Sanctions and the NIE report on Iran/ Israeli settlements revisited
Dec 6, 2007 | AIJAC staff
Update from AIJAC
December 6, 2007
Number 12/06 #03
This Update contains additional analysis of the new NIE report on Iran’s nuclear program, with a special emphasis on what to do now in terms of how the report affects efforts to push forward with sanctions, particularly at the UN.
First up are Valerie Lincy and Gary Milhollin, the former the head of Iranwatch, the latter a nuclear proliferation expert, on what conclusions to draw from the NIE report that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003. They argue that this claim appears misleading because it defines a “nuclear weapons program” in a “ludicrously narrow way”, and ignores several components of Iran’s behaviour which clearly seem designed to create a weapons capability, but do not meet the report’s criteria of directly involving nuclear weapons design or secret uranium enrichment. They are also very concerned that, while the report claims sanctions and other pressure on Iran have been effective, the report itself, as written, “upends” efforts to impose additional sanctions to continue this successful policy. For the take of these two experts, CLICK HERE. There are some signs that Lincy and Milhollin may prove to be overly pessimistic on sanctions, according to this report quoting UN diplomats. It is certainly the case that Britain and France (see here and here) remain supportive of strengthening UN sanctions. However, top American foreign policy analyst Max Boot agrees with Lincy and Milhollin’s pessimism on tightening sanctions.
Next up, also providing some detailed analysis of the report’s findings and implications, is Israeli specialist in conflict and proliferation Dr. Gerald Steinberg. Steinberg also looks at possible reasons for the differences between American and Israeli assessments of Iran. Steinberg disagrees with Lincy and Milhollin that the diplomatic pressure and economic sanctions on Iran are likely to decline, (though a military response seems very unlikely now) and sees a silver lining in that attempts by hardline Iranian factions to present an Iranian bomb as a fait accompli have been exposed as bluff. For Steinberg’s complete discussion, CLICK HERE. Also somewhat optimistic on the continuing viability of sanctions is former FBI agent and US Government counter-terrorism official Matthew Levitt.
Finally, on a completely different topic, esteemed Israeli journalist and writer Hillel Halkin attempts to correct some one-sided and blinkered claims about Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Halkin does believe that many of the settlements in the more populated areas of the West Bank, built for ideological reasons by religious settler groups, are a mistake, but he argues that, as a whole, the settlements have been a partial success and helped make Israel more secure. He also strongly challenges the assumption by many, even in Israel, that all or most settlers are religious fanatics. For this provocative and thought-provoking new look at a much-discussed Middle East issue, CLICK HERE.
Readers may also be interested in:
- Some good editorials on the implications of the NIE findings come from the London Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, and the Israeli daily Haaretz,
- A news report on the narrow line between civilian and military nuclear programs.
- Some differing accounts of the intelligence that led to the new assessment of the state of the military nuclear program are here and here.
- Israeli President Shimon Peres warns the world not to compromise with Iran, or it will wake up and find a nuclear Iran.
- Will Iran’s low birthrate lead to stability?
- Ahmad Al-Tayyib, al-Azhar University President and former Mufti of Egypt, arguably the most prestigious posts in Sunni Islam, justifies Palestinian suicide bombings.
- The BBC allegedly paid for suspects involved in a bombing to go paintballing for a program designed to show how benign Muslims were, and then, when it learned of the terror connection, neglected to tell the police.
- More comment on the Mohammed Teddy Bear controversy in Sudan from military historian Victor David Hanson and columnist Mark Steyn.
In Iran We Trust?
By VALERIE LINCY and GARY MILHOLLIN
New York Times, Published: December 6, 2007
ON Monday the United States intelligence community issued what everyone agrees was blockbuster news: a report stating that in the autumn of 2003, Iran halted its nuclear weapons program. The National Intelligence Estimate has been heralded as a courageous act of independence by the intelligence agencies, and praised by both parties for showing a higher quality of spy work than earlier assessments.
In fact, the report contains the same sorts of flaws that we have learned to expect from our intelligence agency offerings. It, like the report in 2002 that set up the invasion of Iraq, is both misleading and dangerous.
During the past year, a period when Iran’s weapons program was supposedly halted, the government has been busy installing some 3,000 gas centrifuges at its plant at Natanz. These machines could, if operated continuously for about a year, create enough enriched uranium to provide fuel for a bomb. In addition, they have no plausible purpose in Iran’s civilian nuclear effort. All of Iran’s needs for enriched uranium for its energy programs are covered by a contract with Russia.
