Bloomberg columnist Jeffrey Goldberg wrote an editorial last week explaining why Israeli settlements in the West Bank are not the central issue in the Middle East today. He explains that, yes, settlements are definitely one of the obstacles to peace between the Israelis and Palestinians, but then proceeds to list the ways in which the settlements are not the cause of what Goldberg terms the “general mess” in the Middle East, which includes the civil war in Syria, tensions over Iran’s nuclear program, and general animosity toward the United States by the governments of various Arab countries.
It is ironic that, the same week, news broke of Israel’s Housing Department authorizing funds for the construction of new settlements in the West Bank as part of a broader push to build over 20,000 new housing units in Judea and Samaria. Prime Minister Netanyahu wasted no time in condemning the plan.
I agree with Goldberg’s assessment. To blame everything that goes awry in the Middle East on Israeli settlements is not only unfair to Israeli settlers, but also undermines the fact that there are other things going horribly wrong in the Middle East that has nothing to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. However, that does not change the problem that this announcement comes at an incredibly inopportune time in Israeli politics, with tensions in the Israeli political world already running high with the recent announcement of possible talks between the United States and Iran.
Let me be clear from the outset: This article is not an argument against constructing the settlements, nor is it, in any way, an indictment of those who live in the settlements. Rather, let this be a critique of the settlement leadership and its champion, Israeli Housing Minister Uri Ariel.
Some have postulated that this settlement announcement was Prime Minister Netanyahu’s own doing, so that he would appear to be the more rational politician in Israel following the announcement. However, I would like to respectfully disagree: This is an opportunity for the settlement leadership to stay relevant. And, in so doing, they are trying to further strain the U.S.-Israel relationship as Israeli and Palestinian leaders enter negotiations moderated by Secretary of State John Kerry.
With Bibi focusing on the possibility of an agreement between Iran and the West that would not completely erase all traces of nuclear power in Iran, people seem to have placed the settlements aside in their discussions of Israel politics — as well they should. The settlements are a considerable issue for Israel, but they are not the sole point of contention within Israel.
The settlement leadership’s desire to remain relevant, and to continue to agitate the world of Israeli politics, is also working contrary to their own goal. If they want to build settlements, then they can just as easily find other times to announce their grandiose plans. Their doing it now, with Bibi having just denounced the negotiations between Iran and the U.S., almost guaranteed their being shut down from the start. Whatever Netanyahu’s own opinion on settlements is, he knows that this is not the time to push for construction of new settlements in the West Bank. To do so would be to undermine the relationship with the United States that can probably bear little more tension, given some of Netanyahu’s comments about Obama’s policies.
So, then, what is the Housing Ministry’s goal in announcing its plans now? I’m inclined to believe that they’re trying to throw Netanyahu under the bus. The settlement leadership has little to lose at the moment — many American Jews already oppose the settlements. I don’t want to vilify settlers, but I do have to say this about the settlement leadership: they seem to be doing a very good job of trying to alienate anyone who could be their ally. In doing so, however, they are also ironically working against their own stated goal.
The settlements might not be the root of all problems in the Middle East, but settlers are certainly doing a good job of trying to make it seem like they are. No, dismantling the settlements will not lead to a magical, liberalized Middle East or two independent states that are able to coexist quietly, if not happily. But they can do their best to undermine the peace process. And that, it seems, is exactly what they’re trying to do.
Settlements are a controversial topic, and the settlement leaders are, if inadvertently, capitalizing on this by making it a hot-button issue now. But this strategy is only going to draw further condemnation, both internally and internationally. It will make it harder for Israeli leadership to authorize the construction of settlements in the future. The settlement leadership might see agitation as their tool to disrupt the peace process and ensure that they can continue to settle Judea and Samaria. If this past week has shown us nothing else, then, it is that this agitation is backfiring.
By doing this time and time again, the settlement leadership has made its agenda clear: it wants not to settle the West Bank, but to cause commotion and disrupt a peace process which still, hopefully, has a chance. The settlement movement, as represented by its leaders, is doing what it can to undermine Israel and its reputation internationally. It will further strain the relationship with American Jews, who are growing increasingly impatient with the prolonged (and unproductive) peace process, and who see the settlement movement today for what it has become: a movement to agitate and to disrupt, and, it seems, little more. Ultimately, the settlement movement’s leadership is hurting not only the movement they represent, but hurting the State of Israel and placing undue tension on American, pro-Israel Jews.
Amram Altzman is a student at List College.