In addressing the future status of the settlements in Israeli-Palestinian final status arrangements, we first have to ask whether, considering the terrorist war being waged over the past 16 months, any agreements at all are possible. In view of the Israeli mood, what are the chances of successful negotiations?
Barak was prepared to give up 96 percent of the West Bank and Gaza. It is impossible to withdraw in this way from nearly all of the territories without dismantling settlements and removing their residents. At Taba in January 2001, Barak’s government increased the offer to 98 percent, along with part of the Halutza Dunes region inside Israel, with all the ramifications this precedent carries for future Palestinian demands. Had Arafat responded with a genuine readiness for peace, the Israeli public would have been persuaded that this constituted the end of all violent conflict with the rest of the Arab world as well. A majority would have supported Barak, even at the cost of a severe internal rift and perhaps domestic violence.
Arafat responded to Barak’s unbelievable concessions by raising a new and far-reaching demand: the right of return. Arafat knows this demand is totally unacceptable to the vast majority of Israeli Jews–94 percent, according to one poll. It was here that he revealed his true face, even to those who still believed him: it is not peace he wants, but the destruction of the only Jewish state in the world. He proceeded to follow up with the current campaign of terrorism and attrition. The reaction of the Israeli public- -a sense of betrayal by Arafat and massive support for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon–needs little elaboration.
Accordingly, it is extremely unlikely that in the near or even foreseeable future the political status of the settlements will change. Indeed, they will continue to expand, in land and in population. Just as it would not cross the mind of any sane Jew to evacuate, say, the residents of Jericho, so the Arabs (and those Jews who delude the Arabs into believing that armed struggle will “break” the settlements) must understand that it is no longer possible to evacuate Maale Adumim, Ariel, Qiryat Arba or Qedumim.
The most important theoreticians and ideologists of the Arab world have insisted–some still insist–that the State of Israel is a fleeting episode. Arafat witnessed Israel’s hasty withdrawal from Lebanon and yielded to the temptation to believe that it would behave similarly in Judea and Samaria. If there is one single Israeli community that has proven how wrong he was, and that provides the vanguard for the strong stance of the entire Israeli people, it is the settlers. The Arab world insists blindly on misreading the substance and true motivation of the settlers–the historic, Zionist, religious and national ethos that drives the majority of the settler community.
The settlements, like any living organism, continue to develop and grow. Last year, despite terrorist attacks on the roads that killed more than 100 men, women and children, the settler population grew by 5.7 percent (compared to 2.7 percent among Israelis as a whole, including immigrant absorption, and 10 percent among settlers in a “normal” year).
In the first Intifada, despite casualties from stones and firebombs, the Jewish community in Judea, Samaria and Gaza tripled in size: from about 50,000 to around 150,000. Today there are some 220,000 settlers. The Palestinians chose then, as now, to believe the claims of their supporters from the Israeli extreme left, that the settlers came to improve their quality of life and that consequently a war of attrition like that waged over the past 16 months would cause them to flee.
Here too they are wrong. If Maale Adumim and Ariel, for example, have turned into vibrant cities that attract new (and primarily non- religious) settlers, this puts the lie to that argument. Even as Israelis continue to debate “concessions” for peace, additional settlements like Beitar and Alfei Menashe will reach populations of 15,000 and achieve recognized urban status; the territories will comprise 4-6 Jewish cities of over 30,000 residents each, some 50 communities of over 5,000 Jews, and around 90 additional communities, many of them with a population of over 1,000. Does anyone really believe that, even if the leftist Meretz Party takes power in Israel, it will be possible to dislodge a population this size? Yet these are the numbers of settlers that will inhabit the settlements, despite Palestinian opposition, within a few years.
I do not know precisely what the political status of the settlements will be in any possible future agreement. One thing is clear: whatever agreement is reached, no one will remove us by force. Nor can anyone stop the growth of the settlements in terms of their size and population. Thus there is wisdom in the assertion that, at least in these territories, a Palestinian state cannot be established with enough land to sustain a population the size of that within the Palestinian Authority, where 96 percent of the Palestinians live in areas A and B. I believe it is already too late for this to happen. Hence a future solution will have to draw upon the contribution of additional states, Jordan and Egypt, to a territorial solution for a Palestinian state.
But this is the topic of another essay.
Yisrael Harel is former Chairman of the Council of Settlers of Judea, Samaria and Gaza.