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The Role of the Settlements in the Peace Process

The role of the settlements in the context of the current conflict, and in the contentious issue of applying the “Road Map” to future peace negotiations, is perhaps the most complex and difficult issue to deal with. This is precisely because Arab propaganda has been so effective in establishing as axiomatic that the settlements are:

  1.  Illegal

  2. A symptom of Israel’s intent on conquest of Palestinian land and are thus inherently an obstacle to peace

  3. A harbinger of Israel’s permanent occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and hence make territorial compromise impossible

  4. Signal Israel’s inherently obvious unwillingness to negotiate a fair peace.

Therefore, it will be most useful to look at these Arab contentions, and see how they correspond to historical reality.

  • Are the settlements illegal? We have already seen that they are not.

  • Are the settlements an obstacle to peace? From 1949-1967 there were no settlements in the West Bank or Gaza Strip. Nor was there peace.

  • Arab belligerence was unrelated to West Bank and Gaza settlements.

The settlements to which the Arabs objected at that time were Tel Aviv, Haifa, Hadera, Afula, etc.

In June, 1967, immediately after the Six Day War, and before there were any Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Israel proposed its dramatic peace initiative both at the UN and in sub rosa talks with Jordan. This initiative was rejected by all Arab states and the PLO at the Khartoum Conference in August-September, 1967. The obstacle to peace was the very existence of Israel, not settlements in the West Bank.

In 1979, as part of the accord with Egypt, Israeli settlements in Sinai were evacuated. In the context of a peace treaty, settlements are negotiable, can be, and were, dismantled.

In 1979, as part of the accord with Egypt, Israel froze settlement expansion for three months, in order to encourage entry of Jordan into the Egypt-Israel peace process. Jordan refused. The freezing of settlements did not stimulate peaceful interaction. Arafat (then engaged in creating a terrorist state in south Lebanon) was invited to join Egypt at the peace talks, and this settlement freeze was intended to encourage his participation. He refused. The existence of settlements in Sinai did not interfere with the Israel-Egypt peace accords; and the freeze on settlement activities did not encourage Jordan or the PLO to enter into peace accords.

In 1994, Jordan signed a peace treaty with Israel, while settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip were growing in size and increasing in number. The existence and expansion of the settlements in no way impaired the peace process with Jordan.

Do the settlements make territorial compromise impossible? The accords discussed at Madrid, Wye, Oslo and Taba all include the acknowledgement that settlements (a few, some, many, probably not all) will be dismantled in the context of a peace agreement.

Those accords were discussed while settlements were expanding.

Settlements did not impede negotiation then.

Currently, about 250,000 Jews live in a total of 144 communities scattered through the West Bank and Gaza Strip. 80% of them could be brought within Israel’s pre-1967 borders with only a very minor rearranging of “green line” boundaries.

Part of Barak’s offer to Arafat in 2000 was the exchange of land such that the Palestinians would be compensated for the small number of settlements that would not be dismantled by the ceding of Israeli land within the pre-1967 boundaries to the Palestine National  Authority.

This offer was in addition to the approximately 95% of all the disputed land in the West Bank and 100% of the territory in Gaza which were to be under the control of the Palestinian Authority. Arafat rejected this offer, much to the surprise and chagrin of President Clinton.

Does Israel’s violation of international accords by building the settlements show Israel’s unwillingness to negotiate a fair peace? In regard to the Geneva Convention and UN Resolution 242, we have seen that the settlements do not constitute violations of international law. Therefore, this argument is a red herring.

The Camp David accords called for a 3-month moratorium on settlements. Prime Minister Menahem Begin kept this agreement.

The Oslo Accords say nothing about settlements. It was tacitly and informally agreed upon that a moratorium on settlements would be one of 16 “confidence building” measures that Israel and the PNA would undertake. The provision about not changing the “status” of the territories refers to the agreement that neither side would unilaterally annex the areas (or declare them an independent state).

In the presence of glaring, overt, and provocative violations of every one of the Oslo Accords by the Palestine National Authority almost immediately after its signing, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s government felt itself under no obligation to maintain the tacit informal agreement. Since the Palestine National Authority was not building confidence by ending terrorist attacks (it was actually behind them), why should Israel compromise its security and position for future negotiation?

