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The Limits of Diplomacy: Israeli Settlements


A Palestinian boy climbs Israel's barrier during clashes with Israeili security forces in the West Bank.
A Palestinian boy climbs Israel’s barrier during clashes with Israeli security forces in the West Bank. CREATIVE COMMONS

Many Israelis reacted with surprise and dismay when United States Secretary of State John Kerry blamed Israel’s seemingly insatiable appetite for settlements for the collapse of the latest round of Middle East peace talks.

The negotiations were already on hold when Israel announced it was opening the door to yet another 700 new housing units in an East Jerusalem neighborhood viewed by the Palestinians as part of their future state. “Poof, that was sort of the moment,” Kerry told the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Israel said it was “deeply disappointed” by Kerry’s judgment, instead blaming the breakdown on the Palestinians. But it was hardly surprising that the announcement — along with its provocative timing — proved to be the last straw for an already deeply frustrated Palestinian delegation. The talks had been teetering, and the Israelis had been unenthusiastic about them from the start.

After the talks broke off, Israeli-Palestinian relations descended into chaos and violence over the announcement of a unity government linking the Palestinian Authority to the Hamas movement governing Gaza, which does not recognize Israel’s right to exist; the kidnapping and slaying of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank; the apparent revenge killing of a Palestinian youth; and waves of Palestinian rocket attacks on southern Israel and Israeli air raids on Gaza.

The deteriorating situation obscured the hard underlying reality that the international community has been doing steady battle against Israeli settlements ever since the 1967 Six-Day Arab-Israeli War, when the possibility of building such outposts first arose. In that conflict, Israel seized large swaths of land from its Arab neighbors, including the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt; the Golan Heights from Syria; and from Jordan, the West Bank of the Jordan River, including East Jerusalem. Since then, it has been trying to colonize the seized land to expand its territory.

(Here is a detailed timeline of the settlements’ construction, dating from 1967 till now.)

The Birth of ‘Land for Peace’

The international campaign against settlements has endured for more than 45 years, and their continued expansion is one of the most vexing diplomatic failures of our time. The challenges typically faced by the international community in resolving disputes and achieving peace are particularly poignant in the case of Israel, since that nation was essentially a creature of international diplomacy, shaped along the lines of a United Nations General Assembly plan for the British protectorate then known as Palestine. Yet Israel has steadily managed over time to move more of its citizens into settlements while only sporadically addressing the international reservations about them.

Settlements were not an Israeli practice from 1948, the year of Israel’s birth, until 1967, and so were not an international issue. It all began after the June 5 to 10 so-called Six-Day War, in which Israel captured territory and hung on to parts of it, even as it shed other less prized parts.

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A UN-led effort to dissuade Israel from moving its citizens to that land began shortly after the end of the brief June conflict. It became a formal UN initiative in a few months with Security Council adoption of Resolution 242, stressing “the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war.” The measure laid out two principles to broker peace in the region, the “withdrawal of Israel armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict” and the right of “every State in the area . . . to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries free from threats or acts of force.”

[Author’s note: All references in this article are condensed to focus narrowly on the settlement issue and make no claim to present full statements in context or a complete account of the region’s extraordinarily complex history and politics.]

Resolution 242, also known as the “land for peace” resolution, remains the backbone of the decades-long global effort to secure peace among Israel, its Arab neighbors and the Palestinians and to patch together some of those seized lands into a Palestinian nation in what is now known as the “two-state solution.”

The campaign against settlements initially focused on convincing Israel not to build outposts on the occupied land. Later, after Israel steadfastly ignored the Security Council edict, the campaign shifted to pressing Israel only to freeze its settlement activities until a peace deal could be negotiated. Yet the number of settlers has unfailingly increased every year since 1967.

This has occurred despite Israel having returned the Sinai to Egypt and pulling its settlers out of Gaza and some minor West Bank outposts. Settlements are still found today in East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights — both of which Israel annexed after the Six-Day War — and in the West Bank, where Israeli occupation trumped Jordan’s 1988 assertion that it officially ceded the territory it once held to the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Israel started looking to settlements shortly after the Six-Day War. By 1970, 1,514 Israeli Jews had moved into the West Bank. By mid-2014, after a period of explosive growth that continues till now, that number had reached about 400,000, the Israeli housing minister, Uri Ariel, said in May.

“I think that in five years there will be 550,000 or 600,000 Jews in Judea and Samaria [the Israeli-occupied West Bank],” the minister said, noting that an additional 300,000 to 350,000 settlers live in East Jerusalem. The Palestinian population of the West Bank and East Jerusalem is about 2.5 million.

Israel denies that the settlements are illegal or even built in areas classified as “occupied territories.” Under the UN Charter, however, the numerous Security Council resolutions urging Israel to reverse its settlement policies carry the force of international law. The US, Israel’s closest ally, currently calls the settlements “illegitimate” — a term described in most English-language dictionaries as a synonym for “illegal.”

Further, Article 49, paragraph 6, of the Geneva Convention of 1949, to which Israel is a party, declares that “[T]he Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.” Rightist Israelis and many of their American supporters insist these lands are not “occupied” but “disputed” territories, but the international community referred to them as “occupied territories” as early as 1967. The two words appear next to each other in this context in Resolution 242.

Israeli Settlements Timeline Chart - Israeli Settlers Living int he West Bank, East Jerusalem, Gaza and the Golan Heights, from 1966 to the present.
Israeli Settlements Timeline Chart – Gaps of data in some years mean that the information is not available.