Iran is also building a heavy water reactor at its research center at Arak. This reactor is ideal for producing plutonium for nuclear bombs, but is of little use in an energy program like Iran’s, which does not use plutonium for reactor fuel. India, Israel and Pakistan have all built similar reactors — all with the purpose of fueling nuclear weapons. And why, by the way, does Iran even want a nuclear energy program, when it is sitting on an enormous pool of oil that is now skyrocketing in value? And why is Iran developing long-range Shahab missiles, which make no military sense without nuclear warheads to put on them?
For years these expensive projects have been viewed as evidence of Iran’s commitment to nuclear weapons. Why aren’t they still? The answer is that the new report defines “nuclear weapons program” in a ludicrously narrow way: it confines it to to enriching uranium at secret sites or working on a nuclear weapon design. But the halting of its secret enrichment and weapon design efforts in 2003 proves only that Iran made a tactical move. It suspended work that, if discovered, would unambiguously reveal intent to build a weapon. It has continued other work, crucial to the ability to make a bomb, that it can pass off as having civilian applications.
That work includes the centrifuges at Natanz, which bring Iran closer to a nuclear weapon every day — two to seven years away. To assert, as the report does, that these centrifuges are “civilian,” and not part of Iran’s weapons threat, is grossly misleading.
The new report has also upended our sanctions policy, which was just beginning to produce results. Banks and energy companies were pulling back from Iran. The United Nations Security Council had frozen the assets of dozens of Iranian companies. That policy now seems dead. If Iran is not going for the bomb, why punish it?
No company or bank will agree to lose money unless a nuclear threat is clear. Likewise, is it fair for the United Nations to continue to freeze the assets of people like Seyed Jaber Safdari, the manager of the Natanz plant, or companies like Mesbah Energy, the supplier of the reactor at Arak, because of links to a program that American intelligence believes is benign? One European official admitted to us that he and his colleagues were flummoxed. “We have to have a new policy now for going forward,” he said, “but we haven’t been able to figure out what it is.”
This situation is made all the more absurd by the report’s suggestion that international pressure offers the only hope of containing Iran. The report has now made such pressure nearly impossible to obtain. It is hardly surprising that China, which last week seemed ready to approve the next round of economic sanctions against Tehran, has now had a change of heart: its ambassador to the United Nations said yesterday that “we all start from the presumption that now things have changed.”
We should be suspicious of any document that suddenly gives the Bush administration a pass on a big national security problem it won’t solve during its remaining year in office. Is the administration just washing its hands of the intractable Iranian nuclear issue by saying, “If we can’t fix it, it ain’t broke”?
In any case, the report is an undoubted victory for Iran. Even if it opens the way for direct talks, which would be a benefit, it validates Iran’s claim that efforts to shut down Natanz are illegitimate. Thus Iran will be free to operate and add to its centrifuges at Natanz, accumulate a stockpile of low-enriched uranium customary for civilian use, and then have the ability to convert that uranium in a matter of months to weapons grade. This “breakout potential” would create a nuclear threat that we and Iran’s neighbors will have to live with for years to come.
Valerie Lincy is the editor of Iranwatch.org. Gary Milhollin is the director of the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control.
Back to Top
Decoding the U.S. National Intelligence Estimate on Iran’s Nuclear Weapons Program
Gerald M. Steinberg
Jerusalem Issue Brief – Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs
Vol. 7, No. 24
5 December 2007
- The U.S. government’s latest National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) has concluded that Iran froze its active efforts to manufacture nuclear weapons in 2003, and will not have such a capability until at least 2012. While the NIE states that the U.S. intelligence community has “high confidence” that the Iranians halted their nuclear weapons program in 2003, it also states that it has only “moderate confidence” that Tehran has not restarted the program.
- In contrast, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak has said that while it is “apparently true that in 2003, Iran stopped pursuing its military nuclear program for a certain period of time,” nonetheless, he adds that “in our estimation, since then it is apparently continuing with its program to produce a nuclear weapon.”
- A number of factors can explain these differences in assessments. Israel, the prime potential target for a nuclear Iran, cannot afford to take the chance of underestimating the threat, and therefore relies on what policy-makers refer to as a “worst-case” analysis. This means that the focus is on Iranian capabilities, rather than intentions, which can only be guessed.
