Israel Announces New Plan for Settlements

A contribution from NESA interns, Maryam Arshad and Madison Barton.

This past Friday Israel published bids for 450 new settlements in the West Bank approximately 425 acres from A-Nahla, a Palestinian village. The West Bank and Gaza Strip are areas occupied by Israel since 1967, but feature a predominantly Palestinian populationIsrael purposefully established the E2 settlement, also known as Givat Eitam, east of the West Bank border, physically bisecting the West Bank territory. In 2004 Israel took control of the area and Palestinian landowners appealed to no avail. Since then, in October 2013 the E2 area has been designated as agricultural farming area, a guise for an influx of settlers into the Palestinian owned land. The location of the proposed settlement would effectively block Bethlehem from south West Bank, essentially constructing an obstruction to any future two state solution.

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Settlements have previously been established in this region, but announcements of new Israeli settlers have been followed by outrage at the actions of the current administration in IsraelThe United States and European Union have denounced Netanyahu’s plans as being illegitimate and illegal. In fact the Israeli settlements are a violation of the IV Geneva Convention, which is in place to protect the rights of civilians during war. Because the settlements are a method of creating conditions on the ground that inflate Israeli numbers, it is seen as an affront to the Palestinian civilians who are living on the land. Peace Now, an organization that advocates a two state solution, argues that the settlements could jeopardize a future for a possible two state Israel-Palestine agreement. The Palestinian Liberation Organization went as far to call these settlements war crimes, urging the International Criminal Court to thwart Israeli advances.

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It is no secret though, that Israeli settlements of the sort have existed for quite some time. So how much of a hindrance are these settlements to a prospective two state solution? Foreign Policy believes they are inconsequential to any future negotiations or deliberations between the two parties. Perhaps it is true that the settlements in question would not do much to make Israel stronger or Palestine weaker, but the issue of settlements speaks to a larger issue of Israel continuously pushing its boundaries in the international community, hoping to garner more and more for their interests, without regard for international law.

Just recently Netanyahu’s snub of President Obama, by accepting an invitation from the Speaker of the House, John Boehner, to speak to the United States Congress illustrates just how far the Israeli Prime Minister is willing to push even his closest ally. International diplomatic relations are traditionally performed by the respective heads of state, and by not asking or even informing President Obama of his presence in the United States legislature, Netanyahu has severely strained ties with the President. Furthermore, as the International Criminal Court has introduced investigations into Palestinian territory to uncover possible war crimes in the region, Israel could face ramifications for its policies, including the settlement advances. So then, are these announcements just symbolic pushes of Israeli power?

Maps from BBC and Peace Now 

Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

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The President Goes to Jerusalem

The overall opinion of President Obama’s tour of Israel and the Palestinian Territories seems to agree that the President unleashed a “corker” of a speech. We are led to understand that, by acknowledging Israeli’s fears and humanizing the Palestinians, the President has done an excellent job at recasting the situation and rising above the leadership of the respective parties. Essentially, Obama took his argument to the Israeli people, recognizing the “futility” of hoping for progress with Netanyahu.

However, this speech may be much less of a success than it appears. In fact, this speech signals a significant defeat for the President. In his first term, Obama tried to maintain that halting the construction of new settlements was of paramount importance to getting negotiations to move forward. While the current talk certainly disparages settlements, it no longer views them as an impediment to negotiations:

What I shared with President Abbas, and I’ll share it with the Palestinian people: if the expectation is we can only have direct negotiations when everything is settled ahead of time, then there’s no point in the negotiations.

Chalk one up for Bibi. As has been mentioned before in this blog, the new Israeli coalition is likely to be inward looking. Any attempts at peacemaking will put incredible strains on the coalition. However, now that the settlement issue has been removed from the table as a precondition for talks the government the new Housing Minister, Uri Ariel, may freely pursue his policy of enhanced settlement construction. While Obama may be correct that there need be no need for preconditions for negotiations to commence, this move will be deeply disappointing to Palestinians.

The thought that keeps pushing through is that, as great as this speech is, it would have been even more excellent had it taken place in January, before Israeli elections. The time to encourage a people to influence their people is before an election, not after. While public opinion is always relevant in a democracy, it is incredibly more so in the lead up to an election.

The other issue here, mentioned above, is Palestinian disappointment. To quote from a pro-Fatah Palestinian newspaper:

What did Obama do? He repeated his previous positions and announced them in Israel and Palestine. He therefore does not oppose a Palestinian state but he did not say how such a state can be established. Furthermore, he did not demand from Israel that it stops settlement activity in order to have successful negotiations.

Whereas in Israel Obama was greeted by children cheering, his reception in the Territories was glum.

Unfortunately it looks as if Obama may have made an excellent speech that will have little to no effect on the ground. Of course, I would love to be proved wrong.

Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Bibi Returns?

