Total Settlement Freeze? No, A Border.

Anticipating Bibi's speech, his coalition partners and Likud officials are flooding Israeli radio with interviews, insisting that settlements are not an obstacle to peace; that “natural growth” is, well, natural (“should parents tell their children they have to live elsewhere?”). Their claims will strike the ears of informed Americans the way old cigarette commercials do. You blush for people who think others this gullible, or wishful, or hooked. For my part, I have been waiting for an American government to insist on a total settlements freeze for over 30 years. One didn’t have to be a genius to see the danger.

Still, there is something about the anticipated stand-off between Netanyahu and the Obama administration that makes me queasy. Had Ronald Reagan, following Jimmy Carter's lead, demanded a total freeze in 1980, then we would have had something. Today the demand reminds me of the Steve Martin bit about the implacable customer at a restaurant who, having waited too long for his dinner, complains to the ma├«tre d' that he can be appeased only by being served his steak “15 minutes ago.”

Sure, Obama needs to make a clear break with the past, indeed, to make a show of force to Israeli rightists. But insisting on a total freeze today, when settlements have turned into substantial towns full of mobilized youth—towns whose residents should be understood as on a scale somewhere between Pat Robertson and David Koresh—seems false. The real goal is a fair, recognized border between two states as soon as possible, so that both sides will know how to plan. Focusing on a total freeze means insisting on the symbol, which cannot seriously be delivered, and deferring the fight over what is symbolized, which will require a hard line from America and the world anyway.

We are supposed to be telling truth to one another, you see, and the truth about these goddamn settlements is that the June 4, 1967 border is no longer feasible, even if the principle of setting a border on the basis of June 4th. is. The only hope is for America to come out, now, for the principle of a 1:1 land swap to achieve geographical area for Israel and Palestine equal to what existed on June 4; to appoint an international commission to suggest a map. This map will need time to sink in. And it will be a way to reconcile the Arab League peace initiative to the difficulties of moving settlers back into Israel.

OUT OF THE half million Israelis who live over the Green Line, about 400,000 live in densely packed communities, more or less contiguous with Israel (like Gush Etzion), or in suburbs of Jerusalem (like Gilo). Some 75-100,000 live in outlying settlements scattered around Hebron and between Ramallah and Nablus. It is these latter settlers who will have to be returned to Israel. The former are obviously staying put.

But just getting the outliers resettled will take years, just like moderating Hamas and rehabilitating the Palestine Authority, reviving Gaza, and so forth, will take years. The IDF and Israeli police could never muster enough boots on the ground to simply move these settlers by force—anyway, a good part of the IDF’s officers sympathize with settlement. If the government tried force, even just to halt construction in Gush Etzion, the settlers would almost certainly commit provocations against neighboring Palestinians that would get Israel’s Arab citizens up in arms. In this polarized situation, we’d be a step away from Balkan-style violence.

Indeed, to get these people out eventually, you have to 1) politically marginalize them, that is, create a conflict of interest between settlers who fall within an agreed border and those more fanatic types falling outside it; 2) induce them to return to agreed settlements or to within the Green Line with time-limited financial compensation; 3) threaten them with power and water cuts on this or that date; and, these measures failing, 4) remove them by siege and, if necessary, force. This is going to be very hard. The IDF should require NATO forces to replace its own forces as it withdraws.

In other words, Obama should use the dispute over a settlements freeze as an occasion to rally the world community to drawing up a permanent border, something along the lines of the one offered in the Geneva Initiative, where Palestinian representatives and Israel peace activists themselves understood the need for a new border—and international forces to help secure it. Obama should make clear that a border is not Israel’s internal affair. That, for example, the world will never recognize the town of Ariel as part of a future Israel (Olmert insisted that it is, which is among the reasons his talks with Abbas went nowhere). A strong sense of where America wants the border would be an early win for the peace process, which could unlock many other possibilities.

I KNOW THAT my Palestinian friends will find anything less than a total freeze infuriating. Every new apartment feels like a new slap in the face, a continuing insinuation that their tragedy doesn’t matter or never happened. In this sense the settlements are not just an obstacle to peace but the continuing cause for hatred and war. After all, Israel conquered something like an area equal to the West Bank during the 1948 war, declared its 400 Arab villages abandoned and more or less leveled them, preventing its 750,000 residents from returning. It then settled the new lands with about a million and half Jewish refugees of its own: survivors from Europe and people expelled from Arab states. In the 1920s and 30s, land purchases by the Jewish National Fund from absentee landlords—for example, from Beirut's Sursok family in the Valley of Jezreel—led to the displacement of tens of thousands of farmer peasants.

So according to the Palestinians, or shall we say (in nice post-modern language) the Palestinian narrative, the settlement project since 1967 only seems more of the same. Likud people, for their part, respond that there were no West Bank settlements before 1967, and Arab countries threatened attack anyway—as if Israelis were ever reconciled to Palestinian rights when Palestinians did not prove that they could not be overwhelmed militarily. Likud people also insist that if the Zionists are wrong to settle around Hebron now then they were wrong to settle around Haifa in the 1930s—a view breathtaking in its shallowness. As I've implied here before, we’d cheer Javert for hunting down Jean Valjean if, after the latter became a mayor, he continued stealing candlesticks.

NEVERTHELESS, VIRTUALLY ALL Palestinians I know are prepared to say what Obama said, that, tragically, the Naqba resulted from the Jews’ European tragedy, and that they will compromise on the 1967 border—so long as a way can be found to compensate and resettle the original refugees of 1948 in a Palestinian state—indeed, so long as the futures of Israel and Palestine are linked to larger federal arrangements. These two city-states cannot be disentangled economically or in almost any other way. We need a border even if five years after it is drawn hardly anyone will care where it is, except when elections are called.

And Obama is right to prevent any new settlement projects from being added to the 160 that already exist—right to insist that Israel remove new outposts, or prevent building that fills in the gaps between existing settlements; prevent projects that compromise still further East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state.

Yet it is unimaginable to get a total construction freeze across the Green Line today. We need a border and we cannot depend on new negotiations to produce it. The original border between Israel and the aborted Palestinian state was produced by UNSCOP, not by negotiation. Something like a new international commission, reporting to George Mitchell, should go to work. The Roadmap is fine and well, but what good is it without a driver?