While Israel has built a total of 144 settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, more than 260 new Palestinian settlements have been constructed. These serve as testimony to the flourishing of the West Bank’s economy and the growth of Palestinian population under Israeli control (1967-1994), contrary to the Arab allegations that Israel has perpetrated genocide and crippled the economy of the West Bank.

By what logic would anyone suggest that these Palestinian settlements are any less a threat to negotiations or a change of status of the territories than are the Israeli ones?

Summing up: All the settlements except those of the rogue variety are legal. Their growth and expansion have contributed substantially to the economic improvement of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

When there were no settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, no territorial compromises or peace settlements were reached. Later territorial compromises and peace agreements have been reached despite the existence of settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Israel’s settlements violate no international accords. Therefore, it is irrational to suggest that Israeli settlement in the West Bank and Gaza Strip prevent peace. Rather, it is the unwillingness of the Palestine National Authority to control the Arab terror groups, to stop the incitement and to negotiate honestly, that makes compromise impossible.

What About Unilateral Withdrawl? Part of the intent in creating “uvdot bashetakh” (facts in the field) was to create “bargaining chips” for future negotiations. They are one of the issues that Israel will negotiate. That is clearly what Netanyahu and Barak had in mind when they encouraged settlement expansion following Arafat’s violations of the Oslo Accords. There is no rational justification for a one-sided curtailment of population growth when the other side maintains a state of war despite the agreement to curtail violence.

The security needs that prompted the Alon Plan and militarily warranted settlements still exist; especially in light of the surge of terror activities sponsored openly by Hamas and at least 9 other terror groups operating in Israel. In addition, these needs exist in light of many terrorist factions and Arab states that refuse to consider any peace with Israel, that continue to perpetrate Jew-hatred in media and education, and that continue to promulgate the goals of Hamas and other terror groups for the total destruction of Israel. The settlements and IDF presence in the major Arab population clusters of the West Bank reduce substantially the ability of terror groups to successfully launch their attacks. Unilateral withdrawal enhances the ability of the terror groups to wage terror war.

Any unilateral dismantling of settlements is likely to be interpreted by the Palestine National Authority and terrorist leadership as a victory for terrorism. This, in fact, is exactly what has happened  following Prime Minister Sharon’s decision to unilaterally dismantle Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip and at the northern part of the West Bank. Terrorist spokespersons rejoice in the apparent success of their terror activity, which they claim is the real motivator for Sharon’s decision, while official Palestinian spokespersons suggest that the unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip is just another Israeli deception. According to their logic, instead of being a real concession to the Palestinian demand for national self-determination, the unilateral withdrawal is actually aimed at distracting the world and the Palestinian leadership so that Sharon can strengthen his hold on the West Bank and continue to expand Jewish settlement there.

After Oslo, Netanyahu abandoned any thought of a settlement freeze because the Palestine National Authority made clear its intent to disregard Oslo and pursue a policy of unrelenting terror. It is believed by some that part of his purpose in creating more settlements was to send Arafat a clear signal: ‘If you keep doing your anti-Oslo behavior, the area that you are likely to end up with as a Palestinian state is going to get smaller and smaller.’ Sounds logical, especially since a military response may have been justified but would have caused world outrage. It didn’t work, even though a number of Palestinian intellectuals and political leaders (most notably, Elyas Freij, mayor of Bethlehem, quoted in the Washington Post in l991) publicly advocated negotiation because the growth of Israeli settlements in the West Bank made it clear that “time is on Israel’s side now”.