- Israeli analysts have long warned their U.S. counterparts about the potential for a parallel “black” Iranian weapons program, based on a small nuclear reactor producing plutonium, and following the North Korean model. Indeed, Iran is known to be constructing just such a reactor at Arak, leaving room for another undetected facility.
- From the portions of the NIE report that have been released, it appears that much of the assessment is based not on technical capabilities and information gathered from satellites and other sources, but rather on attempts to understand Iranian intentions. But intentions are the most unreliable dimension in the realm of intelligence, and often reflect the interests, biases, and expectations of the assessor.
The U.S. government’s latest National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) has concluded that Iran froze its active efforts to manufacture nuclear weapons in 2003, and will not have such a capability until at least 2012. While the NIE states that the U.S. intelligence community has “high confidence” that the Iranians halted their nuclear weapons program in 2003, it also states that it has only “moderate confidence” that Tehran has not restarted the program.1 In contrast, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak has said that while it is “apparently true that in 2003, Iran stopped pursuing its military nuclear program for a certain period of time,” nonetheless, he adds that “in our estimation, since then it is apparently continuing with its program to produce a nuclear weapon.”2
This assessment contrasts sharply with estimates that, if left undisturbed, Iran will cross the threshold in the next year or two – and the evidence for the NIE’s sweeping claim is unclear. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) recently confirmed official Iranian claims to have completed construction of the 3,000 centrifuges necessary to produce enough highly enriched uranium for at least one nuclear weapon per year. This is also the basis for the statements from Israeli military and intelligence officials which view the next year – 2008 – as critical for stopping Iran before the finish line.
A number of factors can explain these differences in assessments. Israel, the prime potential target for a nuclear Iran, cannot afford to take the chance of underestimating the threat, and therefore relies on what policy-makers refer to as a “worst-case” analysis. This means that the focus is on Iranian capabilities, rather than intentions, which can only be guessed.
Using this approach, when Iran reaches the technological potential to produce enough fissile material necessary to make a nuclear weapon, it will be considered to be a nuclear weapons state, capable of threatening Israel with annihilation. And while the details of Iran’s weapons fabrication efforts can be hidden and are less likely to be known to intelligence agencies, the operating assumption is that there are secret facilities where this may be taking place. Indeed, Israeli analysts have long warned their U.S. counterparts about the potential for a parallel “black” Iranian weapons program, based on a small nuclear reactor producing plutonium, and following the North Korean model. Indeed, Iran is known to be constructing just such a reactor at Arak, leaving room for another undetected facility.
The consequences of a small, secret Iranian nuclear program are less significant for the U.S., given its massive military superiority over Iran. Therefore, there is more room for political factors and influence in the official U.S. estimates. After having warned of a massive Iraqi program to produce weapons of mass destruction in 2003, and then finding no evidence following the invasion, the U.S. intelligence agencies may be trying to restore their image by going to the other extreme and underestimating the pace of Iran’s nuclear weapons program. And Iran may very well continue to face difficulties in operating a very complex system of thousands of centrifuges spinning in unison and moving uranium to ever higher levels of enrichment without contamination.
However, from the portions of the NIE report that have been released, it appears that much of the assessment is based not only on technical capabilities and information gathered from satellites and other sources, but rather on attempts to understand Iranian intentions. But intentions are the most unreliable dimension in the realm of intelligence, and often reflect the interests, biases, and expectations of the assessor. While the construction of a massive centrifuge facility at Natanz to produce weapons grade uranium may not be the optimum path to nuclear weapons from an American perspective, this may be the best option open to Iran, and cannot be discounted. The scale and cost of the Natanz nuclear complex, as well as the plutonium production reactor and other facilities are not consistent with a program limited to producing low-enriched uranium for energy production. This makes no economic sense.
