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Israeli settlement plans should shake up American policymakers

E1 should be a serious wake-up call for American policymakers, Michael Cohen argues below. If the controversial building project in the West Bank goes forward, he writes, it’s time to start saying what everyone in Washington knows – the two-state solution will die and the U.S. risks supporting a future of apartheid.

By Michael Cohen

If there is one singular, yet frustratingly unattainable idea that has animated the Arab-Israeli peace process for the past two decades it is that of a two-state solution to the conflict – a Zionist and a Palestinian state living next to each other in peace within the confines of the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River.

It is an aspiration mouthed by all sides in the conflict – by the current Israeli prime minister, the head of the Palestinian Authority and U.S. and European policymakers – even if confidence in the achievement of this long-sought after goal seems more distant than ever, even if the present Israeli government has demonstrated little apparent interest in seeing its realization and even if we are perhaps further away from its realization at any point since Oslo.

The fact that the two-state solution is receding is too rarely uttered. For this reason, the recent announcement by the Israeli government that it intends to ramp up settlement growth in the West Bank, and begin construction planning in the E1 area, which connects Jerusalem to the Israeli settlement of Ma’aleh Adumim, is both so controversial and also so clarifying.

Indeed, reaction to the Israelis government’s announcement has been loud and furious, from the threat of European countries to recall their ambassadors from Tel Aviv to the stern response from Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, one of only nine countries to support Israel in the UN General Assembly during the recent vote on Palestinian statehood at the United Nations. Even the United States has criticized the Netanyahu government and by all accounts gave its European allies a green light to apply diplomatic pressure on Israel.

The reason is not simply because of Israel’s continued flaunting of global public opinion, the spirit of the Oslo agreement and the positions of its allies in the United States and Europe (and also the humiliation of its one legitimate Palestinian ally, President Abbas) but rather because construction in E1 would make it practically impossible for a contiguous and viable Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital to take form.

Building in E1 would not necessarily put a stake in the heart of a two-state solution, but it would come awfully close.

None of Israel’s political allies who regularly voice their support for the now moribund peace process while tut-tutting at Israel’s continued settlement program want to entertain such a possibility. It would mean ending the increasingly unlikely notion that a two-state solution – particularly one not born from future conflict – is still possible. And it would put enormous pressure on Israel’s allies to re-examine their bilateral relationship with a country that could potentially find itself ruling over a majority of politically disenfranchised Palestinians.

Now this question, of whether the two-state solution is dead on life support or whether it can still be achieved, is one that generates great controversy.

There are more than a few observers of the region who will argue that a two-state solution is out of reach. By this argument, Israeli settlements have become so intertwined with Palestinian society that it would be virtually impossible to disentangle them.  At present, there are an estimated 350,000 settlers in the West Bank. Beyond that there are approximately 70,000 settlers living beyond the separation barrier, which was built by the Israeli government over the last decade to keep Palestinian terrorists from entering Israel. The challenge in moving these individuals out of the settlements – and in particular the most zealous and religiously committed of them – means reaching a deal with the Palestinians, and that is only half the battle. Israeli society and its leaders will also have to find the political will to uproot settlement communities and in the process risk civil conflict among Israelis.

Indeed, the current Israeli government, which is one of the most right-wing ever to hold power in Israel and certainly the most opposed to two states than any since the signing of Oslo in 1993 (despite its official rhetoric), has shown precious little inclination to take on the settler community.  If anything, it shares the settlers’ goal of perpetuating and expanding Israeli control over the West Bank. Considering that this government led by Benjamin Netanyahu is highly likely to secure another four-year term come January, settlement expansion that runs the risk of ultimately blocking the creation of a Palestinian state will continue unabated. And every month and every year that there is no progress on the two-state front the achievement of a potential Palestinian state becomes that much more unrealistic.

