State."

This difference in focus caused few problems until 1967, when Israel captured Gaza, the Golan Heights, the Sinai, and the West Bank. Sitting on the land that Israelis commonly call Judea and Samaria are the central locations (apart from Jerusalem) mentioned in the Hebrew Bible. These places are filled with religious meaning. Hebron is where the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as well as the matriarchs Sarah, Rebecca, and Leah, are buried, in the Cave of Machpelah. Rachel's Tomb is near Bethlehem, and Joseph's is in Nablus. And suddenly in 1967, like Jerusalem itself, all these sites came under Israeli control. As Taub puts it, "The spark that ignited the messianic fire . . . was the extraordinary victory of the Israel Defense Forces in the Six-Day War. . . . Redemption was no longer at its beginning; it was well under way."

Whether Jewish law actually contains a commandment to settle the land has been controversial; the 613 binding commandments listed by the revered Jewish scholar Maimonides in the Middle Ages do not include it. But for many of the Orthodox, this dispute was swept aside after 1967, and this commandment became central. And here lay the problem, for the goal of secular Zionism had been not to settle the land but to establish a Jewish democratic state. Taub explains:

The inner faith-based circle of religious settlers perceived the state as but an instrument for the fulfillment of the commandment to settle the Land of Israel. . . . It was a struggle between two kinds of Zionism: on one side stood mainstream Zionism, for which self-determination - the political independence of Jews as embodied in a democratic national state - was the goal and foundation of Zionism; on the other side stood a religious movement, for which Eretz Israel - the Land of Israel - was the center of the Zionist project. According to the former - a Zionism of state - the settlement of the land was a means for establishing sovereignty, while for the latter - a Zionism of land - sovereignty was a means for settling the land.

Thus, as Taub explains, the Jewish national homeland had to be in the land of Israel. The question later became, did it have to encompass all of the land of Israel?

The conflict between secular Zionism and the settler movement did not appear overnight following Israel's conquests in the 1967 war, for there was an argument that bridged the gap: security. The Israeli right viewed the settlements as critical for Israel's future. The old borders were not defensible, Israel could be attacked again from the east, and settlements on the ridges of Judea and Samaria were part of the state's new system of defense. So the religious settlers and Israeli hawks made common cause, and year after year, settlers by the tens of thousands moved to the West Bank.

For the religious settlers, this was an exciting period, filled with spiritual and also political and psychological satisfaction. Whereas the Orthodox had largely sat out the hard work of building Zionist institutions and founding the state, Taub says, "the act of settlement was a chance to reenact the days of pioneering glory, which religious Zionists felt they had half missed."

The alliance between the religious settlers and secular Israeli hawks held for some years, but before long, the underlying contradiction began to emerge. In 1974, Gush Emunim, or "Bloc of the Faithful," was founded as the main settler organization, and its manifesto spoke of its "obligation toward the Land of Israel." To the actually existing State of Israel, there was apparently no such obligation. Three years later, in 1977, leaders of the Israeli right were forced to confront this uncomfortable fact when Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat came to Jerusalem offering peace in exchange for the Sinai.

Menachem Begin, founder of the Herut Party (a predecessor of the right-wing Likud coalition), handed the Sinai back to Egypt in 1982 and in the process evacuated 2,500 Israelis from Yamit, a settlement there. It was apparent, Taub explains, that "in Begin's view the realization of the right of Jews to settle anywhere in the Land of Israel was always subordinate to a higher value: political independence, the sovereignty of the state."

A far more significant moment came in 2005, when Sharon evacuated all Israeli settlers from Gaza and also removed four tiny settlements in the West Bank. The settlers, Taub recounts, found that their adoption of the security argument as a means of reaching out to secular Israelis had backfired badly. For in the end, Sharon and his fellow hawks had come to the conclusion that keeping all the territories was a huge mistake and a danger to the Jewish state itself. As Taub writes:

Even staunch secular hawks in Likud understood that extending Israel's sovereignty to the territories, as opposed to maintaining the temporary status of these regions, would spell an end to Zionism; it would force the state into a double-bind where it would have to choose between a non-Jewish democracy and a Jewish apartheid. . . . Likud under Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Ariel Sharon, despite repeated declarations that Judea, Samaria, and Gaza would remain forever a part of Israel, never considered such a possibility seriously, and so never moved to annex these territories.