In my last post I discussed Israel’s lack of a true strategic dimension in policy thought and mentioned the difficulties Netanyahu faced gathering a government together. It now seems that Bibi has managed to cobble together an alliance of sorts that will allow him to head a government finally. Notably missing from the coalition are religious parties, such as Shas, that have often been necessary to any attempt at forming a workable coalition. However, the current group does not bode well for an evolution towards a more strategically minded Israeli policy.

The new coalition will be, broadly speaking, between four parties – Netanyahu’s Likud, Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, Naftali Bennett’s Bayit Yehudi, and Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah. While this coalition does give Bibi the votes necessary to govern the Knesset, it is an alliance that will be very difficult to contain. Of key importance will be the push and pull between Yesh Atid and Bayit Yehudi. Lapid has, in the past, made his preferences known that he prefers negotiations with the Palestinians towards the goal of a two-state solution. Bennett, while not explicitly turning against a two-state solution, has proposed full annexation of the parts of the Occupied Territories termed “Area C” by the Oslo accords. If this plan went ahead, a map of the Occupied territories would look something like this:

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This plan does not leave the Palestinians with an effective territorial basis within which to form a state (although Bennett does propose naturalizing those Palestinians resident in “Area C” in order to avoid charges of apartheid). While Lapid does favor maintaining control of most settlements, this plan is far outside of what he has proffered in the past.

Suffice it to say this is a major difference of opinion. While Bennett’s suggestion is unlikely to ever come to fruition anytime soon, any attempt to wade into solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is nearly certain to raise significant strains in the current government. Both Livni and Lapid favor new negotiations, Bennett is less so inclined. For the time being, priorities will likely lie on the domestic front, tackling issues such as fiscal responsibility and lowering the cost of living.

However, some analysts have suggested that the Palestinians may be headed for a new intifada. If such a struggle breaks out it may be impossible for the Israeli government to avoid dealing with the Palestinian issue.

To return to my point from earlier in the week, all this finagling and inward turning will make it extremely difficult for Israel to formulate any sort of strategy. Not only is the stability of the current coalition dubious, it is highly likely that Israel will retain its tactical approach and eschew any serious strategic rethink.

Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

On The Gatekeepers

This blog has tended to stay away from delving into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but over the weekend I had the fortune of attending a screening of The Gatekeepers. For those not familiar with the film, it entails interviews with every surviving Director of Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security services. While there are many ‘money quotes’ regarding Israel’s relationship with the Palestinians, the most important acknowledgment is that Israel has been engaged in “short-term tactics with no long term strategy.”

This insight should be given heightened importance given the current impasse in Israeli electoral politics. While Likud did ‘win’ the recent parliamentary election, obtaining 31 seats (a loss of eleven from the previous Knesset), Netanyahu has so far been unable to create a governing coalition. So far, Yesh Atid and Bayit Yehudi (who came in second and fourth respectively in the elections) have not signed on with Likud to join any coalition. Labor (third place) rejects any Likud partnership. On 2 March 2013 Netanyahu was granted a two week extension to his attempt to forge a coalition. If unsuccessful either another party gets a shot at forming a government or new elections will need to be called.

In such an arduous political climate one must ask how likely it is that Israel will move beyond tactical planning and into a more strategic mindset. The Gatekeepers from the film describe an Israeli state security apparatus that is extremely capable at dealing with threats in the short-term. Tales of taking out radicals with phone bombs or precision aerial strikes abound, but none of them see any strategic direction. While these operations are impressive from a certain standpoint, what is the overall goal? In order to formulate a strategic plan there must be some degree of political will. The ongoing parliamentary horse trading does not bode well for any new strategic process.

There are no easy answers for these questions. While the film does not offer a new strategic framework for Israel, it does suggest a way to lay out the groundwork for creating one. Perhaps one of the most important suggestions coming from the film is a rethink of who is who and what role they can play. Avraham Shalom, Shin Bet Director from 1980-1986 and one of the men on the team that captured Adolph Eichmann, states:

Talk to everyone, even if they answer rudely. So that includes even Ahmadinejad, [Islamic Jihad, Hamas], whoever. I’m always for it. In the State of Israel, it’s too great a luxury not to speak with our enemies…Even if [the] response is insolent, I’m in favor of continuing. There is no alternative. It’s in the nature of the professional intelligence man to talk to everyone. That’s how you get to the bottom of things. I find out that he doesn’t eat glass and he sees that I don’t drink oil.  

Any strategy must take a realistic assessment of the ground. No Israeli strike is going to dislodge Hamas from Gaza. Additionally, no strike will eliminate Iran’s capability to create nuclear weapons; a strike will delay them at most unless we are envisioning a long-term game of whack-a-mole. Dealing with people we don’t want to deal with would be an important first step in creating a new strategic outlook. The last situation Israel wants to find itself in is one in which, in the words of Ami Ayalon, Shin Bet Director from 1995-2000:

“We don’t realize that we face a frustrating situation in which we win every battle, but we lose the war.”

Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.