The NIE report touches on the Iranian plutonium program: “We judge with high confidence that Iran will not be technically capable of producing enough plutonium for a weapon before about 2015.” But the NIE also takes into consideration that such materials might be imported: “We cannot rule out that Iran has acquired from abroad – or will acquire in the future – a nuclear weapon or enough fissile material for a weapon.” U.S. arms control experts specializing in North Korea have indeed warned in the past about the scenario of North Korean exports of plutonium products to Iran as a possible shortcut to producing an Iranian bomb.3
Although President Bush responded to the NIE report by reconfirming his determination to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear weapons, the threat of attack from the U.S. in the next five years is now much less credible. Given the disquiet in the U.S. over the status of the situation in Iraq, and with an official assessment stating that Iran gave up its program to develop nuclear weapons four years ago, the president would face very strong opposition to any decision ordering U.S. forces into battle again. And the fear of a potential Iranian counterattack, in the form of mass terror and possible missile attacks against American assets in the region, would increase this opposition.
As a result, a number of Israeli analysts and officials have expressed concern and even dismay over the NIE report and its implications. Israeli officials reject the NIE conclusions, and, as noted, view the threat as far more imminent. If Israeli intelligence concludes that the red lines are closer than those perceived in the U.S., Israel could still use force unilaterally (as was the case in Prime Minister Begin’s decision to destroy Iraq’s Osiraq reactor in 1981). But Israeli officials have sought to avoid a situation of needing to act unilaterally again.
For Iran, the sudden change in the U.S. assessment contained in the NIE report is a mixed blessing. The good news for the Islamic regime is that the odds of American military action have declined, at least for the time being. Iran can apparently continue to develop its centrifuges and reactors without fear of a sudden U.S.-led attack, and the odds of overt Israeli action have probably also declined.
However, the intense Iranian effort to be seen as a nuclear power that can no longer be stopped has been clearly exposed as a bluff. President Ahmedinejad and other officials have invested heavily in the attempt to portray the Iranian nuclear capability as a fait accompli that must be accepted in the region and around the world. And they have been aided at times by Dr. Mohammed El Baradei, the Director General of the IAEA.
Now, however, the Iranian leadership and an increasingly restless public face at least five more years of sanctions, international isolation, and pressure. And Dr. El Baradei has pulled back from granting Iran immunity from sanctions by highlighting the history of deceit and calling for full cooperation from Teheran. Indeed, following the U.S. report, the leaders of Europe, as well as China and Russia, have reiterated the dangers that would result from an Iranian nuclear weapon capability. Thus, the celebrations in Iran may be short-sighted and short-lived. The economic and diplomatic pressure is likely to continue and even increase.
The bottom line, as noted in the NIE report and by President Bush, is that Iranian nuclear efforts remain dangerous, and that there is still time to prevent this radical regime from acquiring these weapons. How much time remains the subject of debate, and the NIE conclusions are tentative and subject to revision at any time as new information becomes available. To its credit, the NIE report admits the limitations of the U.S. intelligence community with respect to its ability to determine that the 2003 halt in the Iranian weapons program is permanent: “We do not have sufficient intelligence to judge whether Tehran is willing to maintain the halt of its nuclear weapons program indefinitely.” Clearly, the NIE conclusions now appearing in the press are not the end of the story.
1. “Iran: Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities,” National Intelligence Estimate, National Intelligence Council, November 2007, http://www.odni.gov/press_releases/20071203_release.pdf
2. Steven Erlanger and Graham Bowley, “Israel Unconvinced Iran Has Dropped Nuclear Program,” New York Times, December 5, 2007, http://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/05/world/middleeast/05webreact.html
3. Siegfried S. Hecker and William Liou, “Dangerous Dealings: North Korea’s Nuclear Capabilities and the Threat of Export to Iran,” Arms Control Today, Arms Control Association, http://www.armscontrol.org/act/2007_03/heckerliou.asp
Prof. Gerald M. Steinberg is the head of the Political Studies Department at Bar-Ilan University, a Fellow of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, and Executive Director of NGO Monitor.
Back to Top
What the Settlements Have Achieved
Commentary, December 2007
Of all the criticisms that have been leveled at Israel over the Palestinian question, the harshest may be those made of Jewish settlement in the occupied territories, particularly the West Bank. The settlers, it has been said, have robbed the Palestinians of their land; have dealt with them brutally; have thus been responsible for Palestinian terrorism, which the apartheid system of roads and checkpoints that protects them has only made worse; and have twisted the arms of Israel’s governments to expand the settlement project and refuse to part with conquered land in return for the peace agreement that would then be attainable. They are the root of all evil in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which could otherwise have been settled long ago.
