It's Not about the Settlements, Stupid
The Washington Post, in its Dec. 18 edition, runs an article by Jerusalem correspondent Joel Greenberg about Israel proceeding with plans "for a surge of settlement building on occupied land" ("Israel's building plans advance," page A12).
"Israel's continued expansion of settlements is at the core of an impasse in peace efforts," Greenberg writes. "The Palestinians, who seek a state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip with a capital in East Jerusalem, have refused to resume negotiations with Israel unless it halts settlement building in occupied land."
Greenberg is wrong on two critical points. First, there is ample historical evidence that settlements are not an obstacle to advancing the peace process. And, second, the land in question is not "occupied."
On the first point: Israel withdrew all Jewish settlements in Sinai in exchange for a peace treaty with Egypt. In similar fashion, Israel withdrew all Jewish settlements and more than 6,000 settlers from the Gaza Strip in hopes of creating a prosperous, peaceful territory. It didn't turn out that way, but again, when the chips were down, in hopeful pursuit of peace, Israel got rid of these settlements.
In 2000-2001, President Bill Clinton and then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered Yasser Arafat a Palestinian state on 94 percent of the West Bank and all of Gaza, plus in all Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem. Arafat turned down their land-for-peace initiative and instead launched the second intifada. Yet again, Israel demonstrated that it was ready to dismantle most West Bank settlements and remove tens of thousands of settlers from their homes.
More recently, in 2008, then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert sweetened the Clinton-Barak parameters by adding a provision to turn over control of religious sites in Jerusalem to an international consortium, with a five-member governing board with a Muslim majority -- "Palestine," Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the United States. Just think: Israel was prepared to turn over control of the Western Wall and the Temple Mount, Judaism's holiest sites, to a Muslim-majority consortium! Yet Mahmoud Abbas walked away. And yet again, Israel was prepared to evacuate tens of thousands of Jewish settlers from the West Bank.
Given this history, there is no justification for Greenberg to claim that settlements are "at the core of an impasse in peace efforts." The reason for the impasse is Abbas's inability or unwillingness to join Israel in making painful concessions to achieve a compromise peace deal.
However, depicting settlements as the key obstacle to a peace deal is not the only critical flaw in Greenberg's piece. He's also off base when he writes that settlements are on "occupied" land -- a formulation that implies that the Palestinians had sovereign claims on it in the past, and still do. But there never existed a Palestinian sovereign state to assert such a claim. You have to go back to the Ottoman Empire to find prior sovereign ownership. And the Ottoman Empire disappeared after World War 1.
The truth is that both sides now assert sovereign claims on identical pieces of land in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. That makes it "disputed" land, awaiting a peace deal to sort out actual sovereign status. Until then, however, there is no legal or historical basis for calling it "occupied" land. Sometime in the future, Palestinians may achieve sovereign status under a two-state deal. But that has yet to materialize, and to make it happen, Abbas first will have to sit down at the negotiating table and get serious about cutting a viable peace deal for two states. Israel is ready. The Palestinians are not.
Leo Rennert is a former White House correspondent and Washington bureau chief of McClatchy Newspapers.