For both the Israeli center and the Israeli right, the failure of the Camp David talks in 2000 and the ensuing intifada taught a lesson: a negotiated settlement was unlikely. Combined with the continuing Palestinian insistence on the right of return of millions of Palestinians to Israel, an outcome that would doom Israel as a Jewish state, the seeming impossibility of a negotiated deal led Sharon to favor unilateral withdrawal. That approach, Taub says, "gradually acquired legitimacy. . . . Leaving the territories no longer looked to many like a concession to the Palestinians. It began to look like an urgent Israeli interest." The alliance between the settlers and the hawks against the Israeli left, or "the peace camp," was now at an end; the right joined the left in believing that separation from the West Bank was desirable.

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Sharon, once called "the father of the settlements," created a new party, Kadima, whose founding document says that Zionism requires a Jewish majority in the State of Israel and therefore necessitates "conceding a part of the Land of Israel." In this view, Taub writes, getting out of most of the West Bank was "not an ideological retreat from Zionism, but its realization. The right [to live anywhere in the land of Israel] was still there, but it was subordinate to the higher goal and was therefore impossible to realize."

The difference between the religious settlers and the Israeli majority was profound, in Taub's view, in that "in the eyes of most Israelis the heart of Zionism was seated in an institution, the Jewish democratic state, not in the earth of the holy land. . . . For secular Zionism settlement was just a means, and the end remained democratic statehood. It made no sense to demand that the end bow to the means."

The problem for the Israeli majority that favors withdrawal from most of the West Bank, excepting only the major settlement blocs, is Israel's experience in southern Lebanon and Gaza. Both times Israel tried unilateral withdrawal - in 2000 from Lebanon and in 2005 from Gaza - terrorist groups moved in to fill the vacuum, leading, as Taub puts it, to "radicalization rather than pacification," because withdrawal was seen as a sign of weakness and a vindication of Palestinian violence. From the Israeli perspective, then, Israel's enemies thwarted partition by refusing a negotiated solution, and then thwarted unilateral withdrawal as well. Still, as Taub writes, even after these experiences, "Greater Israel [the dream of keeping all the territory from the Jordan to the Mediterranean] was no less dead, and the territories were still perceived as a burden rather than an asset."

Ideology and Experience

Now what? On the fringes of the Israeli left and right, there remains a desire to avoid facing the complicated facts and messy compromises that sovereignty requires. The religious settlers have no love for what, in Taub's words, "was actually the most momentous, unprecedented achievement of Labor [the party that led the country for its first 29 years]: painstaking, sober institution building." Their actions in building small outposts and settlements in the midst of millions of Palestinians, he writes, "did not reproduce Zionism; they reproduced the Diaspora . . . a minority, isolated and marginalized."

Meanwhile, on the farther shores of the Israeli left, there remain those who blame Israel for every problem and whose continuing belief in "land for peace" demonstrates the triumph of ideology over experience. In the middle sit the vast majority of Israelis, who have in Taub's view "remained Zionist in [Theodor] Herzl's and [David] Ben-Gurion's sense of the term. They believe in a Jewish democratic state, dependent, as it always was, on a territory where Jews are a majority. Partition was the original logic of the drive to statehood, and it still is its only recourse." The settlement enterprise, Taub concludes, "now exists in a limbo."

Taub is more concerned about how this story will end within Israel than about the future of the settlements after Israel withdraws from them. He believes the religious settlers are divided now, realize they will lose the battle in the end, and are bitter at and frustrated with the state that would crush their work and remove them from their homes.

Taub hopes to see the settlers persuaded rather than defeated, to see settler leaders and rabbis come forward to endorse mamlachtiyut (a word that comes from mamlacha, Hebrew for "state"), which can be translated as "statism" but is better rendered as "seeing statehood and sovereignty as high civic values." Taub wants them to understand that "the mitzvah [commandment] to settle the land is important, and the right of Jews to the whole land is eternal, but the polity - the Jewish democratic state - is still the greatest achievement of the Jews in our time, politically and religiously, and must take precedence above all considerations."

If the settler leadership is not persuaded, the bitter arguments among Israelis will only deepen. "If religious settlers are brought down from the messianic tree they have climbed up into only by force, if they are crushed rather than reformed, if they harbor only anger toward the state of Israel, they may compound the damage already done" in dividing Israel into two camps, religious and secular, Taub fears. "The struggle over the meaning of Zionism cannot be a triumph of the secular public over the settlers. . . . Zionism . . . must do more than win the political struggle: it must also win back the minds and hearts of religious Zionists," he concludes.