Idith Zertal and Akiva Eldar’s book about West Bank settlement, Lords of the Land, which first appeared in Hebrew in Israel in 2005 and has now been translated into English, does nothing to challenge these notions.* On the contrary, it adopts them unreservedly. Given Zertal and Eldar’s backgrounds, this is hardly surprising.
Zertal is an Israeli historian on the political Left who now teaches at the University of Basel, Switzerland; her one previous book, From Catastrophe to Power: Holocaust Survivors and the Emergence of Israel, argued that Zionism cynically manipulated the remnants of European Jewry into joining the struggle for a Jewish state in Palestine when they would have been better off remaining in postwar Europe. Eldar is a senior columnist at the Hebrew newspaper Ha’aretz, in which he writes frequently about Israel and the Palestinians. In this capacity he has untiringly argued that Israel must withdraw to its pre-June 1967 borders and that a refusal to do so is a refusal to make peace.
With two such authors, the fix is in from the start. Although Lords of the Land purports to be a history of the settlement movement, it is more a political attack on it. Already in its opening pages we are told that “the prolonged military occupation and the Jewish settlements that are perpetuating it have . . . brought Israel’s democracy and its political culture to the brink of an abyss”; that most of the settlements “look fragile, neglected, ephemeral, as though they lack a vitality of their own” (how so feeble an enterprise could wield so much power is never explained); and that the settlements embody “the culture of death and the cult of death.” Further on, we are informed that the settlers resemble “the ecstatic devotees of a crazed cult”; that “their strangeness to the land . . . and their uncanniness in the landscape [is] evident”; that their claim to a historical connection with the biblical territories of Judea and Samaria is “by definition . . . in the realm of the ‘imagined’”; and so on and so forth. Since this is exactly what most of the world believes about the settlements, Lords of the Land has done well internationally. There is nothing like being told in 500 pages that you’re right.
But even as biased history, Lords of the Land does not begin to cover its subject. The story it tells is not that of Jewish settlement in the West Bank but that of Gush Emunim, the “Bloc of the Faithful,” a militant settlers’ organization founded in the early 1970’s that combined religious fervor with political activism and a readiness to brave physical danger. It was Gush Emunim and its ideological heirs, with their Zionist messianism, that established dozens of small settlements and hilltop outposts deep in the West Bank and that have been frequently in conflict with their Palestinian neighbors and with Israeli governments felt by them to be insufficiently supportive. The stereotype of the West Bank settler as a belligerently bearded Jew with a knit skullcap on his head, a Bible in one hand and a rifle in the other, is a caricaturized version of the Gush Emunim ideal, and Zertal and Eldar have done all they can to perpetuate it.
And yet such settlers account for barely 10 percent of the more than 400,000 Israelis living today beyond the “green line,” the pre-June 1967 Israeli-Jordanian border. Roughly half of the total reside in urban neighborhoods in Jerusalem. Most of the remainder are in middle-sized towns that are close to the old border and/or within an easy commute of Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. An increasingly large proportion of them consists of non- or even anti-Zionist ultra-Orthodox Jews who have moved to such rapidly developing locations as Betar Illit and Kiryat Sefer; another sizable element, found in places like Ariel and Ma’aleh Adumim, is composed mostly of secular Israelis; and a much smaller group inhabits moshavim and kibbutzim, collective farming settlements, in the Jordan Valley.
Few of these 350,000 Israelis have moved to the occupied territories for ideological reasons or have ever been embroiled with local Palestinians or government authorities. Most chose to live where they do because they have purchased affordable housing in well-planned and pleasant communities not far from their places of work. And none of them is dealt with in Zertal and Eldar’s book. As far as Lords of the Land is concerned, West Bank settlement and Gush Emunim are one and the same.
Two different engines drove West Bank settlement from the start. One, of which Gush Emunim was indeed for a while the main representative, was the ideological belief in an “undivided land of Israel.” (This is a better translation of the Hebrew eretz yisra’el ha-sh’lema than the more common “greater land of Israel,” which suggests the acquisition of expanses considerably beyond the slightly over 2,000 square miles, an area the size of the state of Delaware, that comprise the West Bank.) The other was the pragmatic desire to redraw Israel’s pre-June 1967 borders in order to make them militarily more secure. Because these two engines often ran in tandem, they have frequently been confused. Yet no sober thinking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or its resolution can take place without distinguishing between them.
