OPINION: Settlements Are in the US Interest

by Patrick Goodenough

Late last year, past and present US government officials stepped up their efforts to challenge Israel over its declared policy of strengthening Jewish settlements. In a letter to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, eight former US Cabinet members described his settlement policies as "inimical to the peace process". The following Centre for Security Policy document takes issue with these American opponents of Jewish settlements.

During the Carter years, Israeli settlements were called "illegal" and "illegitimate". During the Bush-Baker period, they were described as "obstacles to peace". Clinton administration policy-makers were clearly delighted with the former Cabinet members' letter (so much so as to raise suspicions that they may have encouraged its preparation).

One unnamed "senior official" told the New York Times: "What [the authors] propose is quite consistent with our own view of the problematic nature of settlement activity".

Then, on December 16, President Clinton used his press conference with European Union leaders to join the fray. Agreeing with a questioner's characterization that Israeli settlements are "absolutely, absolutely" an "obstacle to peace", he urged Israel not to take steps that would "preempt the outcome of negotiations".

This focus on process, however, belies an implicit objection to the substance of Israel's policy: Israeli settlements make it more difficult for the Jewish state to surrender territory to Yasser Arafat and his supporters hope to transform into a sovereign Palestinian state.

But that is precisely what settlements have been intended to do under both Labour and Likud governments. Indeed, in the decade that followed the 1967 Six-Day War, no one in the Israeli body politic whether from the left or the right believed, as the Arabs maintained, that it was illegal for Jews to live in the territories. During this period, the Israeli left envisioned essentially partitioning the West Bank.

For its part, the opposition Likud believed that the disputed territories should be retained indefinitely. The principal debate was over the prudence of relinquishing areas deemed to be strategically dispensable and particularly those with large Arab populations. But both major Israeli political parties were adamantly opposed to the creation of a Palestinian state in these areas.

In the wake of the intifada, however, Labour became enthralled with the notion that land could be traded for peace. After it returned to power in 1992 (on a platform rejecting negotiations with the PLO and pledged to oppose the creation of a Palestinian state), the Rabin-Peres government quickly became frustrated when this policy failed to produce peace. Its response was to adopt a policy of unilateral withdrawal.

The implications of such a dramatic policy shift by the former government were profound. As argued by former deputy assistant secretary of defence Douglas Feith in the March 1996 edition of Middle East Quarterly: "The 'peace process' is more accurately called the 'withdrawal process'. 'Ending the occupation' and relinquishing responsibility are the key goals; peace is not. If peace develops, all to the good. If it does not, the process moves forward regardless."

Such a policy was widely admired by the State Department's Arabists. They tended to see withdrawal as the sine qua non of the 'peace process'. By definition, anything that impeded withdrawal was an impediment to that process. And, since Israeli settlements were, by design, intended to make withdrawal more difficult, they were impediments.

For this reason, among others, the last Labour government enjoyed the overt support of the present administration, and like-minded officials of previous administrations.

The unilateral withdrawal policy was ultimately rejected by the Israeli people, however, in the election last May, when Netanyahu campaigned on a platform of peace with security. A key element of his vision of security was preserving and even expanding Jewish settlements to help ensure that the disputed territories would remain under Israeli control.

Israel is at least as entitled as the Palestinians to settle in the lands of the disputed territories. In an earlier, seminal article entitled "A Mandate for Israel", which appeared in the Fall 1993 edition of The National Interest, Feith argues that the Palestine Mandate adopted by the League of Nations which "secured Jewish rights to a homeland and to 'close settlement' in Palestine" provided international recognition of the Jews' claim to territory there.

"...[Although] the Mandate distinguished between Eastern and Western Palestine...it did not distinguish between the region of Judea and Samaria and the rest of Western Palestine. No event and no armistice or other international agreement has terminated the Mandate-recognized rights of the Jewish people, including settlement rights, in those portions of the Mandate territory that have not yet come under the sovereignty of any state.
"Those rights did not expire upon the demise of the League of Nations, the creation of the UN, or the UN General Assembly's adoption of the 1947 UN Special Committee on Palestine plan for Western Palestine."

Israel is fully entitled to expand existing settlements or build new ones in the disputed territories. Netanyahu is to be commended for resisting intense international pressure in order to engage in the former and to reserve the right to undertake the latter after final status negotiations have been completed. By so doing, he is engaging in the well-established Israeli practice of strengthening its physical position in strategic regions, increasing Israel's self-defence capability and undergirding US interests in the region by enhancing the security of America's most reliable ally in the region.

It behooves the US to respect this sort of democratic choice and to refrain from statements that can only encourage the inflammatory rhetoric exhibited by Arafat. American interests will be badly served if Arafat and company conclude that their threats of renewed violence on a scale as great, if not greater than, the recent Temple Mount tunnel episode will be rewarded.

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