No easy task. Sharon, after all, failed to achieve this in Gaza. He never told the settlers there that the state loved them for their sacrifices in building an Israeli presence under fire but now required even more heroism from them: abandoning the very homes that marked that presence. Instead, the message from Jerusalem, and from most of their fellow citizens, was that they were fanatics who were a burden on the IDF and would be thrown out. If that is the message now heard by religious settlers in the West Bank, their resistance to any future Israeli withdrawal will be that much greater.

It may seem ironic, but if Israel's leaders hope to persuade the settlers to evacuate with minimal discord and resistance, they must praise the settlement enterprise as a heroic effort that permanently changed Israel's borders rather than attacking it as a burden and a mistake. Similarly, recent statements from Washington calling the settlements - all of them - "illegitimate" are unhelpful. It would be far more useful to say, as Bush did, that there are realities on the ground that will require compromises by all parties.

In Occupation of the Territories, Breaking the Silence makes an additional argument about the settlements and their impact on Israel, namely, that occupation duty corrupts both the IDF and Israeli society itself in the task of protecting the settlers. Whatever their disagreements, this argument goes, the Israeli security forces and the settlers "at the end of the day . . . still see each other as partners in a common struggle." Breaking the Silence sees that struggle as the effort to crush the Palestinians; most Israelis would define the goal quite differently, as protecting the settlements and all of Israel against terrorism.

After all, the occupation began in June 1967, when there were no settlers to protect, and was aimed at taking control of the territory that had been conquered in war. In the 20 years before the first intifada started in 1987, the line between Israel and the West Bank was an open border. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians crossed it each day to work in Israel. Even after the first intifada, a casino opened in Jericho in 1998 to attract Israeli - both Arab and Jewish - gamblers, and several thousand typically showed up each weekend, until the second intifada began in 2000. The most common estimate is that just prior to the outbreak of the second intifada, 115,000 Palestinians - one-fourth of the Palestinian work force - traveled to Israel each day for work.

But all this changed due to terrorism. The first section of the Israeli security fence was completed in 2003, after there had been roughly 75 suicide bombings since the outbreak of the second intifada in late 2000. It was a direct response to those attacks. The activities of Shin Bet, Israel's domestic security service, and of the IDF in the West Bank are aimed at suppressing terrorism, often with cooperation from the Palestinian Authority's security forces, which at least until the Fatah-Hamas agreement of April 2011 shared the desire to weaken Hamas and other extremist groups. It is not coincidental that Breaking the Silence was itself founded in 2004, not in 1994 or 1984 or 1974, all times when the same territory was occupied by the same Israeli army and police forces. It is easy to believe that in this task of fighting terrorism there are plenty of abuses, but that does not change the nature of the mission to annexation or repression.

Breaking the Silence gets closer to the truth in suggesting that the occupation has more and more become the only prism through which Palestinians see Israelis. With the flow of businesspeople and workers into Israel drastically reduced, few Palestinians now deal with Israelis as employers or have a chance to experience normal life in Israel. Settlers and soldiers are the only Israelis they see, and Israelis no longer deal daily with West Bank Palestinians working in construction or other sectors in Israel.

This separation has had a predictably dire impact on relations between Israelis and Palestinians and on the way they see each other, but it is not the product of the occupation per se, nor of the settlements. It is the result of terrorism and the steps taken by Israel to prevent it. The IDF will stay in the West Bank even after the settlers withdraw, because the task of protecting Israel from terrorism launched from the West Bank will remain: the army was there first and in all probability will be there last.

In the end, Israel will withdraw from most of the West Bank and remain only in the major blocs where hundreds of thousands of Israelis now live. Israelis will live in a democratic state where Jews are the majority, and Palestinians will live in a state - democratic, one hopes - with an Arab Muslim majority. The remaining questions are how quickly or slowly that end will be reached and how to get there with minimal violence. Despite the view adopted by the Obama administration that all settlements are illegitimate and that construction activity in the settlements is the main obstacle to a peace deal, the facts are otherwise.

The contours of a territorial compromise are visible; the settlements beyond Israel's security barrier obviously have no future. Far more difficult complications exist as to Jerusalem, the status of Palestinian refugees and their descendants, and workable security arrangements - all problems that exist independently of the settlements and would be murderously complex even if no single settlement had ever been built.