Despit hing “imagined” by Gush Emunim. It was part of the patrimony of the Jewish people, which would never have turned to Zionism in the first place had that attachment not existed. As fate would have it, when Israel’s war of independence ended at the 1948-49 ceasefire lines with Jordan, most of the sites most deeply engraved in Jewish historical memory—the old city of Jerusalem, the Western Wall, the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem, the biblical heartland of Judea and Samaria—were left on the Jordanian side of the frontier, and Jewish access to them was denied.
To think that, when these areas were suddenly and unexpectedly restored to Jewish control in 1967, there could have failed to be a surge of popular sentiment for settling and retaining them is to be ignorant of Jewish history and Jewish feelings. This sentiment crystallized without the help of Gush Emunim, which did not appear on the scene until several years later. While strongest on the political Right, it was by no means confined to it.
Nevertheless, between 1967 and 1974, a period during which Israel’s Arab neighbors repeatedly rejected the possibility of peace with a Jewish state, the Labor governments in power sought to keep a tight rein on non-pragmatically motivated settlement. Leading labor politicians like Levi Eshkol, Golda Meir, Yigal Allon, and Moshe Dayan, although differing in their proposed solutions for the occupied territories, all held that there were political, demographic, and moral restraints on annexing them and that Jews should not be allowed to settle in all parts of them.
At the same time, though, these leaders were determined to address the problem of Israel’s military vulnerability, a consequence of its being pinched to the bone by the 1948-49 ceasefire lines in two sectors: the central coastal plain from Tel Aviv northward, where much of the country’s population was concentrated within ten or twelve miles of the old frontier, and Jerusalem, whose Jewish half and the approach to it had formed a thin wedge surrounded by Jordanian territory. No nation with hostile or potentially hostile neighbors could be safe within such borders, and it was, except on the far Left, a matter of national consensus in those years that there could be no return to them.
In the case of Jerusalem, the situation was partially rectified by the annexation of the city’s Arab neighborhoods and their outskirts immediately following the 1967 war—the only part of the West Bank to be officially made part of Israel to this day. In addition, the Labor government authorized the resettlement of the “Etsyon Bloc” southwest of Jerusalem, an enclave in which several kibbutzim and their lands had been overrun by the Jordanian army in the 1948 fighting, and permitted a small group of Jews to move into Hebron. At the outset, the line was held there.
For the coastal plain, there were two options. One was to push the border eastward, a problematic move because it would have meant incorporating into Israel large Arab towns like Tulkarm and Kalkilya. The other, originally proposed by Yigal Allon, was to leave the border where it was while annexing the Jordan Valley, a long strip of semi-arid, sparsely populated land, part of the great Syrian-African rift, running between the West Bank’s mountains and the Jordan River. By holding on to the valley and its overlooking hills, Israel could effectively surround the West Bank while interfering minimally in Palestinian life and absorbing few Palestinians, and would be optimally positioned to meet any Arab attack from the east. A corridor around Jericho would be left in Arab hands to provide contiguity with Jordan—which, it was assumed, would repossess the West Bank once a peace agreement was signed—and Israelis would be free to visit the historical and religious sites that meant so much to them.
Thus was born the “Allon plan,” which guided Israeli policy until after the 1973 Yom Kippur war. It eventually collapsed in two stages. The first was indeed the work of Gush Emunim, which through an orchestrated campaign of public relations, political lobbying, and wildcat settlements broke the resistance of the government of Yitzhak Rabin and obtained permission to found several small villages in the central West Bank, well beyond the 1967 borders. The second was the 1977 electoral victory of Menachem Begin. Themselves ideologically committed to an “undivided land of Israel,” Begin and his Likud party opened the entire West Bank to settlement and actively encouraged it and supported it, with the result that the Jewish population of the area, no more than 10,000 or so in 1977, now increased quickly.
How could Israel afford demographically to hold on to a region with a large Arab population or get away with it politically? Likud’s answer was Begin’s “autonomy plan,” according to which the Palestinians of the West Bank would be given self-rule as the inhabitants of an Israeli protectorate without being granted either their independence or Israeli citizenship. Begin fought for the acceptance of this plan in Israel’s peace negotiations with Egypt, but although it was included in the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, it was limited at Cairo’s insistence to a five-year transitional period, following which a more permanent arrangement was to be found.
