The Settlement Freeze: Painted Into a Corner?

The deadline on Israel’s “settlement freeze” has come and gone. On the West Bank, construction crews are gearing back up and the settler celebrations have begun. Abbas is mulling over his options with the Arab League.  Once again, the peace process seems to be hanging by a thread.

For their part, many analysts are now using a “painted into a corner” metaphor to dissect the impact of the settlement freeze. Israeli analyst Nahum Barnea, for instance, recently opined that,

Three politicians – Barack Obama, Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas – painted themselves into a corner and didn’t know how to get out of it.

And none other than King Abdullah of Jordan said this on the Daily Show last week:

We all got painted into a corner on the issue of settlements, unfortunately, and where we should have concentrated was on territories and the borders of a future Israeli-Palestinian two-state solution.

It’s bewildering to me that the issue of settlements can somehow considered to be a pesky distraction to the peace process. How can talks on “territories and borders” proceed with anything resembling good faith if one side settles these disputed areas with impunity and the “honest broker” to the proceedings refuses to rein it in?  How can we be expected to take such a process seriously?

We already know that one of the main reasons for Oslo’s failure was the inability to deal with the settlement issue directly.  As a result, Israel took that as an opportunity to significantly expand its settlement regime during the course of the “peace process.” This has brought us to where we are today: in the wake of Oslo more than 500,000 settlers now live throughout the West Bank in settlements and small cities, with special Israeli-only highways that effectively cut Palestinian territories into individual cantons separated by military checkpoints.

Have we learned nothing from past experience? Here’s lesson #1: the settlements are not a side issue. The Israel’s settlement of the West Bank and East Jerusalem are – and have always been – a central obstacle to the peace process. Until it is made to cease and desist, I can’t see how the latest round of talks can be considered anything but a charade.

16 thoughts on “The Settlement Freeze: Painted Into a Corner?

  1. Cotton Fite

    What is difficult to understand is how most official pronouncements and editorials in this country continue to “encourage” Mr. Netanyahu to extend the freeze but at the same encourage Mr. Abbas not to leave the talks, ignoring the inherent inequity in the situation. While the Palestinians talked for 17 years, the settlements doubled in size. The U.S. should back up its encouragement of Mr. Netanyahu with significant consequences if the freeze is not reinstated. Its an old analogy, but still apt. How would we like to negotiate with someone for a sip of water from a glass, now half empty, from which the other continues to drink?

  2. Steve

    Israel and Netanyahu are not backed into a corner. There is no advantage to Israel for extending the deadline. Obama, Abbas and even Jordan’s Abdullah coild be considered backed into a corner. This is called negotiations. Israel is thankfully not desperate for the so called peace process. Maybe the other side is more desperate. Instead of placing pressure on Israel why don’t we wait and see what the other side is willing to do for the so called peace. This includes the Gulf States as well.

  3. Miriam

    I agree with Cotton. All this is rather simple: how can those who claim to want peace continue to build on others’ (future) land? Additionally, Israel acts as though the settlement building must continue immediately, as though there is no room within Israel. This is a myth – there is plenty of room (ironically on the very ‘forests’ that Israel built over destroyed Arab villages) for many people to build and return.

  4. Brian Walt

    Dear Brant,

    Once again, thanks for your cogent analysis of the peace process. I am at World Council of Churches meeting in Geneva where I heard Afif Safieh, former Palestinian representative to the U.S., Holy See, UK. I first met Afif when he spoke in Beth Israel, a small Reconstructionist congregation in Delaward County, PA. He still holds a position in the Palestinian Authority so he must support the peace process but talking with him confirmed for me that your analysis is accurate. He still believes in a two state solution but doesn’t know how it is possible given all that has happened, especially the vast Jewish settlement. This was the goal of the settlers and of all the Israeli governments that supported the enterprise, left and right. They have met their goal. A two state solution is politically impossible now. I can’t see how Palestinians will get a viable state. I think the plan even by Bibi and the right wing is to establish a state, but it will a little, but not much, better than Gaza.

    A bantustan. I lived with such “independent states” in my younger years in South Africa.

    Thanks again for being one of the few rabbis prepared to tell the truth even when it is painful and uncomfortable.


