Ariel: The Time-Bomb Goes Off

This week-end, the so-called settlements moratorium runs out, and the talks face--so the argument goes--their first moment of truth. Today, at the UN, President Obama called on Israel to extend the moratorium and, pushing on an open door, is rallying international opinion, the Quartet, etc., to this position. His fear, clearly, is that Abbas will walk out of the room. Netanyahu's fear is that Leiberman and/or Shas will walk out of a different room; and so his US Ambassador is trying to rally organized American Jews to prepare for the prospect of "pressure."

I don't mean to underestimate the importance of this moment. The issue of settlements has become symbolic of whether or not Netanyahu, bowing to American diplomacy, and the looming threat of economic isolation, will be prepared to move from the status quo. Nor should anyone doubt that the status quo works in favor of the settlers and their supporters, freeze or no freeze. But as I have said in this blog before, the issue itself, at least as it is posed most commonly, is overblown and even a little misleading.

THE REAL QUESTION is whether Abbas and Netanyahu can quickly get to an agreement in principle on a new border, since various negotiations over the past 10 years have gotten everyone used to the idea that the major settlement blocs around Jerusalem and Gush Etzion will be incorporated into Israel; and that a future Palestinian state will be compensated, one-for-one, with territory that is now part of Israel.

Moreover, we are talking about two city-states that are--I know I have said this often, but we can't hear it enough--about the size of greater Los Angeles: one business ecosystem, commercial relations built on networks and knowledge, not agriculture; and urban planning that will be building up, not out. (Read what Salaam Fayyad says about this at this year's Clinton forum.) This means that once we finally get to a border, nobody will much care where it is. It will have importance in determining where you vote; it will have little importance in determining how you live.

The big a stumbling block, however, is the town of Ariel. Unlike the various settlements scattered across what Greater Israel types like to call Samaria, this is a town of about 15,000 people, and Israeli leaders have simply not prepared the Israeli public for its evacuation. Even the handing over of the neighborhoods of East Jerusalem to a Palestinian state poses less of a problem. When I spoke with former Prime Minister Olmert about where his own talks with Abbas broke down in 2007, he confirmed that the issue of Jerusalem could be resolved with various formulas for internationalizing the Holy Basin, but that "no Israeli Prime Minister could return Ariel."

The Palestinians, for their part, could never be expected to live with it. The problem is not just territorial contiguity. Ariel is a serious potential disruption of the kind of urban planning people like Fayyad would have to undertake to resettle hundreds of thousands of refugees and build infrastructure (rail, telecom, water, etc.) for a future economy. The Israeli government would expect to send forces to Ariel to protect its residents, say, from the periodic attacks that would surely come from radicals who are not reconciled to peace. This means that the territory from Israel to Ariel, like the current Area C, could not be consolidated under the control of Palestinian police. Indeed, this isolated town disrupts the only transportation corridor Palestine has from Jenin and Nablus to Ramallah.

Make no mistake, nothing particularly exotic is going on behind closed doors. The positioning, on the Israeli side, is political: Netanyahu's ideological blinkers, which may or may not be falling away; or the fear of inflaming settlers who simply don't want to be moved; or the grotesque but common strategic assumption that, if Israel can get Palestinians to swallow a certain unfairness, this means that regional "deterrence" is working.

In any case, we're going to be hearing more and more about Ariel over the next several months, and wondering where the poor benighted town came from. Just remember, this is an ectopic pregnancy of a town, with no commercial hinterland or proximate cultural neighbors, the ultimate hubris of Ariel Sharon, who expanded it greatly by dumping a few thousand Russian immigrants here straight from the airport--a town with a "university" whose accreditation most Israeli academics question, and a large performing arts center where hundreds of Israeli artists refuse to perform. Still, ectopic pregnancies can be fatal when they are not dealt with early.

I suggest you acquaint yourself with Ariel, and all the facts on the ground in the Palestinian West Bank, by means of this marvelous app just released by Peace Now. Start by looking at Ariel, its size and location as compared to other settlements, and in relation to the rest of Palestine. Breathe deeply, zoom in, then look again.