Meanwhile, the Likud governments that ruled for thirteen of the fifteen years between 1977 and 1992 changed the thrust of the settlement enterprise. Coming to the conclusion that small, Gush Emunim-type villages could not significantly populate the West Bank, they shifted the emphasis to larger commuting towns that would attract a broad cross-section of Israelis. In this manner there sprang up settlements like Ariel in Samaria and Ma’aleh Adumim in the Judean desert east of Jerusalem, each today with some 30,000 inhabitants. And in a later phase, with the realization that the greatest potential for West Bank settlement lay in Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community, whose large, low-income families could be enticed to leave their overcrowded quarters in Israel proper for cheap, government-subsidized housing in the territories, several exclusively ultra-Orthodox townships were built. Today these are the most rapidly expanding settlements in the West Bank. One of them, Betar Illit, a short distance southwest of Jerusalem, has already surpassed Ariel and Ma’aleh Adumin in population and will soon leave them far behind.
Not that Gush Emunim was neglected in this period; its small settlements, too, continued to grow, if at a slower rate. The one West Bank sector that languished was the Jordan Valley. Conditions there, where temperatures can reach 120 degrees in summer, were difficult; the valley was far from the rest of Israel and its urban centers; though its agricultural potential was great, agriculture in Israel was a declining economic sector; and given Likud’s policy of holding on to the whole West Bank, the Allon plan was no longer relevant. Once Likud came to power, no serious attempts were made to develop the Jordan Valley, and government investment in it was minimal. Its Jewish population today is barely 8,000, about the same as it was twenty years ago.
No Israeli government since 1967 ever had a coherent West Bank settlement policy. The Allon plan made geostrategic and demographic sense, but without settling large numbers of Jews in the Jordan Valley, as was done in east Jerusalem and in the so-called “settlement blocs” that were mostly close to the old borders, there was no way of establishing an effective presence there. As for the Likud’s autonomy plan, it was sheer fantasy from the start. Never put into practice because the Palestinians rejected it in 1979, it had no chance in any case of outliving the five years that Egypt was willing to grant it. By the time of the 1993 Oslo agreement and the establishment of the Palestinian Authority, it had been consigned to ancient history.
This brings us to Ariel Sharon’s “disengagement plan.” Implemented in Gaza in 2005, and clearly meant for the West Bank as well, it was a belated acknowledgment by Israel’s moderate political Right that Israeli control over the whole West Bank was impossible. Convinced, however, by the failure of the Camp David and Taba summits in the year 2000 that that there was no prospect of getting the Palestinian Authority to agree to even relatively small border rectifications in Israel’s favor, which would have involved some 10 percent of the West Bank, Sharon decided, first, to build a security fence along the route of the frontier he envisioned, and then to withdraw to it unilaterally, counting on its gaining de-facto international recognition sooner or later. The fence was routed to take in the major settlement blocs while excluding as many Palestinian towns and villages as possible, and was conceived as encompassing about three-quarters of the West Bank’s settlers when finished.
The remaining quarter, roughly 60,000 settlers, would, according to Sharon’s plan, have to be evacuated, as were the Jewish inhabitants of the Gaza Strip. Most of these 60,000 are of the Gush Emunim stripe—the same “lords of the land” who, Zertal and Eldar believe, have worked their will with all Israeli governments. But they did not work it in Gaza, and while, in the wake of the Hamas takeover there, unilateral disengagement is no longer on the agenda of the government of Ehud Olmert, the perceived necessity for it is likely to resurface sooner than one might think. The failure, cancellation, or indefinite postponement of the Israel-Palestinian “peace conference” scheduled for Annapolis in late November or December may be all it takes to make this happen.
The border with the West Bank that the security fence delineates is not only unacceptable to the Palestinians, it is far from ideal for Israel. It winds tortuously back and forth between Jewish settlements and Arab towns and villages; it leaves much of the coastal plain no farther from the 1948-49 ceasefire lines than it was before 1967; and it surrenders the Jordan Valley, which will revert to Palestinian hands. Should Israel ever have to fight another war with an Arab world out to destroy it, or simply have to contend with a rogue Palestinian state that permits attacks on it, its eastern front will still be its most vulnerable.
