Thursday, March 27, 2008

Olmert and Settlements: Lofty Goals Betrayed by Actions on the Ground

Settlement Report | Vol. 18 No. 2 | February-March 2008
By Geoffrey Aronson
March 2008 Settlement Report

Since his election as prime minister, Ehud Olmert, long a stalwart supporter of Greater Israel, has made unprecedented statements declaring an interest in ending Israel’s rule over Palestinians. In stark contrast to Olmert’s rhetoric, however, the settlement machine grinds on. Many Israelis and others are now asking whether Olmert means what he says when he voices a need to end occupation, evacuate settlements, and agree to the creation of a Palestinian state. Or are his comments merely a new twist to Israel’s oft declared interest in “stretching out its hand in peace” to its Arab adversaries even as this objective is betrayed by Israeli actions on the ground?

Some History

Menachem Begin’s election as prime minister in May 1977 opened a new chapter in Israel and the national enterprise of settling the West Bank. No longer would the policy of “creeping annexation,” adopted by Israeli leaders during 1967–1977, be obscured by the official policy of “deciding not to decide” the future of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Begin was not one to shrink from declaring without ambiguity his dedication to settlement throughout the “Land of Israel.”

Soon after Begin’s election, Nahum Goldman, chairman of the World Zionist Organization and a political foe, remarked, “[Begin] is the most honest of all the Israeli politicians I know. . . . The trouble has been that many Israelis didn’t say what they wanted. Begin does. His election will determine the legitimacy of a policy of non flexibility.”

Begin wasted no time clarifying his objectives. An emissary dispatched to Washington explained that Arabs and Palestinians were amorphous abstractions without any legitimate claim to statehood in the Land of Israel, whose “reunification” under Israeli sovereignty offered Palestinians only “political and cultural self determination” as a minority in the Jewish state.

Begin himself soon traveled to the wildcat West Bank settlement of Elon Moreh—an “outpost” in today’s parlance—which elements in the just defeated Rabin government patronized even as the prime minister condemned its consolidation. (Sound familiar?)

“There will be many more Elon Morehs,” Begin declared. “Since May of this year, the name of these areas has been changed from occupied to liberated territories. This is liberated Israeli land, and we call on young volunteers in the country and the diaspora to come and settle here.”

During the next decades, Israelis motivated by religious zeal and many more others by a desire to improve their quality of life answered Begin’s call. Numbering 10,000 when Begin assumed the premiership, the settler population of the West Bank (excluding settlers in annexed East Jerusalem) now approaches 300,000.

Sharon Settles

There was no mistaking Begin’s intent, nor the parallel intentions of his principal settlement architect, Ariel Sharon, who served Begin, and then Yitzhak Shamir, in a number of key settlement related posts. As a minister in Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet, Sharon returned to Israel from discussions with President Bill Clinton at the Wye Plantation in October 1996 admonishing “young volunteers” ( many of whom were the children of Begin’s settlement cadre) to “grab and settle” land throughout the West Bank, unleashing the most recent phase of new settlement creation. These so called illegal outposts—the successors to the veteran settlements of Ofra, Elon Moreh (re named Kedumim), Ma’ale Adumim, and numerous others—now number close to 100.

Sharon worked in the service of Likud governments, but his origins were in the bosom of Israel’s Labor establishment—the party of David Ben Gurion, Golda Meir, and more recently, Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak. If Begin is considered the settlement movement’s cheerleader and most unabashed advocate, Sharon, and by extension Israel’s Labor establishment from Levi Eshkol to Barak, was its most effective contractor. It is not for nothing that one of the truisms of Israel’s occupation is “Labor announces one settlement and builds ten, while the Likud announces ten and builds one.”

Cry and Build

While Sharon was a child of Israel’s Labor establishment, Olmert was born and bred in Begin’s Likud. Indeed, for most of his political career, Olmert, anointed as one of the Likud “princes” who would some day inherit Begin’s mantle, placed himself on Begin’s right wing, voting, most notably, against Begin’s path breaking peace treaty with Egypt.

As premier, however, Olmert has adopted the “cry and build” persona preferred by his predecessors in the Labor Party. Indeed, in important respects he has outflanked his predecessors in Labor from the left. Rabin, for example, never would have dreamed of declaring, as has Olmert, the creation of a Palestinian state to be a vital Israeli interest. Yet despite such sentiments, like his Labor predecessors, Olmert presides over settlement policies that, contrary to the spirit of his public pronouncements, continue to advance creeping annexation on the ground.

For example, settlers decry any suggestion of a reduced commitment to their welfare as a “freeze” on settlements. They need not worry, explained Eitan Broshi, assistant minister of defense for settlement affairs. “There is no policy of ‘drying out’ the settlements. There is a policy of caution with regard to the use of broader discretion regarding construction permits. Over the past three months, the minister of defense approved several construction matters in the territories, and these will also be implemented in coming months. Priority,” he explained, “is being given to Jerusalem, the Etzion bloc, and settlements located in settlements blocs”—the latter defined by Israel as those areas about which President George W. Bush, in a 2004 letter to then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, acknowledged Israel’s intent to annex.