There is no reason to believe that Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, which have failed since 1967, will magically succeed in the near future. It is often said that the outlines of an agreement have been clear for decades, or at least since Camp David. If that is true, it is equally clear that neither party is ready to accept those terms and the compromises they entail.

For Israelis, this should lead not to more complaining about Palestinian politics or leadership but to efforts to fulfill the central goal for which their state was established: to provide Jews with an opportunity to be in sovereign control of their own destiny, as Israel's founding document makes clear. The logic of the 1948 partition between a Jewish state and an Arab state still holds, and the vast majority of Israeli Jews realize that maintaining a Jewish democratic state requires separating from the 2.5 million Arabs who live in the West Bank.

This would be not a favor done for the Palestinians but a task that Israel's national interests require. In the absence of a final-status agreement, Israel can and should continue the process begun when it removed the settlements from Gaza and built the West Bank security fence. The Israeli government should offer settlers beyond that fence compensation (as it did the settlers in Gaza) to assist them in moving west; it should simultaneously assist efforts to build a decent and successful Palestinian state in every way possible.

But any such Israeli steps are unlikely in the near future due to the April agreement between Fatah and Hamas, which establishes a unity government and a joint "higher security committee." The limited cooperation that existed in the past between Israel and the Palestinian Authority on economic and security matters will now likely disappear; Israel will look to avoid assisting a new coalition that includes Hamas, and the Palestinian Authority security forces will seek to avoid confrontation with Hamas and other terrorist groups. Moreover, negotiations are impossible, as Israel will not sit at a negotiating table with Hamas, a group pledged to Israel's destruction.

The Palestinian leadership under Abbas understands all this, but it has chosen to address internal political matters, including holding new elections, rather than pursue additional cooperation or negotiations with Israel. If Abbas and his allies beat Hamas in those elections next year, perhaps they will reverse direction again - but first they must win, and then persuade Israelis to view them once more as genuine partners for peace.

In the face of this cessation of Israeli-Palestinian cooperation and peace negotiations, the issue of settlement activity will rise again in importance in many capitals, especially in Washington. In an odd way, current U.S. officials have now adopted the mirror image of the religious settlers' obsession.

The more extreme settlers believe that settling the land is more important than protecting the interests of the State of Israel. At the same time, according to current U.S. policy, getting them off that land - indeed, stopping them from placing one more brick on it - is worth badly damaging Washington's relationship with a longtime ally and putting Israel's security and reputation in jeopardy. The settlements, and the end of the settlements, are a great problem for Zionism, but they are not the obstacle to peace in the Middle East. The sooner the United States realizes that, the sounder and more constructive its Middle East policy will become.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Elliott Abrams. For more excellent long-form analysis, visit Foreign Affairs.

soundoff (20 Responses)
  1. j. von hettlingen

    "Israel's Declaration of Independence refers to "the fulfillment of an age-old dream – the redemption of Israel."
    "A return to Zion on a human, rather than a heavenly, timetable seemed almost sacrilegious."
    Elliot Abrams lives in America and can afford himself dreams and beliefs, while his people in Israel have to face the naked reality.

    July 21, 2011 at 3:03 pm | Reply
  2. Peikovian

    Centuries-old communities of Jewish people have been rendered Judenrein throughout the Near East. The Arab Muslim police states followed the example of the Nazis and attacked local Jews. The survivors abandoned homes and property to arrive in Israel. A combination of Israel's defensive strategy and a return to earlier population levels is certainly warranted.

    July 21, 2011 at 5:00 pm | Reply
    • Chanceofflight

      When have arab states attacked jews living inside the arab countries? Iran has the highest Jewish population in the region (Except Israel) and Jews even hold political office. Same with Jordan, Turkey and Egypt. Jews were protected under arab rule. Its the Zionists who came from Europe, they ruined it for them. Zionism is the same as Talibanism. They highjack a religion and use it to recruit and justify their causes, when it clearly goes against the teachings.

      September 15, 2011 at 1:14 pm | Reply
  3. Thinker23

    When you ask anyone complaining about the Israeli settlements a very simple direct question "Would there be peace if there were no settlements" the answer is usually... silence. This is a pretty good indication that those complaining about the settlements know perfectly well that if there were no settlements the enemies of Israel would find another reason to continue their hopeless war.