Nevertheless, it will be considerably less vulnerable than it would be if Israel were to withdraw all the way to the 1967 borders. With the fence in place, Jerusalem will be buffered on all sides by Jewish suburbs and hinterland, whose eastern edge at Ma’aleh Adumim, situated on the road to Jericho, overlooks the southern Jordan Valley and could serve as a military jumping-off point to there; the connection between the northern and southern West Bank, which will have to run between Ma’aleh Adumim and the valley, will be easily interdictable; and salients of Israeli territory running from the coastal plain into the hills of Samaria will help protect Tel Aviv and allow Israel’s army to position itself close to the top of the West Bank’s central mountain ridge and within easy striking distance of its main north-south highway. Although these advantages might seem trivial in an age of modern warfare, they should not be made light of. Even modern warfare is ultimately decided on the ground.
If Israel does end up with these geographical advantages, it will be due to one thing alone: the settlement blocs, which in certain parts of the West Bank have concentrated too many Jews to evacuate. This was recognized by President Bush in his statement of April 2004 that any Israeli-Palestinian agreement must take into account the changed reality of Israeli “population centers” on the other side of the 1967 border. Had such “population centers” not existed, even the United States, Israel’s greatest friend, would be calling today for a near-total withdrawal to the 1967 lines.
In this respect, the settlement enterprise, though the world may think otherwise, has not failed. It has been a considerable, if not total, success. Because of it, Israel will be more secure. Far from having demonstrated that settling Jews in large numbers across the 1967 border was folly, it has shown that where enough Jews have been settled in the right places, Israel has benefited.
The failure is that of those, the sole subjects of Lords of the Land, who settled small numbers of Jews in the wrong places. It is possible to understand and admire the depth of these settlers’ commitment to the land of Israel and their courage in risking their lives for their beliefs; it is also necessary, however, to acknowledge the futility of what they sought to achieve. Huge sums were spent on the endeavor; tens of thousands of lives were invested in it; hundreds of lives were lost to Palestinian terror; and Palestinian lives, too, were disrupted and embittered—all for a dream that had no chance of fulfillment. Israel could never have swallowed the two million Palestinians of the West Bank without choking on them. If Zertal and Eldar are right about anything, it is about this.
Had all this effort been put into the Jordan Valley instead, so that it too would have comprised a “settlement bloc” that Israel could not be expected to abandon, both Israel and the Palestinians would be better off. The Allon plan, eminently rational when first conceived, looks even better today. Without the Jordan Valley, which is now lost to it, Israel will be in a worse position than it need have been.
But of course this is said with the benefit of hindsight. The great enemy of rationality is rationalization. In the aftermath of Israel’s 1967 victory, which seemed miraculous in every respect, the call for an undivided land of Israel was emotionally hard to resist. It was only too easy to find ways of justifying it. Many of the Palestinians of the West Bank, it was said, would emigrate (as they indeed had done to the east bank of the Jordan before 1967 and continued to do to the Persian Gulf until the 1991 Gulf war). Those who did not would grow accustomed to Israeli rule. Jewish immigration would offset their high birthrate (as for a short while it did during the great wave of immigration from the ex-Soviet Union in 1990-91). The world would come to accept the West Bank’s being part of Israel. And it was inconceivable that the only place in the world, apart from Saudi Arabia, in which Jews were forbidden to live should be in their own historic homeland.
Some of these arguments were stronger than others; whoever wanted to be convinced by them was convinced. And even when the head was not persuaded, the heart often was. I can remember how in the 1970’s and 80’s, when it was already clear to me that Gush Emunim-type settlements in the heart of the West Bank were a mistake, I nevertheless thrilled to each new one of them that was established. Such Jewish feelings are alien to Idith Zertal and Akiva Eldar, who do not begin to comprehend what they are about. But they also do not comprehend that Israel has real enemies and real security needs, and that formal peace agreements with its neighbors are no guarantee that it will not have to fight again. Wars generally break out between countries that have been at peace.
Could the Allon plan have been successfully carried out and the tragic waste of the Gush Emunim settlements avoided? Probably not. Countries, like people, sometimes only learn by making costly mistakes. Yet thanks to the settlement blocs that are not even in the index of Lords of the Land, it has been possible in part to make up for that waste. This case needs to be made to all those who believe, like Zertal and Eldar, that the 1948-49 ceasefire lines, never recognized as permanent by a single Arab state before 1967, became sacred as soon as the Arabs lost a war they started. Israel had the right to change these lines in accordance with its needs, and it is a good thing that the settlements have made that possible.