Beyond these issues is the general apathy and resignation of the Israeli public to the current trajectory of peace efforts. Even though a sizable percentage of Israelis continues to support two-states a recent poll of Israeli Jews shows that 55 percent of them “don’t believe [a lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians] will ever be achieved.” Of course, the fact that Hamas continues to reject Israel’s right to exist, pines for all Palestine to be under its control and fires rockets indiscriminately into Israeli cities makes the realization of a lasting peace even more difficult and hardens the conviction of Israelis that they have no true partner for peace, further reinforcing Israelis’ belief that maintenance of the status quo is the only alternative

These are glaring political challenges that Western policymakers – and in particular U.S. leaders – have generally been loath to acknowledge, particularly the increasingly significant impediments to peace on the Israeli side. For the United States, in particular, which has such a close relationship with Israel, those impediments are almost too painful to consider – namely the possibility that five, 10 or 15 years from now, the United States will be providing billions of dollars in aid to a Jewish state that fails to offer full political rights to a majority of Arabs – in effect, an apartheid state.

This is why E1 construction is such a hot button, not simply because of the damage it would do to the creation of a Palestinian state, but also because it brings to the fore this exact issue, which U.S. policymakers have done their best to ignore as they mouth the latest platitude about the need for negotiations toward a lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

In the end, while is likely that Bibi will eventually back down from this latest provocation (even as other less controversial settlement projects go forward, like new construction in East Jerusalem) this event should serve as a wake-up call to Israel’s supporters, particularly the Obama Administration. For the past four years, the U.S. administration has demonstrated nothing but meekness in the face of Israeli impertinence. The Jewish state is on a dangerous and unsustainable course. It is one that leads in few pleasant directions – like a renewal of violence, growing international pressure or an Israeli state that is Zionist but not democratic.

Everyone knows this is happening, but no one wants to talk about it, including Israel’s benefactors in Washington. The E1 imbroglio creates a small chance to make sure everyone has to.

Michael Cohen is a fellow at the Century Foundation. Follow him on twitter: @speechboy71.

Related:
E1 is not a ‘land without a people’
Resource: What is the E1 area, and why is it so important?
Following E1 decision, Israel is more isolated than ever but not likely to change course 

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  • COMMENTS

    1. ginger

      I’m so tired of this Israeli game of coming within a nanometer of having all of Palestine and then making it a fight for that nanometer than for the whole nine yards they’ve already taken

      It’s the classic Israeli ruse. Steal everything then quibble of giving a crumb back.

      Decade after Decade – no one should be fooled by it anymore who isn’t getting paid to pretend they’re fooled

      The problem is not E-1 – the problem is the whole Apartheid state, the whole 750,000 paramilitary contractors,

      The WHOLE THInG is the problem – not the last gasp of E1

      Reply to Comment
    2. aristeides

      The other 14 members of the Security Council were sending a pretty obvious message to the US by going outside their chamber to denounce this project.

      The US denounced it, too, but is too fearful of the Lobby to do it from inside the Security Council chamber.

      So shameful.

      Reply to Comment
    3. The E-1 proposal may be regarded as a cry for help. N’hu is prisoner of an ideology — possibly not his own, but if so might as well be. In any case, he is its prisoner. He cannot escape it, Even if (against all evidence) he wanted to do so. “Leaders” these days are often followers, in any case, and public Israel is on a triumphalist roll — no-one has ever said them nay (well, except for war with Iran).

      So E-1 should be regarded as a cry for help. like the demand by an alcoholic for a bottle.

      And the USA as enabler has, once again, an opportunity to “lay down the law”.

      Wonder what’ll happen.

      Reply to Comment
      • Kolumn9

        The bulldozers at E1 will be quietly prevented from starting construction at some point after the elections to appease the Americans and Europeans. The Europeans and Americans will shut up again until the next time the Palestinians make a unilateral move, like say applying to the ICC. Then Bibi will make the call to start construction because all plans will have already been approved.

