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Israeli settlement, Arab movement

Hazem Saghieh
28 July 2009

Any democrat would find it difficult to defend the insistence of Binyamin Netanyahu's government in Israel to hold on to the West Bank settlements. The form of politics the Israeli prime minister here advocates is crude, arrogant, impudent and colonial. The deep sources of the ideology that lead him and others to justify the settlements are a mix of metaphysics, mythology and fanaticism. 

Hazem Saghieh is senior commentator for the London-based paper al-Hayat

Hazem Saghieh's articles on openDemocracy include:

"Syria and Lebanon: keeping it in the family" (14 December 2005)

"How the European left supports Lebanon" (14 August 2006)

"Lebanon's internal struggle: two logics in combat" (19 December 2006)

"The Arab defeat" (11 June 2007)

"Rafiq al-Hariri's murder: why do Lebanese blame Syria?" (21 February 2008)

"Lebanon's ‘14 March': from protest to leadership" (1 April 2008)

"Lebanon's elections: reading the signs" (12 June 2009)

"Iran: dialectic of revolution" (28 June 2009)

"Arabs and the Iranian upheaval" (9 July 2009)

"Hizbollah's ‘divine victory': three years on" (20 July 2009)

The Israeli government's stance is also dangerous in practical terms. This is true in five senses.

First, the determination to preserve and even expand the settlements is likely to encourage a serious clash with the Barack Obama administration's intentions for the region. The intense diplomacy underway, reflected in the current visits of leading United States envoys to the region, faces tough challenges; but there are trends favourable to progress, from the beginning of a phased military withdrawal from Iraq to the knock-on effects of the post-election crisis in Iran.

Second, Israel's attitude ensures the end of what remains of the Palestinian authority and its replacement by either domination by Hamas or total chaos.

Third, the fact that Jerusalem lies at the heart of the dispute over settlements means that the intransigent attitude of many in Israel fuels tensions that could explode in further violence, whether religious or secular in inspiration.

Fourth, the defence of the settlements threatens Israel's chances of improving its regional and international relationships: with its neighbouring countries, and with (for example) the European Union and Russia as well as the United States.

Fifth, Binyamin Netanyahu's commitment to the settlements offers to Israel itself the prospect of its remaining forever a kind of Sparta, bound to a militarised outlook that will more and more infringe on the country's internally democratic character. The final danger to Israel of a pro-settlement policy is to its selfhood.

A peace equation

Many Israelis justify settlements by repeating a mantra with potential for multiple usage. It goes like this: "There were no settlements prior to 1967, but there was a conflict. Today, there are no settlements in Gaza, but there is a virtual state of war. When Palestinians compete with one another, one side always outbids the other by being more committed to resistance - never to peace". Some of their compatriots further invoke the Lebanese experience, in particular Hizbollah's continuation of cross-border operations after the unilateral Israeli withdrawal in 2000. Even Lebanese who disapprove of Hizbollah, they argue, present themselves as better or wiser resisters but never as peacemakers. 

The political implication of focusing on the larger conflict in this way is to diminish the importance of settlements and their role. It is in effect a pretext for evading the settlement issue, one with just enough persuasive force to distract the unwary. The feared consequence is that Israel will succeed in portraying settlement-building as a mere technical derivative of the conflict, with the latter as the essential thing that needs to be tackled.

The United States administration too is tempted to frame the issue to Israelis and Palestinians according to an equation: maintaining settlements translates into a guarantee of conflict, halting settlements becomes a route to starting the "normalisation" process. The settlements disappear as a matter of principle, in and of themselves.

Arabs, and the most immediately affected Palestinians, can't afford to ignore this equation anymore. For three reasons: the (im)balance of power; the appearance of an Israeli interest in peace, even if cloaked in blackmail (give us absolute and total peace or... we continue building settlements); and because stopping, then dismantling, settlements is a prerequisite for the establishment of a Palestinian state.

A wind of change

What then is to be done? The logic of the five dangers outlined above is plain: for the sake of all the concerned parties, including Israel, the building of settlements in the West Bank must be stopped and existing settlements (including the extensive, planned and fortified towns they have mushroomed into) must be dismantled. This process must happen in accordance with a phased plan agreed upon by the various states and interests involved.        

But if this process is essential, it will also be hard to achieve. From the Arabs' point of view, there is certainly no "radical" way it can come about: military action (an illusion since the Arab-Israeli war of October 1973), "resistance" (a piteous myth, guaranteed to end in internecine war and failure), Iranian nuclear weapons (a bad joke that would also be a nightmare for everyone).

It will not be accomplished either by expressing vocal support for the Arab peace plan of March 2002. Good intentions here do not compensate for lack of dynamism and cohesive purpose. Arabs, it is clear, need more than a plan to solve this problem: they need both a confident vision and the courageous politicians to articulate it, to inspire and lead the "masses" rather than be led by them. The present conditions make this an increasingly Arab task, as inter-Palestinian conflicts threaten to eliminate the ability of the Palestinians to decide for themselves. The current diplomatic flurry in the middle east is a moment for the Arabs both to match their rhetoric with reality and to raise their sights. If they do both, they might find that - for once - the winds of "change" are with them.  

Also in openDemocracy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in 2009:

Paul Rogers, "Gaza: hope after attack" (1 January 2009)

Ghassan Khatib, "Gaza: outlines of an endgame" (6 January 2009

Avi Shlaim, "Israel and Gaza: rhetoric and reality" (7 January 2009)

Paul Rogers, "Gaza: the Israel-United States connection" (7 January 2009)

Paul Rogers, "Gaza: the wider war" (13 January 2009)

Paul Rogers, "After Gaza: Israel's last chance" (17 January 2009)

Paul Rogers, "Gaza: the war after the war" (22 January 2009)

Tarek Osman, "Egypt's dilemma: Gaza and beyond" (12 January 2009)

Menachem Kellner, "Israel's Gaza war: five asymmetries" (14 January 2009)

Khaled Hroub, "Hamas after the Gaza war" (15 January 2009)

Prince Hassan of Jordan, "The failure of force: an alternative option" (16 January 2009)

Martin Shaw, "Israel's politics of war" (20 January 2009)

Conor Gearty, "Israel, Gaza and international law" (21 January 2009)

Mustafa Kibaroglu, "Turkey-Israel relations after Gaza" (26 January 2009)

Sadegh Zibakalam, "Iran and the Gaza war" (26 January 2009)

Khaled Hroub, "The ‘Arab system' after Gaza" (27 January 2009)

Hugo Slim, "NGOs in Gaza: humanitarianism vs politics" (30 January 2009)

Lucy Nusseibeh, "The four lessons of Gaza" (4 February 2009)

Martin Shaw, "Uses of genocide: Kenya, Georgia, Israel, Sri Lanka" (9 February 2009)

Prince Hassan of Jordan, "Palestine's right: past as prologue" (11 February 2009)

Colin Shindler, "Israel's rightward shift: a history of the present" (23 February 2009)

Eyal Weizman, "Lawfare in Gaza: legislative attack" (1 March 2009)

Gershon Baskin, "The state of Israel: key to peace" (19 May 2009)

Gideon Levy, "Barack Obama: Israel's true friend" (25 May 2009)

Gershon Baskin, "Israel's path: from occupation to peace" (7 July 2009)

Akiva Eldar, "Iran, the Arabs and Israel: the domino-effect" (27 July 2009)

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