Will Israel's new government face American demands for a settlement freeze? If so, we are headed for a needless confrontation with the Netanyahu cabinet.
There is wide consensus that the main obstacle to an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement is settlement activity -- new construction in the communities beyond the "Green Line," as the border of Israel from the 1949 armistice until the 1967 war is known. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has called settlement activity "the greatest obstacle" to peace, former president George W. Bush called it an "impediment" to peace, and the international "quartet" -- the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations -- has criticized settlement activity in virtually all of its joint statements.
There is also wide agreement on the antidote: a "settlement freeze," imposed to make peace possible. Consider: In a speech in Washington last February, Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad said that "what is most desperately required is a cessation of all settlement activity in order to preserve the very possibility of a negotiated two-state solution." The 2001 Mitchell Report said Israel should "freeze all settlement activity, including the 'natural growth' of existing settlements," a conclusion that gained more importance when George Mitchell, the former senator who wrote the report, was named President Obama's Middle East negotiator.
Certainly the establishment of Israeli settlements in the West Bank after 1967 (by Labor and Likud governments) created conditions that complicate negotiations. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis now live beyond the Green Line, and the intense debate in Israel over then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's removal of fewer than 9,000 settlers from Gaza suggests that removing settlements from the West Bank will be even more controversial and difficult.
But those settlements exist, and there is no point in debating whether it was right to build them. President Bush largely resolved the issue of the major settlement blocs in a 2004 letter to Sharon. He stated a truth that Palestinians have come to recognize: "In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli populations centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949, and all previous efforts to negotiate a two-state solution have reached the same conclusion. It is realistic to expect that any final status agreement will only be achieved on the basis of mutually agreed changes that reflect these realities."
So the real issue is not past settlement activity but the demand for a settlement freeze. Is current and recent settlement construction creating insurmountable barriers to peace? A simple test shows that it is not. Ten years ago, in the Camp David talks, Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered Yasser Arafat approximately 94 percent of the West Bank, with a land swap to make up half of the 6 percent Israel would keep. According to news reports, just three months ago, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert offered 93 percent, with a one-to-one land swap. In the end, under the January 2009 offer, Palestinians would have received an area equal to 98 to 98.5 percent of the West Bank (depending on which press report you read), while 10 years ago they were offered 97 percent. Ten years of settlement activity would have resulted in a larger area for the Palestinian state.
How is this possible? For one thing, most settlement activity is in those major blocs that it is widely understood Israel will keep. For another, those settlements are becoming more populated, not geographically larger. Most settlement expansion occurs in ways that do not much affect Palestinian life. While the physical expansion of settlements may take land that Palestinians own or use, and may interfere with Palestinian mobility or agricultural activity, population growth inside settlements does not have that effect. For the past five years, Israel's government has largely adhered to guidelines that were discussed with the United States but never formally adopted: that there would be no new settlements, no financial incentives for Israelis to move to settlements and no new construction except in already built-up areas. The clear purpose of the guidelines? To allow for settlement growth in ways that minimized the impact on Palestinians.
Israel has largely, but not fully, kept to those rules; there has been physical expansion in some places, and the Palestinian Authority is right to object to it. Israeli settlement expansion beyond the security fence, in areas Israel will ultimately evacuate, is a mistake: It wastes Israeli resources and needlessly antagonizes the Palestinians who live nearby. But the overall impact of such recent activity -- as Olmert's proposal to Abbas showed -- has not undermined Israel's ability to negotiate peace and offer a territorial compromise.
Settlement activity is not diminishing the territory of a future Palestinian entity. In fact, the emphasis on a "settlement freeze" draws attention from the progress that's needed to lay the foundation for full Palestinian self-rule -- building a thriving economy, fighting terrorism through reliable security forces and establishing the rule of law. A "settlement freeze" would not help Palestinians face today's problems or prepare for tomorrow's challenges. The demand for a freeze would have only one quick effect: to create immediate tension between the United States and Israel's new government. That may be precisely why some propose it, but it is also why the Obama administration should reject it.
The writer, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, was the deputy national security adviser overseeing Near East and North African affairs in the George W. Bush administration.
This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.