        Reply to Comment
    4. Aaron Gross

      Ever notice how it’s always this next thing that’s liable to put a two-state solution out of reach? These articles practically never say it’s out of reach now and has been for a while because of the last thing that happened or the one before that. And of course they don’t say the solution will probably stay within reach for quite a while. Uh-uh. It’s always this thing about to happen now that’s going to turn the switch.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ok Aaron: two states is dead now. It is absurd to allow vanguard (past Wall) settlers to expand, in any form, if you really want Two States. I think Bibi’s refusal to extend the building freeze, ignoring US plea, ended the matter. But I do not think Bibi and evil genius. His primary goal is to stabalize his coaltion (witness failed Kadima [sp?] alliance), forcing issues of expansion and “security” thereby to the forefront to avoid internally divisive matters like the tax structure or universal military service. Playing to the settlements keeps pushing internal crises forward in time.

        Recall one of the US election soundbites: “Obama is throwing Israel under the bus.” What that translates to is that the Democratic Party foreign policy establishment knows exactly where Bibi et. al.’s incrementalism is going and said establishment does not want to take sides in a full apartheid regime (remember Carter’s book, “Peace, not Apartheid.”

        With Gaza foregone and an increasingly “holed” West Bank (which will require IDF security for connecting roads), real sovereignty, forgetting about Jordan River security, is a myth no one believes. But there is nothing the US can do without hard opposition at home. What I would do: help fund 15 more Iron Domes, then pull out of all foreign aid for Israel. The first part Congress might buy; never the second.

        I have said repeatedly on this this site that the suicide bombing war must be discussed. But the only clear attempt to have resistence, or just political opposition, that employs some nonviolence are the Wall Protests, and reading hasbara comments on this site makes clear the party line is to laugh at these.

        The continuing economic integration of Israel and the Bank will eventually prime things for real civil resistence; I see this as inevitable, with many tragedies on that road. If Israelis want to find a way out of this slow burning mess I suggest taking the Wall protests seriously, to signal that the concept of opposition as such is not condemned, but the bombings of the past–which indeed should be condemned.

        Reply to Comment
        • Kolumn9

          Oh well, now that you say that it must be true. I mean the absence of any alternative option wouldn’t push the supporters of the Palestinians into accepting a smaller state without Jerusalem or some other arrangement. They are going to come out marching with Israeli flags demanding their children get drafted into the IDF. This is certainly the next step here. Hahaha.

          This is why the two state outcome was baked in the moment Oslo was signed. There are two separate national movements here. If you think the Palestinians are dropping theirs you are really not paying attention, though I am sure you noticed the Israelis are not ready to do so.

          Reply to Comment
          • No, K9, it is not about finally deciding to embrace the Israeli flag. An intergrating Bank/Israeli economy will produce active apartheid. Eventually, Palestinians will begin to demand civil and economic equality. Some will go violent, and I expect rather hard repression by Israel. Once just it is generally concluded elsewhere that the logistics of security and civil standards have created a de facto State from the river to the sea, the present ruling elite will find itself boxed in. I am not looking forward to this scenario, but it seems inevitable.

            One cannot keep pressing over a million people onto smaller and smaller land, with little real economic control over their futures. Recall the bundistans set up by the South African regime. If you really wanted a Two State solution, you would decry expanding settlements. But your verbage consistently presses toward a humbling of the Bank Palestinians. A State with no autonomy is no State. I don’t want a One State outcome (not solution); but I see nothing else under the corporate right nationalist path.

            Reply to Comment
          • Kolumn9

            It is impossible to demand civil and economic equality without a political program. If the Palestinians demand equal civil and economic rights with Israelis they would have to do so under a political program of demanding to be Israeli citizens. This is based on surrendering the Palestinian national movement and frankly I judge the chances of this at zero, primarily because their ideology is operating within the wider context of the Arab/Islamic world. Even were they to do so the Israeli response would be no. The alternative approach is that they demand civil and economic equality in a state of Palestine that extends throughout Israel and the West Bank. In this case they would have to convince Jews that giving up the Jewish national movement in favor of this is an attractive proposal. The chance of the present ruling elite doing so is zero. The chance of the rising ruling elite doing so is the same. This is especially true when overwhelming pressure from the outside can be parried with small territorial adjustments (“disengagement”). Not that this overwhelming pressure is anywhere in sight.