Land and internationally recognized borders are a basic starting point when defining a nation. But the unilateral creation of settlements in the Israeli-occupied territories creates what diplomats call new “facts on the ground,” steadily gobbling up land previously available for a Palestinian state. Since at least 2004, Washington, the self-appointed leader of the Middle East peace process, has insisted that all key “final status” aspects of a Palestinian state — including borders — must be decided through negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians and not imposed by one party on the other or by outsiders. Israel, however, seems intent on acting unilaterally on the issue of borders.

Moreover, the settlements, their buffer zones and their access roads have deprived the Palestinians of crucial water resources and the use of large tracts of arable land, including ancient olive groves. The settlements in some places, growing in a patchwork fashion, have separated Palestinian towns and villages from their markets and from one another. Many Israeli outposts, as small unofficial settlements are known, are located on privately owned Palestinian lands.

Then there is Israel’s imposing concrete and barbed-wire barrier that in some areas cuts deeply into the occupied West Bank. Israel says the barrier, nearly encircling some settlements located miles to the east of the pre-1967 Israeli border, was built to keep out suicide bombers and other Palestinian troublemakers. But the path it follows has the practical effect of making Israel larger than it was before the Six-Day War.

The most controversial injection of settlers into land desired by the Palestinians for their future homeland occurs in East Jerusalem, where Jewish housing steadily advances building by building into the formerly Arab neighborhoods annexed by Israel after the 1967 war. The Israeli national government says it leaves the daily management of Jerusalem to the local authorities, even as it declares an “undivided Jerusalem” — including East Jerusalem — to be its capital. The current international plan for a Palestinian nation envisions East Jerusalem as its capital, but Israel steadily shrinks the available land.

Another line of Israeli outposts juts consistently eastward from Jerusalem, seemingly intent to cut the West Bank in two, threatening to further splinter a geographically dispersed potential nation. Many analysts say the settlements’ expansion has destroyed the possibility of a viable Palestinian state and call for abandoning the idea of Palestinian statehood.

Israel over the years has argued that it needs the lands it occupies as a buffer against its Arab neighbors, who have repeatedly made war on it since the Jewish state’s birth in 1948. It also argues that settlements are just one aspect of a highly complex situation. It has linked its inaction on the settlements issue to what it sees as Palestinian inaction in other areas, particularly in ending violence.

Washington’s Central Role

In pressing for a Middle East peace, the international community has primarily worked through the UN and its 15-nation Security Council, of which the US is a permanent member with veto power. The US itself, as the peace process’s chief mediator, also plays a leading role on its own and as a member of a group of mediators founded in 2002, known as the Quartet. The other members are the UN, the European Union and Russia.

US administrations have been remarkably consistent in their opposition to settlements over the years, particularly at delicate moments in the peace process, when Israel has announced settlement expansion plans. That doesn’t mean that presidents have never veered from the fold. Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush each enunciated contrary views at some point in their presidencies, only to later retreat.

Shortly after his 1981 inauguration, President Reagan challenged statements by his predecessor, Jimmy Carter, by saying of the Israeli settlements, “they’re not illegal.” Twenty months later, he announced a new peace plan urging Israel to freeze all settlement activity and allow Palestinian self-government.

President Bush dented US policy in 2004 by publicly assuring Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that Israel could expect to keep some of its largest settlements in any future peace deal. No deal would be reached, he suggested, unless the Palestinians accepted this new reality.

“It is realistic to expect that any final status agreement will only be achieved on the basis of mutually agreed changes that reflect these realities,” he said. A year later, Bush pretty much danced back, saying, “Israel must remove unauthorized outposts and stop settlement expansion.”

Other presidents, feeling pressured by an Israel-friendly US Congress, have kept quiet on the Middle East.

At other times, administrations have managed to straddle the fence, simultaneously criticizing and embracing Israel over its settlements. The Quartet has proved useful in this context, enabling Washington to both sign on to tough Quartet statements and signal Israel to “watch what we do and not what we say.” Because of Israel’s carefully cultivated support in Congress and among American voters, Washington has mounted only symbolic opposition to Israeli settlement moves and rarely tried to force the issue.

In one notable exception, President George H.W. Bush and Secretary of State James Baker fought openly with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir in 1991, after he tried to do an end run around the White House and lobby Congress directly for a $10 billion US loan guarantee to expand settlements.

A Friend in the Security Council

What are the lessons to be gleaned from this longtime diplomatic standoff?

For one, it reaffirms the old saw that to do battle with the international community, you should have at least one of the five permanent members of the Security Council — Britain, China, France, Russia and the US — standing by your side. Simultaneously wearing two hats — chief Middle East mediator and Israel’s chief protector — Washington has most of the time allowed Israel to shrug off international pressure despite the two allies’ policy differences.

Then too, there is Israel’s great military strength, backed by extensive outside financial support and access to the latest US weaponry.

Finally, Israel’s foes, the Arab nations and Palestinian militants that surround it, have been ineffective in pursuing their goals in a highly coordinated fashion and have generated international sympathy for Israel by failing to end violent attacks against its civilians.

Palestinian violence, even when sporadic, has also been a gift to right-wing Israeli politicians who favor aggressive settlement expansion and resist Palestinian statehood and human rights. Many analysts typically predict that any peace deal significantly cutting back on settlements would generate a huge domestic backlash. Israel has also assiduously courted public opinion in the US, enabling it to enlist its American supporters in battles against presidents who try to push it too far.


Irwin Arieff is a veteran writer and editor with extensive experience writing about international diplomacy and food, cooking and restaurants. Before leaving daily journalism in 2007, he was a Reuters correspondent for 23 years, serving in senior posts in Washington, Paris and New York as well as at the United Nations (where he covered five of the 10 years that Sergey Lavrov spent in New York as Russia’s senior UN ambassador). Arieff also wrote restaurant reviews for The Washington Post and Washington City Paper in the 1980s and 1990s with his wife, Deborah Baldwin.

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