It did not work, probably, because Arafat never intended to negotiate. He always intended to perpetrate his long-dreamed final solution of the total destruction of Israel. In his 90-minute cell-phone speech to a Lebanese PLO radio station on April 14, 2002 (from his bedroom of his headquarters in Ramallah which Israel had surrounded and partially destroyed in Operation Defensive Shield), he outlined his strategy. With the help of other Arab states, with the success of Arab propaganda to gradually weaken Israel’s legitimacy in the eyes of the world such that UN forces could be deployed to assist the Palestinians and impede the Israelis in a future battle, and with the United States

Israel’s only foul-weather friend having moral and political difficulty providing assistance to what was now defined as a rogue nation, the terror armies and their allies could use the West Bank as a launching pad for the great final Jihad against Israel. Arafat’s intent as expressed in that speech has been corroborated by the Israeli destruction of major arms smuggling networks handling hundreds of tons of illegal weaponry and munitions since 2001, most recently the 50 tons of weapons on the ship, the Karine A, and the scores of smuggling tunnels from Sinai to the Gaza Strip. If this buildup of terror is allowed to continue, it will ultimately compromise the welfare of the entire free world as we know it.

There is no rational justification for a one-sided settlement compromise when the other side maintains a state of war. Unilateral withdrawal enhances the ability of the terrorists to wage terror war. In light of the unrelenting commitment of terror groups and Mahmoud Abbas’ frequent public statements commending the terror groups, defining their casualties as martyrs, and vowing to never use force against them, it is irrational to suggest that further Israeli concessions will generate a Palestinian willingness to reciprocate. In fact, the opposite has happened. The failure of Camp David II was due in large part to Arafat’s strategy of pocketing Barak’s concessions, making no substantive concessions in return, and then demanding more from Barak (see Dennis Ross, The Missing Peace, 2005).

In August 2005, Israel unilaterally withdrew from the Gaza strip and removed all Israeli settlements from the area, along with all 8,500 Jewish settlers. In addition, Israel dismantled settlements at the northern part of the West Bank. Israel had made an historically unprecedented concession in an attempt to jump-start the peace process, and demonstrate to the Palestinians that it was willing to trade land for peace. Yet, there was no movement on the part of any Palestinian leader to reciprocate. Instead there were terrorist leaders on Arab TV, radio, newspapers, all declaring that the withdrawal was a great victory for Arab terrorism, and that the terrorist attacks must escalate so that Israel could be annihilated and all of Palestine “liberated.” In other words, the problem is not the settlements. They were dismantled. The problem is the existence of Jews in the land between the Jordan River and the sea, and the commitment of the Arab terrorist leadership to the destruction of Israel and the genocide of its people.


The most famous recent episode of the rejection of the creation of a viable contiguous Palestinian state and the resolution of the refugees problem was in the year 2000 when the PA Chairman Arafat rebuffed President Clinton’s most generous offer and initiated a cruel intifada against Israel. At that time, the Israeli Prime Minister Barak, hoping to end the protracted conflict with the Arabs, accepted the offer despite the fact that it would have forced Israel to make extremely painful concessions.

Most Israeli settlements in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip are legal and violate no international laws or relevant UN resolutions.

Most do not involve the theft of any Palestinian land. The settlement movement has provided enormous benefit to the Arabs of those areas and fueled a tripling of the Arab population and a skyrocketing West Bank economy -- until the onset of Arafat’s rule. Settlements do not create stumbling blocks to peace or hindrances to peace negotiations.

They can be, and have been, dismantled in the context of negotiations with an honest peace partner. Concessions about settlements should be made only in the context of negotiations, which can begin only after Palestinian leadership stops the violence, ends the terror war, and ends the hate speech, hate preach, and hate teach that have permeated Palestinian society since 1994.

Now that, painfully and unilateraly, Israel has relinquished all the settlements in the Gaza Strip and in the Northern part of the West Bank, it will be even easier for the Palestinians to demonstrate if they intend to proceed toward peace. Their actions so far are not very promising.

There is no issue relating to the Israeli settlements in the West Bank that could not be settled honorably to mutual satisfaction at the negotiating table between honest peace partners negotiating in good faith. The question of the remaining settlements is a matter for final status negotiations.

The simple fact is that no sovereign state would ever be expected to do otherwise.

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General Background
Aburish, Said Arafat, from Defender to Dictator
Ajami, Fouad Dream Palace of the Arabs: A Generations Odyssey
Avneri, Arieh Claim of Dispossession
Bard, Mitchell The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Middle East Conflict
Idem (1991) Myths and Facts: A Guide to the Arab-Israeli Conflict
Cohen-Sherbok The Palestine-Israel Conflict: A Beginner’s Guide
Coopersmith, Nechemia Israel Life in the Shadow of Terror
Dershowitz, Alan The Case for Israel
Fischbach, Michael Records of Dispossession
Gilbert, Martin The Arab-Israel Conflict in Maps (1977)
Idem The Routlege Atlas of the Arab Israel Conflict: 2002
Gold, Dore Hatred Kingdom
Gottheil, Fred “Arab Immigration into Palestine”, Middle East Quarterly,
X:1, winter, 2003, pp. 53ff
Hart, Alan Arafat: Terrorist or Peace Maker (Authorized biography)
Hitti, Philip The Arab Awakening
Kanaana, Sharif “Deir Yassin,” Monograph No. 4, Destroyed Palestinian
& Zitawi, Nihad Villages Documentation Project (Bir Zeit: Documentation
Center of Bir Zeit University), 1987
Kanaana, Sharif “Reinterpreting Deir Yassin,” Bir Zeit Univ. (April 1998).
Karsh, E. & I. Empires of the Sand: 1789-1923 (1999)
Karsh, Ephraim Fabricating Israeli History: The “New Historians” 1997
Idem Arafat’s War (2003)
Idem “Arafat’s Grand Strategy”, Middle East Quarterly, 8.3.04
Katz, Samuel Battle Ground: Fact and Fantasy in Palestine
Laqueur, W. The Israel Arab Reader
Lewis, Bernard The Middle East: A Brief History of the Last 2000 Years
Loftus and Aarons The Secret War Against the Jews
Lozowick, Yaacov Right to Exist: A Moral Defense of Israel’s Wars
MacLeod, Scott “Inside Saudi Arabia”, Time Magazine, 10/15/01 pp 60 ff
Mandel, Neville The Arabs and Zionism Before World War I
McCarthy, Justin The Population of Palestine, 1990
Pacepa, Mihai Red Horizons
Patai, Raphael The Arab Mind
Peters, Joan From Time Immemorial

Rees, Matt “Torn Apart”, Time Magazine, 6.18.01 (34ff)
Idem “The Enemy Within”, Time Magazine, 8.27.01 (30ff)
Rubin and Rubin Yasir Arafat: A Political Biography
Rubinstein, Danny The People of Nowhere
Sachar, Howard A History of Israel: Rise of Zionism to Our Time (2003)
Scholch, Alexander Palestine in Transformation: 1857-1882
Shafir, Gershon Land , Labour, and the Origins of the
Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: 1881-1914
Shapira, Anita Land and Power: the Zionists resort to force: 1881-1948
Smith, Charles Palestine and the Arab-Israel Conflict
Stein, Kenneth The Land Question in Palestine: 1917-1939
Sufian, Sandy Mapping the Marsh (Ph.D. Thesis, Rutgers Univ., 1999)
Walsh, Elsa “The Prince”, The New Yorker Magazine, 3/24/03, 49ff
Concept Wizard Multimedia Resource,
IDF Movies “The Fence Against The Terror”
Relentless DVD available at
Stand With Us Israel’s Security Barrier
International Law
Rostow, Eugene New Republic 4/23/90
Ibid. 10/21/91
Schwebel, Stephen “What Weight to Conquest” AJIL, 64 (1970)
Stone, Julius International Law and the Arab:Israel Conflict (1980)
www.think-israel.o rg

B I O G R A P H I C A L  N O T E

David Meir-Levi is an American-born Israeli currently living in Palo Alto, California. He holds a BA from Johns Hopkins University, and an MA in Near Eastern Studies from Brandeis University. He taught Archaeology and Near Eastern History at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and at the University of Tel Aviv in the 60’s and 70’s, during which time he completed his service in the Israeli military. Upon returning to the USA, Mr. Meir-Levi has worked as a professional Jewish educator, most recently in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Mr. Meir-Levi is the Director of Research and Education at the Israel Peace Initiative (IPI), a grass-roots not-for-profit organization in the San Francisco Bay area working to educate the American public and its leaders in to the history of the Arab-Israel conflict and realistic options for resolution. For more information about IPI, see:

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