            One can in fact keep pressing over a million people unto smaller and smaller land, with little real economic control over their futures. Recall Gaza. Recall the Indian reservations. Admittedly this is only possible when there is no economic dependency on their labor. This was the underlying flaw for the Boers. Their economy was entirely distorted and based on relying on cheap African labor. The SA Bantustan attempt failed because they couldn’t actually carry out the plan. In more blatant terms, they would have had to carry out ethnic cleansing on a massive scale and destroy their economy in order to get the Bantustan plan to work. They were not willing to do so. The situation here is very different. There is no need to move any significant number of Arabs from where they live. There also isn’t any significant dependence of Israel on Palestinian labor. They make up 80,000 out of the Israeli labor force of more than 3,200,000 (<3%) and can be replaced with laborers from half the developing world as has been done in the past. If every Palestinian is shut off entirely in their autonomous areas the impact on Israel and Israelis is relatively small. Your arguments would have made more sense before Oslo, but they are entirely obsolete at this point. You can thank Rabin for that. The initial restrictions on Palestinian labor and movement were put in place by Rabin and Peres. Violence on the part of the Palestinians only reinforces this dynamic. Gandhian opposition too would not have much of an impact.

            Creating hostile Palestinian enclaves isn't the optimal outcome and a two state solution would be better. However the conditions the Palestinian leadership demands are entirely unreasonable and even worse the Palestinian leadership that is supposed to be Israel's partner for negotiations is quite clearly on its way out. Construction in settlements are the only means of demonstrating that Palestinian demands are unrealistic and that they have no capacity for enforcing them on the ground. The same message applies to the supporters of the Palestinians. The corresponding threat of the 'one state' or whatever is empty for reasons outlined above. It only sounds credible to post-nationalist Europeans and their fellow travelers.

            Reply to Comment
    5. Aaron Gross

      When you read that some settlement proposal will practically kill the prospect of a viable state, you can be sure what you will not read subsequently. Will not see a concrete explanation, with or without maps, showing specifically how this geographical situation makes viability impossible. (Transportation? Communications? Defense?) You won’t see how it will make the transfer of settlers out of the territories that much harder tomorrow than it was yesterday. No details. No concrete arguments. Just cliches.

      Reply to Comment
    6. weindeb

      Once again are we possibly about to witness Israel’s infamous modus operandi in action; namely, Facts on the Ground. Practiced since 1948, and even before, this highly successful expression of Manifest Destiny in not such slow motion will of course continue until Biblical boundaries, thoroughly baked in the ovens of propaganda and assorted right-wing rationales, will have been achieved. If this E1 outrage does occur, I shall be highly disappointed, but nor surprised, if the United States fails at the very least to recall its ambassador, and better to break diplomatic relations with what is obviously a rogue state.

      Reply to Comment
    7. William Burns

      Israel isn’t “flaunting” global public opinion, it’s “flouting” it.

      Reply to Comment
    8. Chalton Price

      Tony Judt, in the NY Review of Books, 2003, “Israel – An Alternative” explained fully the logical impossibility, and therefore the casuistry, of “two state solution.”

      Reply to Comment
    9. ruth

      Did Tony Judt explained also how utopistic and far-fetched is the “one state solution” or he just tried to smash the “two states solution”?
      The truth is that toni judt does not have any clue about the issue. He lives in a “bubble” without having had any kind of prolonged experience in the OPT.

      Reply to Comment
    10. Khaled Khalid

      The whole point of delays and foot dragging in the peace process was to Transfer as many Jews, yes it is about Jews, into the West Bank as fast as possible and have them have sex as often as possible to produce as much babies (8-10 kids per family) to account for “Natural Growth” in order to be a Demographic Reality/Threat/Hegemon in the West Bank.

      Why would you build all this infatructure and housing for Jews-Only Settlements as a matter of State Policy then give it all back to the Palestinians???
      Answer: You wouldn’t.

      Reply to Comment
      • Kolumn9

        The point is to keep some of the land. Also, there is no ‘give back’ to the Palestinians since it was never theirs in the first place.

        Reply to Comment

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