The Middle East peace process is not, nor was it ever, being stopped by the presence of Jewish settlements
Palestinian Authority leaders pay a great deal of lip service to their desire to create a state of their own, even turning to the United Nations to try to achieve some kind of unprecedented observer status for their as yet nonexistent state.At the same time the Palestinians, their friends, and even elements of Israeli society, point to the Jewish settlements in Judea & Samaria (aka The West Bank) as the primary obstacle which stands in the way of a lasting peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, and the subsequent declaration of an independent Palestinian state in that area – which they claim is their ultimate aim. But this assertion does not hold up under even basic critical analysis or historical evidence.
Since 1947, the Arab world, including the Palestinians, has had multiple opportunities to negotiate with Israel and create a state. The Arab world rejected the United Nations partition plan, which would have created a tiny Israeli state and much larger Palestinian one, preferring instead to go for it all in a genocidal war with Israel that failed.
Twenty years later, after the Six Day War, Israel's efforts to swap its newly acquired territory in the Golan, Sinai, and West Bank for peace was rebuffed with the infamous "3 No’s" from the Arabs. Even so, for the next dozen years Israel did little to settle Jews in the West Bank, assuming that negotiations would happen, and the West Bank would change hands.
Rather than grabbing at this opportunity to try to turn their overwhelming loss in 1967 into something positive, the Palestinians chose a twelve year policy of international terrorism against Israeli and Jewish targets, which they wrongly believed would lessen Israeli resolve.
Incidents like the Munich Olympics and Entebbe hijacking are written in blood into Israeli and world history. It should be noted, by the way, that unlike what would have occurred had the Arab’s won the 1967 war, the West Bank residents remained in their homes, villages, and cities. They were not massacred and they were not expelled; indeed, their quality of life improved under Israel.
Despite the terror attacks, Israel however did not capitulate. Instead, under Menachem Begin, Israel began to once again create settlements in the West Bank, more fully integrating it into Israel. I say once again because, prior to Jordan's land grab in 1948, this area had been home to a Jewish community since biblical times. Indeed, Hebron, the ancient home and burial places of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is considered the second holiest city to Jews and the area known as Gush Etzion, south of Jerusalem, had seen whole communities slaughtered in the war of independence.
In any case, even as Jews started to build on the West Bank, Israel came to an agreement with Egypt that was based around a "land for peace deal", with the Sinai area being returned to Egypt. This clear demonstration of Israel's willingness to exchange land, captured in the Six Day War, for peace, could have been an opportunity for the Palestinians to begin a peace process and indeed Israel understood this, and offered them autonomy in the West Bank, which they of course rejected.
Having made that offer, and now decades after the Six Day war, Israel clearly saw that an intransigent Arab response meant the West Bank would be in Israeli hands for a very long time.
Begin, and subsequent prime ministers, continued to invest in the area, building Jewish settlements, but also improving life for the Palestinians: Access to Israel's superb health system improved life expectancy dramatically, reduced infant mortality, and eliminated childhood diseases. Palestinian education had been ignored by Jordan prior to 1967, leading to high illiteracy levels, but Israel's investment in education not only drastically improved literacy but also built universities and colleges. Unemployment went down, and employment was at record levels for the area.
It was by no means a bed of roses for the Palestinians. But it is a fact that their quality of life at that time was far better than much of the Arab world.
Despite that, the Jordanian citizens on the West Bank, who now identified themselves as Palestinian, were indeed an occupied people. Tough anti-terror measures by Israel, coupled with anti-Semitism and inherent hatred in the Palestinian world, led to a growing disobedience, leading to the First Intifada.
As part of the several attempts to come to a final status agreement, most importantly at Camp David in the summer of 2000, Israel offered to withdraw from all of the Gaza Strip and between 90-96 percent of the West Bank. Unfortunately, Palestinians rejected these offers and instead of building a state for their people, they chose to mount a five year war of terror that killed many hundreds of Israeli civilians and resulted in Israel building fences between Jewish and Palestinian areas, restricting movement of Palestinians. Cue subsequent economic decline.
It was not an outcome Israel had sought when it went into Oslo, but it ended the intifada and to this day the security fences and checkpoints have saved uncountable lives. The Palestinian failure to live up to its Oslo commitments to end terror opened the door for Israel to allow more settlement building and many thousands of Israelis chose to live in the ancient Jewish land of Judea and Samaria.
In 2005, Israel boldly decided to unilaterally withdraw from Gaza. It evacuated all its soldiers and painfully dismantled 21 settlements in the area it called Gush Katif – approximately 9,000 citizens, many of whom had lived in their homes peacefully for decades, and whose businesses employed Gaza residents. Israel also removed four settlements in the West Bank.
The hope was that “ending the occupation” and evacuating settlements would satisfy the Palestinians’ demands and provide an opportunity for them to begin to build the infrastructure of an independent state in Gaza.
Instead, they saw it as a sign of Israel's lack of determination – a crack in its resolve, a weakness, and they launched a rocket and mortar bombardment that continues to this day against southern Israel that keeps the innocent civilians there in a state of constant anxiety. Once again, instead of land for peace, Israel traded land for terror, death, and war. The Gazans, who had had the opportunity they’d dreamed of for decades in their hands, found themselves human shields to their Hamas "leaders".
As I have written elsewhere, the Palestinians often declare their support for talks, but go to great lengths to avoid them. The vast majority of Palestinians today live under autonomous Palestinian control, but find the quality of their lives has deteriorated since Oslo. Interestingly, they are also starting to show signs that they recognise the Palestinian Authority as the cause of their problems.
Meanwhile, on the international stage, Israel has discovered that any steps it takes to defend itself are condemned, but it is clear that the Palestinian leadership still has the same goal in mind that they had in 1947 – all or nothing – as judging by an open letter President Abbas sent to Gaza residents this week, where he clearly states that he believes all of Israel is occupied territory:
"The recognition of [the State of Palestine at the UN] will not free the ground the next day, but it will prove our just cause that our land is occupied and not disputed territory, and this is true in regards to all of the territories Israel occupied before June 1967."
The Arab world is in turmoil and mired in violence and religious extremism, and the Palestinian community deeply divided to the point of civil war. Meanwhile the hatred and scapegoating of Israel for all the many failures of the Islamic world deepens.
There is probably little or no possibility of the type of decisions being made that are required to resolve the Palestinian question. And the nightmare scenario for Israel is making further difficult concessions, only to end up with a second Gaza on the West Bank. Indeed Israel has made major unilateral concessions and has been badly punished for its efforts, and is unlikely to do that again.
One thing is clear though: this is not now, nor was it ever, a process that is being stopped by the presence of Jewish settlements.
Adam Mallerman is an English-born, Jerusalem-based broadcaster. He is a regular contributor on the Israel News Talk Network and hosts a weekly program on Israel National Radio. Visit his blog and follow him on Twitter @IsraelradioGuy