  5. Y. Ben-David

    This whole argument about the settlements (and I am using the term as you are in meaning settlements built in the territories captured in the Six-Day War) and the freeze is one gigantic distraction from the real issues. The settlements are not and never have been an impediment to peace. Israel removed all the settlements from the Sinai in 1982 and the Gaza Strip in 2005 without any real opposition. As someone who was deeply involved in the struggle against Sharon’s destruction of Gush Katif, I can tell you that the top leaders of the settlement movement and their political leaders all quietly supported Sharon and blocked any attempt to allow a non-violent civil disobedience campaign even though many of us felt it was justified because Sharon refused to get any sort of public ratification for the move either by calling general elections or a national referendum.
    Thus, the Palestinans have no one but themselves to blame if they don’t like the growth of the settlements. They can remove every last one TODAY simply by the stroke of a pen. But this will only happen if the Palestinians are willing to make a similarly major concession-GIVING UP THE RIGHT OF RETURN OF THE REFUGEES. If Abbas were to announce that he was willing to give it up in return for a COMPLETE withdrawal of Israel to the pre-67 lines, he would get it, even from a “Right-wing” coalition like that Netanyahus. Recall that it was “Right-wing” Likud governments that destroyed all the settlements in the Sinai and Gaza Strip. The whole world would say “see, they are offering you real peace, how can you turn it down?”.
    But this is not the situation. The Palestinians are NOT offering a realistic peace plan that the Israeli government, or the US and other Western countries can accept, for that matter. What we keep hearing from the Palestinian Authority and other supposedly “moderate” Palestinians is a list of non-negotiable demands that Israel can never agree to. Since this whole Oslo “peace process” started 20 years ago, there has never been a single real negotiation session, simply the Palestinians telling the Americans to pass on their non-negotiable demands to the Israeli and the Israelis passing on their suggestion and increasingly major (but still inadequate) concessions back to the Palestinians.
    A good example of this was Olmert’s admission that he agreed in his negotations with Abbas to give up Israeli control of ALL Jewish holy sites in east Jerusalem and Judea/Samaria (the “West Bank”) including the Western Wall. Olmert is hinting to us that Palestinian demands for a COMPLETE withdrawal to the pre-67 lines is non-negotiable, but he is attempting to water it down regarding the Jewish holy places into removing Israeli control but not giving it formally to the Palestinians but rather to a “neutral” body who would act in the Palestinians name. This body would include “neutral” countries like Saudi Arabia who would not worry too much about Jewish rights of access once the inevitable friction at the sites would appear (e.g. the Muslims claim the Western Wall as a MUSLIM holy site that has tolerated Jewish prayer over the years, but a return to the status-quo restrictions on Jewish rights that existed in the British Mandatory period would be demanded, including prohibiting blowing the shofar). Olmert assumed that the Palestinians would be like the women in the case King Solomon judged in which both claimed a baby as being theirs. Solomon realized one of the women didn’t really want the baby, but simply didn’t want the other woman to have it. Olmert figures that not letting the Israelis control the Western Wall will satisfy the Palestinians, but this is an illusion-the Palestinians will demand, full, formal control.
    Thus, we see the settlements aren’t the problem…it is the Palestinians insistence on unreasonable, non-negotiable terms that are blocking an agreement. It seems that they refuse the accept Israel’s existence at all. It is not “1967” that is the problem, it is “1948”. Israelis are not going to agree to open up the “1948 file”. Abbas has continually insisted he will not compromise on any issues. Thus, the address for complaints about inflexibility should be addressed to them, not the Israelis.

    1. Muhannad

      So if you talk about the right of return of the refugees, who were forced out of own homes, you are the reason the illegal settlements continue to grow.
      Talking about your legal right is the reason for the illegal action of the settlers and the state of Isreal.
      I do not understand your logic.

      1. Richard Kahn

        I’ll explain his logic:
        P1: If the Palestinians don’t give up a right to return, there cannot be a peaceful solution
        P2: If there is no peaceful solution, settlements will continue to exist.
        Conclusion: Therefore, the Palestinians’ refusal to give up the right of return is related to continued settlement growth.

        Granted, it’s not really a fair argument, as blame should generally be placed on those immediately responsible. Also, one could reasonably dispute P2 and unreasonably dispute P1, but this is clearly a valid argument. It’s not illogical.

      2. Muhannad

        You state that it is not a fair argument, but you insist it is valid.
        So valid arguments does not have to be fair?
        P1 and P2 not only do not make sense, they are not even related to each other.
        The state of Israel caused the refugees issues. It is time to take responsibility for own action,not blame the victims.
        Believe me there is enough space and resources for everybody, we just need to make room in our hearts.

    2. Shirin

      Richard Kahn, your logic is so deeply and variously flawed it is difficult to know where to begin. For starters, for logic to be valid it needs to be based on fact, and yours is completely devoid of fact.

      1. Richard Kahn

        I apologize that I’m using technical logical terms, but most people don’t realize that logic is actually a science, and logic is a subject that I believe everyone should study.

        A valid argument is an argument in which if the premises are true, the conclusion must be true – there is no situation in which the premises can all be true but the conclusion false.
        A sound argument is a valid argument in which all of the premises are also true.

        Whether it’s fair is irrelevant to both its validity and its soundness. It is often the case that one can logically argue that someone demanding his rights causes problems. Note that this can be 100% true without us making the normative conclusion that this person should give up his rights.
        You may think that P1 and P2 are wrong, but they certainly make sense, and they most certainly are related to each other. The consequent of P1 is the antecedent of P2.

        For an argument to be valid, it does not need to be based on fact. The argument I presented above is:
        P1: If A, then B.
        P2: If B, then C.
        Therefore, if A then C.
        This is very clearly valid, and it doesn’t matter whether A, B, or C are based on fact at all. It doesn’t even matter if (If A, then B) is based on fact. You can plug in any proposition for A, B, and C, and the argument will still be valid. A, B, and C could literally be any proposition, and the argument would still be valid.

        What both of you may be objecting to is the soundness. You might claim that one of the premises is false. I think that you’re wrong (especially about P1), but it’s an argument that can be had. An argument that can’t be had is whether the argument as presented by YBD and explained by me is valid. It is valid.

  6. Ross

    For some reason the peace process reminds me of this story.
    The King’s economist had made several false predictions and was brought before the king for execution. The economist threw himself on the king’s mercy and said if you give me a year I will teach your horse to fly. The king decided he had nothing to loose and told the economist that if at the end of a year he had not succeeded in teaching his horse to fly he would then be executed. The economist was sent to the dungeon and for an hour each day he was taken out to the king’s stables where the stable hand would watch him jump up and down and flap his arms in front of the king’s horse. One day the stable hand finally asked him “Do you really think you can teach the king’s horse to fly?” The economist answered as he continued to flap his arms in front of the horse, “A lot could happen in a year. The king could change his mind and let me go. The economy could turn around and my predictions prove true after all. The king could die and the new king could let me go. There could be a revolution and the new rulers could let me go. Plus, I have a whole year. Who knows? Maybe I can teach this horse to fly.”

  7. Shai Gluskin

    The subtext to all this is that the only card the Palestinians have to play in the wake of the breakdown, is violence.

    Consequence for Israel with end of talks: handslapping from U.S., a tad more alienation from the world.

    Consequence for the PA: once again they show to their people that they can’t deliver. No State, no self-determination, no dignity.

    Israel is inviting more terrorism. What other choice do the Palestinians have short of capitulation?

    I totally agree with Brant that the PA had to hold firm on the settlement issue. They are so week, they have to gain even a bit of strength at the table. Imbalance of power makes negotiating just that much more difficult.

    Look at what Netanyahu is squeezing out of the US in order to get a pitiful, basic “few months” extension on a settlement freeze. From Ha’artez tonight: “U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke with Netanyahu twice on the telephone Monday to discuss the proposal, which would include U.S. guarantees over core issues in the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians on issues including refugees, security arrangements and Israel’s status as a Jewish state. In return for the American guarantees, Israel would extend the suspension of construction in West Bank settlements for several more months… [as source said that] Netanyahu was not impressed by the proposal and did not give a positive response to it.”

    The only hope is for Obama’s buttons to get pushed and for him to take a real political risk and demand compliance from Israel. Given the election season… I’m not hopeful.

  8. Stewart Mills

    Indeed Brant the current negotiations are doomed to fail because the ground work and heart is not there. The Likud Party still maintains on its policy platform for a one state solution (ie a Greater Israel with limited self-rule for Palestinians. Netanyahu’s coalition will implode if any meaningful steps are made on stopping settlement construction (let alone their removal). Psychologically the mainstream Israeli public can only to see terror around ever corner and directs blame exclusively on Palestinian shoulders (the Y Ben David view).

    The one positive event this week was the Jewish contingent who made an attempt to sail to Gaza; including the likes of Yonatan Shapira. Stopped of course. Let us pray for their safety and early release.

    1. Mary Tappero

      According to update on

      Update: We just got word that Lillian Rosengarten and other passengers on the Jewish boat to Gaza are being held in Ashdod, Israel. “Shaken but OK.”

      Bless them all for their courage and dedication.


Leave a Reply to Miriam Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s