No way to settle the conflict

The Jews on the West Bank do not hold the key to peace; any attempt to remove them will have decidedly non-peaceful consequences


The Palestinian Arab leadership is making a real song and dance about Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria. But why? After all, these settlements are hardly at the root of the conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbours and their Islamist sponsors.

There were no such settlements between 1948 and 1967 but there was still conflict. The war launched against Israel in 1948 at the behest of the Arab League was not about settlements. It was about the Jewish right of national self-determination and the hostility of the Muslim world to the exercise of this right in an area regarded as part of the Realm of Islam.

That was what the conflict was about in 1948, 1956, 1967 and 1973. That is what the conflict is still about today.

But the reality today is not the reality of 1948, 1956, 1967 or 1973. That much, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas understands. While he is reportedly unwilling to recognise Israel as a Jewish state, he is not insisting on the fact of Israel's existence becoming an item on the peace agenda he has been discussing with Bibi Netanyahu.

The war launched against Israel in 1948 was not about settlements

Instead, Abbas is obsessing about Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria in general and, in particular, about the freeze on building within and extending these settlements.

As a matter of fact, I can tell you that some construction work continued without fuss during the recent 10-month moratorium. It is an open secret that the Abbas government has signalled its agreement in principle to a land-swap, whereby many Jewishly settled areas in Samaria and Judea would remain within Israeli jurisdiction as part of a final peace treaty.

In this sense, the Palestinian President's opposition to settlement construction is nothing more than a device - a manufactured distraction that he hopes will boost his image in the Muslim world, make him appear a tough negotiator and give him the excuse, should he deem one necessary, to leave the peace talks altogether, putting the blame squarely on Israel for their collapse.

Attending a recent "off-the-record" briefing, I was more than mildly surprised at the gullibility of some of my colleagues, who simply did not comprehend the problems that any Israeli government would face were it, in a moment of weakness or stupidity, to agree to dismember the West Bank settlements.

Withdrawing from Gaza was relatively simple: around 8,000 Jews were browbeaten into moving back into Israel, where their treatment is a national disgrace - many are still living in makeshift accommodation. In Judea and Samaria, there are around 300,000 Jews. Moving them would be an altogether different proposition.

Last May, the Oxford Research Group, an independent think tank, published a report (Pariahs to Pioneers) that attempted to address these difficulties. It pointed out that the Jewish communities of Samaria and Judea must not be thought of as a homogenous group. It identified 20 per cent of the settlers as "secular", attracted to the West Bank by the quality of life that it offers; some of these (it claimed) were already on the move westwards. Another 29 per cent were anti-Zionist "ultra-Orthodox," attracted (the report argued) by cheap, subsidised housing. A further 40 per cent were "ideological" settlers, many of whom (the report admitted) might not be seduced by any carrot, no matter how large, or subdued by any stick, no matter how heavy. These unfortunates might simply be abandoned within a new, secular Palestinian state.

I want to say, for the record, that I respect the ORG for its courage in searching for peaceful solutions to seemingly intractable problems. Equally, however, I am appalled by its naivety.

Yes, some West Bankers will be prompted to move by a generous compensation package. It is my belief that most will not. Some West Bankers will succumb to the blackmail inherent in the threat of abandonment. It is my belief that many will stand and fight. Any Israeli government that attempts to remove them by force risks igniting an insurrection bordering on, and quite possibly resulting in, civil war.

But, in any case, to see the settlers as a series of human targets that can be "picked off" is to betray a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the Jewish presence on the West Bank.

The fact is that, economically and industrially, the West Bank settlements have become an integral and vital component of the Jewish state. Netanyahu understands this. So (I suspect) does Abbas. But not, alas, the worthies of the Oxford Research Group.

    Last updated: 10:35am, October 7 2010