    July 21, 2011 at 6:30 pm | Reply
    • Kar

      Have you actually asked any Palestinian that question, or is it some hypothetical scenario you dream up to prove to yourself that Palestinian intransigence is the sole reason for the lack of a peace treaty?

      I'd venture to guess that Palestinians don't like the idea of settlers occupying places Palestinians once lived. Of course, the same argument can be used to describe the other side of the border.
      Beyond that, would you want your country's border cut up and incontiguous due to the presence of settlers? The Palestinians presumably want a country with clear borders that don't weave and wind to make space for random settlements, providing useless snippets of land.
      On the other side, as settlements increase and the economic and political costs of relocating settlers increases, there is increased resistance to plans that require relocation. The tactic of setting up small settlements and expanding into Palestinian territory has proven an effective tactic on the part of settlers to increase land that would have to be retained by Israel in event of a peace deal, so why stop?

      I'm not exactly an expert in the struggle, but it doesn't take one to realize that settlements cause problems. They increase the amount of negotiation necessary to secure lasting peace and increase both people's resistance to any peace plan.

      July 22, 2011 at 8:20 am | Reply
      • Thinker23

        You did not answer my question: Would there be peace if there were no settlements?

        It's a pretty simple question that can be answered by a simple YES or NO. You did not produce either of them. Exactly as I've predictd. Any comments?

        July 22, 2011 at 9:59 am |
      • Kar

        What I had said was that peace is more difficult due to the settlements, so In response to your new one:
        A) your question was that, when asked the question, the answer was silence. My response, while potentially many things, isn't silence.
        B) In a nutshell, it would be much more likely. The longer answer: your question is loaded, and no one with knowledge of the situation can give it a simple answer. It's totally ignorant of the fact that the settlements issue is intermingled with many other issues. It's not a simple variable you can change at random without affecting relationships between the two sides in fundamental ways.

        Now, instead of just criticizing people who identify settlements as a key issue, why not propose the one that you really think is the issue?

        July 22, 2011 at 11:22 am |
      • Thinker23

        Kar: "Silence" in response to a YES or NO question is, basically, any answer containing no YES and no NO. To answer your question (and to show you an example of a proper no-nonsense answer), THE ISSUE in the Middle East conflict is Arab racism and the terrorism that results from it. Arab racism is the main reason for the Arab refusal to recognize the right of Israel to EXIST. with or without settlements. You call my question "loaded" because you KNOW the answer and you KNOW that producing this answer will show that your earli claims were false.

        July 22, 2011 at 12:23 pm |
      • Kar

        First, silence is typically defined as not saying anything. Refer to my earlier statement.
        I call your question loaded now for a different reason: instead of just asking a question that you know is much more complicated than it first seems, you're attempting to get an oversimplified answer that's easier to attack than a rationale you haven't even addressed. I've answered your question sufficiently. The fact that you only accept one-word answers is your problem.
        In the interest of actually making this conversation productive, I will just answer your other statement. I agree: Arab dictators have unfortunately used Israel to deflect people's anger, to disastrous results to both sides. What about the Israeli corrolary (less overt, but existent nonetheless). But what you're really showing in your response is that you're shamelessly partisan; fairly extremely at that. Shifting blame hasn't gotten us anywhere in the past, and I don't see how it will get us anywhere in the future.

        July 22, 2011 at 12:44 pm |
      • Thinker23

        Kar: Inability to produce a YES or NO answer to a YES or NO question can not be cured by twisting the question or even by claiming that you've "answered" the question by dancing around it. Just to make it crystal clear I'll rephrase the question: If tomorrow Israel will remove ALL settlements, ALL military bases, ALL checkposts and will withdraw to the cease fire lines of 1949... WILL THERE BE PEACE? YES OR NO?

        July 22, 2011 at 12:58 pm |
      • Kar

        Yes, notwithstanding the few extremists on either side of the border who would keep fighting regardless of any peace plan.

        That being said, I'd be concerned about Israeli security if a deal like that were to happen.

        July 22, 2011 at 1:27 pm |
      • Thinker23

        Kar: If your answer is a YES (there WILL BE PEACE) then WHY would you be concerned about Israeli security? You're saying that THERE WILL BE PEACE, don't you? Further, if you believe that "there will be extremists on either side of the border who would keep fighting" can you elaborate on the extremists on the Israeli side of the border who kept fighting Egypt and Jordan after peace agreements with these two countries were signed?

