January begins with tension between Israel and the United States. The American decision to allow the UN Security Council to condemn Israeli settlements – including Jewish neighbourhoods in parts of Jerusalem – and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent speech on Israel have proven polarizing and unhelpful to the cause of peace.
This is not to dismiss the fact that settlements are contentious, as shown in the diversity of opinion among Israelis and Jewish Canadians on this issue. There is room within the pro-Israel community for respectful disagreement over the long-term status of settlements. But whatever one’s view, we must all challenge the simplistic assertion that settlements are the core issue.
Recent American actions distract from the primary barrier to peace: Palestinian intransigence and rejectionism. Despite repeated Israeli offers, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas refuses to negotiate without precondition, and endures little global criticism for doing so. Nor has Abbas been held accountable for refusing to recognize the right of the Jewish people to self-determination, despite Israeli leaders supporting two states for two peoples.
Affirming Israel’s legitimacy as a Jewish homeland would signal in clear terms that the Palestinians are ready for genuine peace. Without this recognition, peace is difficult if not impossible. With it, enormous possibilities emerge – including the resolution of settlements and all other issues through a comprehensive peace accord.
On settlements, we must look beyond the headlines to the nuanced realities on the ground. In the eyes of the UN, “settlements” is a broad category encompassing the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, large suburbs within or near Jerusalem (settlement blocs), and small communities closer to Palestinian cities. The vast majority of those who are considered settlers live within Jerusalem or blocs close to the Green Line.
Kerry neglected to mention that, since 2000, Israel has accepted three proposals that would have established a Palestinian state. The third would have transferred 6.3 per cent of the West Bank to Israel – allowing 80 per cent of settlers to remain in their homes – and compensated the Palestinians with an equal amount of land from within Israel’s pre-1967 borders. The Palestinian leadership walked away from these deals without counter-offer.
‘we must all challenge the simplistic assertion that settlements are the core issue’
In 2010, Israel froze all settlement construction beyond Jerusalem for 10 months, an unprecedented gesture to spur talks. Abbas responded by refusing to negotiate for all but the final month, after which he left the table.
Israeli construction has since been largely confined to Jerusalem and the blocs. While methods of counting differ, Peace Now (no fan of settlements) notes that tenders were issued for 1,143 homes over the Green Line in 2015, including 583 in Jerusalem and 264 in the large blocs. Contrary to Kerry’s disingenuous insinuation, there is no massive land grab across the West Bank. The vast majority of settler population growth was due to births rather than movement of people.
But this is beside the point. Settlements, like many other issues – water, security, energy, etc. – must be resolved in direct negotiations. The vocal singling out of settlements clouds the path to peace by distracting from the need for a peace process based on mutual responsibility and mutual recognition.
The soft bigotry of low expectations toward Palestinians has plagued the international community, which shows little interest in urging the Palestinian leadership to do its part for peace. Given decades of incitement and Palestinian calls for a “phased liberation”, in which Israel will be conquered after the West Bank and Gaza, the Palestinian leadership must affirm the right of the Jewish people to a secure state in our ancestral land. What’s the alternative: a “peace” in which Palestinians continue to teach their children to seek our destruction and brand us as colonizers?
Despite Palestinian rejectionism, Israelis still want peace. The day of Kerry’s speech, a study revealed 61 per cent of Israelis favour a two-state solution. Sadly, this cannot happen without a Palestinian leader willing to acknowledge the existential rights of the Jewish people.
Shimon Koffler Fogel is CEO of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA).