To what extent are Israel’s West Bank settlements obstacles to peace? If Israel is truly prepared to evacuate settlements for peace, why does some construction continue and why haven’t unauthorised outposts been evacuated?
These were the underlying ideas behind an insightful query about settlements posed to Eran Lerman, former Deputy for Foreign Policy and International Affairs at Israel’s National Security Council during a question and answer session at the Australian Institute of International Affairs in Melbourne on August 10.
Lerman, who reminded the audience that he served “at the Prime Minister [Binyamin Netanyahu]’s elbow for six years”, hinted that his answer might have been harder to give candidly during the time he served Netanyahu’s administration (given that Netanyahu shares a narrow coalition with ardent supporters of the settlements), but that he could now speak freely.
Lerman confirmed that construction within the settlements had been very restrained as a matter of policy since Netanyahu took office in 2009. Regarding the ongoing settlement policy, he warned that security agencies believed a massive evacuation of settlements outside of the blocs as part of either unilateral or negotiated withdrawal from the West Bank would lead to violence and even fatal shootings between the IDF and settlers.
As such, Lerman said, said “any government, even if the hard left came to power” would have to “pamper” the settlers in the blocs in the meantime in order to provide the political legitimacy to eventually evacuate “dead-enders”, i.e. residents of isolated settlements deep inside the West Bank, without descending into a total civil war.
The audio of Lerman’s remarks can be downloaded here, and the transcript of his remarks appears below.
Question: Somebody said to me once that the problem of [the Palestinian issue] ever being solved is 1) The Palestinian Arabs, generally Muslims, want the area to be Judenrein, free of Jews. And the Israeli settlers want the area to be Arabrein, free of Arabs. And isn’t the problem that the right wing Israeli government is not doing anything, really, to promote peace with the Palestinians and that the settlement enterprise, in spite of what people say, is a huge obstacle, the same way that basic Muslim rejection of a Jewish presence is a huge obstacle. They’re both huge obstacles.
Eran Lerman: Well, I’ve been at the Prime Minister’s elbow for six years. I believe that had he been offered a serious compromise proposition, he would have gone along. I know that he went along with the Kerry effort, with serious trepidation and serious question marks, but he did go along. It is the Palestinian side which rejected it for two reasons: They did not want to accept that we have a legitimate security requirement in the Jordan Valley, and they refused to recognise, what I would be very specific in calling Israel being the embodiment of the right of the Jewish people to self-determination. It may be making a mistake when you say “Jewish state”. Then people jump up and they say, “what do you mean by that?” But, specifically, Israel is the embodiment of the right of the Jewish people to self-determination. That is the language proposed. The Palestinians said no. Had they said yes, I think we would have been on the way to an ugly but implementable compromise.
Now, the settlement project has actually gained very little ground over the last 20 years, paradoxically under the right-wing government, there has been a rise in the population but a very, very limited expansion of the actual footprint. You need to name me one single new settlement in the last 20 years. There hasn’t been any. However, the settler population that already exists, yes, does receive, I would say, a tolerant or a friendly treatment from the government. And I would tell you that any Israeli government, even if the hard left came to power, would be obliged to do the same, for a reason that I can now expound – I was always very gingerly doing it when I was in the government but I’ll be very straight.
Since you raised the question, I’ll give you an honest answer.
Let’s think about this issue, not from the present state forward but from the end state backwards. Let’s assume we have reached an agreement with the Palestinians, or even that the government of Israel has found in itself to make a decision to partition the country by a unilateral act, as we did in Gaza in 2005.
There’s only one implementing agency for such an act, whether it comes by agreement or unilaterally. The IDF, under the authority of the Israeli government will go there and clear areas in order to create a contiguous Palestinian state, clear areas of their Jewish inhabitants. Violently. And this time it will make what happened in 2005, the disengagement in Gaza look like a school excursion. And some of our young men and women will come back dead, having been shot by their brothers. Now, in order to prevent this from descending into a civil war, our only option is, forgive the language, to pamper the mainstream settler community and draw borders that will keep most of them in their homes, while isolating the dead-enders.
If you go the way of a total freeze, as the Obama Administration mistakenly tried to impose on us early on, then you alienate 700,000 Jews living east of the armistice line of ’49, in Jerusalem and other parts, and you make the entire proposition non-implementable, if you lump all of them together.
So you need to actually work with the mainstream settlers. And I’ve been telling this to some of my Palestinian friends and some of them said, yes, if Abbas was 20 years younger, he would have done that, but he’s too set in his ways.
They have to engage with the settler mainstream to isolate the extremists, and we do have extremists. We have very unpleasant extremists. But they could be marginalised if there is a good proposition on the table. But they could not be marginalised if you lump together the entire settler project, which was the almost inevitable result of the euphoria of the post-’67 sense of redemption.
It’s a long story, but essentially, any Israeli government seeking to implement a future agreement, or a future partition, would need to bring along the mainstream settler community in order to have the political legitimacy for implementation.
Lerman has been briefing journalists, politicians and community leaders around Australia as a guest of AIJAC.