        July 22, 2011 at 2:06 pm |
      • Kar

        Extremists on both sides of the border: Palestinian side terrorist groups are pretty clear. West Bank has been doing a good job cracking down on them, but it doesn't have nearly the monopoly of power over it's territory that Israel has. Indeed, Israel polices at least some areas of West Bank and operates with impunity when it comes to detaining/killing people deemed militants. A strong Palestine presents other perceived dangers to Israel. However, Israeli settlers are occasionally implicated in killing Palestinians, and they've gone to neighboring towns tovandalize Palestinian property.

        As for the "at peace" thing: take Singapore. It's arguably at peace with all of its neighbors. Does that stop it from ensuring that its

        July 22, 2011 at 4:54 pm |
      • Kar

        borders are secure? Does it mean that it can assume that it will be in peace with it's neighbors? No; it ensures its border security with a modern military. Israel, as it's leaders have said, needs to modify the border to ensure it can defend them against as-yet unclear foreign aggressors.

        Once again, life is rarely simple enough for one-word answers. And I'm bored now; enough back-and-forth for one article.

        July 22, 2011 at 5:08 pm |
      • Thinker23

        Kar: It's not a coincidence that "West Bank has been doing a good job cracking down on" terrorists while Gaza has been doing just the opposite. The reason for the difference is that the "cracking down on terrorists" is being done by the IDF, not by the Palestinians. Further, you did not answer my question about the "perceived dangers" to Israel WHEN THERE WILL BE PEACE and you did not answer my question about the extremists on the Israeli side of the border who kept fighting Egypt and Jordan after peace agreements with these two countries were signed. Israel did and does have a military considered to be among the five strongest armies on the planet and it will continue to maintain this status even if a peace agreement with the Palestinians will be signed. This means that a Palestinian aggression will lead to a crushing Palestinian defeat.

        July 22, 2011 at 5:22 pm |
  4. chuckles

    It amazes me that after all the horrible things the Isrealis have been through in the past that they can be very uncompassionate towards the palestinians. The jews were taken from their homes and basically robbed of any material wealth in germany during the holocaust and now the palestinians who were and are being pushed out of their homes are left in refugee camps to die slowly and poor. If Isreal wants security and no more attacks on its people then the palestinians must have economic propserity and security as well. Poverty and lack of hope for a better life for your people turns hatred into murder. The only thing the will eventually heal these wounds are generations of cooperation between the 2 sides living amongst eachother (NO GIANT WALLS TO SEGREGATE). there will definately be struggles and hate in the beginning but we cannot continue killing our brothers forever without realizing the futility of this strategy. I look at the slow erosion of hatred over race in this country as my example. It has taken a very long time (too long) but the only thing that has erased the hatred in this country is living amongst eachother and casting negative stereotypes aside and laughing at the funny ones. its a generational battle but it is the only option I see working in the longterm.

    July 22, 2011 at 5:44 am | Reply
    • Thinker23

      As long as the Palestinians are willing the war against Israel to continue it will continue and Israel will have to defend its citizens and its territory using different means including but not limited to GIANT WALLS. If and when the Palestinians will decide to NEGOTIATE a peace agreement Israel will gladly agree and then, after a coupple of generations of cooperation, when the Israelis will be convinced that it is safe to do these walls will be removed.

      July 22, 2011 at 10:03 am | Reply
    • Peikovian

      A large number of Israelis, almost half, were pushed out of their homes by Arab Muslims in the adjacent Arab Muslim countries. All of these countries are 20th Century inventions created by the division of the old Turkish province of Syria into modern Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. The West Bank originally failed to become the State of Palestine because Jordan annexed it and the Brits were opposed to a Palestinian leader who had been Hitler's WW2 ally, recruiting Muslims for the Waffen-SS. Now Gaza has revolted from the PA and chosen religious warfare. The creation of Lebanon as a haven for Christians and of Israel as a haven for Jews is because of Muslim intolerance. Whatever measures are taken to prevent Jihad attacks including settlements (which merely bring the number of Jews up to pre-explusion levels) are for the Israelis to decide.

      July 22, 2011 at 1:06 pm | Reply
  5. Mycology

    God Bless Israel

    July 22, 2011 at 1:38 pm | Reply
    • Iben

      Israel is the thorn in world peace.

      August 26, 2011 at 4:47 pm | Reply

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