These are not empty words. Olmert has specifically excluded the settlement neighborhoods in East Jerusalem from any freeze. The newspaper Kol Ha’Zeman reports that “in the framework of efforts to expand construction, the Jerusalem municipality is undertaking intensive discussions with the Israel Land Authority to ‘liberate’ public land for the immediate construction of new housing. In coming months tenders for construction of 750 apartments in Pisgat Ze’ev . . . can be expected.” Since the November 2007 Annapolis conference, tenders for the construction of 400 units in East Talpiot, 300 in Har Homa, and 50 in Gilo have already been announced. Uri Lupiansky, mayor of Jerusalem, recently said that the city is moving forward with plans for the construction of 10,000 housing units in East Jerusalem settlements.

Minister without Portfolio Haim Ramon, who has established himself as Olmert’s stalking horse on settlement policy and who heads a committee charged with solving the outposts issue, explained that his committee sees its mandate not so much as removing unauthorized settlements but rather to facilitate settlement construction wherever “it is not politically significant.” Indeed, draft recommendations by Israel’s Justice Ministry will enable continuing construction not only in recognized settlements but also in unauthorized ones as well. Most problematic are new settlements sited on what Israel acknowledges to be private Palestinian land. These number at least one third of 100 existing outposts.

Linking Elon Moreh to Migron

Begin’s decision to legalize Elon Moreh was challenged by a 1979 High Court decision voiding the creation of civilian Jewish settlement on private Palestinian West Bank land in the absence of a security justification. The settlers of Elon Moreh simply moved to a new location nearby—Kedumim, today a settlement of 3,400. Elon Moreh itself was reincarnated as a settlement of 1,300 on a hilltop overlooking Nablus.

The Israeli court’s prohibition of this type of land theft, however, did not stop the practice of taking what even Israel recognizes as private Palestinian land for Israeli settlement, as today’s outpost phenomenon demonstrates. Peace Now reports that almost 75 percent of the wildcat settlements established since 1996 are built in part on private Palestinian owned land that was taken by settlers without any confiscation order.

The Legacy of Elon Moreh

A recent report by Israel’s civil administration acknowledges that more than one third of well established West Bank settlements, where tens of thousands of Israelis reside, are built on private Palestinian land that was “temporarily” seized by military order for security purposes. According to a report in Ha’aretz, “a security source termed this a ‘difficult statistic’ that is liable to cause trouble for Israel both in Washington and its own courts.” The article notes that most of this land was privately owned by Palestinians. In addition to Ariel, Efrat and Kiryat Arba—three of the largest West Bank settlements—the list also includes settlements in the West Bank heartland favored by Sharon—Beit El, Elon Moreh, Karnei Shomron, Kedumim, Ofra, Psagot, and Shilo and the Jordan Valley settlements of Gitit and Mechora. At least 19 of the 44 settlements on the civil administration’s list were established after 1979, violating at least the spirit of the Elon Moreh decision and a government policy that based settlement expansion exclusively on “state land.”

Ha’aretz noted that, “the Israel Defense Forces explained that its land seizure orders are in force until they are canceled. In some of these settlements, part or all of [the land] was declared ‘state land’ at the same time, but the seizure orders have not been canceled, either partially or totally.” It added that “in general, seizure orders have not been used to build settlements since 1979,” but “in the early 1980s, Nahal [an army unit] outposts were still built on the basis of seizure orders, and some later became settlements. There were also isolated cases during those years in which land was seized for roads or buildings for existing settlements.”

A deal in the works between settlers and Defense Minister Ehud Barak will trade the evacuation of some outposts for increased settlement construction elsewhere. Prominent among these is Migron, a wildcat settlement of sixty families that Olmert has promised to evacuate by August.

Ha’aretz has reported that “a new neighborhood comprising 27 trailers is currently under construction at the settlement of Eli, north of Ramallah, even though Prime Minister Ehud Olmert vowed publicly after the Annapolis conference that any such building would cease.”

These facts prompted a Ha’aretz editorial on January 9, 2008, declaring that “there is no meaning to the Bush visit or to Olmert’s talks with Mahmoud Abbas as long as the facts on the ground . . . clearly demonstrate the lack of credibility of the government’s declarations, and the cooperation that it receives from the American government with this policy.”

Olmert’s lofty sentiments highlighting the need for a change in the status quo pale against the continuing commitment of Israel’s central security, legal, administrative, and political institutions to the policy, now almost four decades old, of creeping annexation. The prime minister’s comments are as yet little more than a public relations sedative to mask Israel’s continuing commitment to Greater Israel.

No comments: