To even attempt an answer to that question, one needs to at least try and comprehend Israel’s motivation in building settlements. I say “Israel”, rather than "the government of Israel", because since 1968 every Israeli government has built settlements (or built in the settlements). Many of Israel’s critics prefer to “forget” this detail; it is, after all, easier and more politically correct to accuse Netanyahu, Likud, or the Israeli “extreme right”; but it is also specious. In reality, recent governments (including Netanyahu’s) have been in some ways less active than the previous ones: they may have built in existing settlements, but have established no new ones since 1998. Interestingly enough, it was right-wing Israeli governments that evacuated 18 settlements in Sinai, 21 in Gaza and 4 in the West Bank. As for Netanyahu, he was the first and so far only Israeli prime minister ever to agree to a 10-months “freeze” of settlement construction.
|That's how BBC portrays Israeli Jews|
Statistics show that a considerable majority of Israeli Jews describe themselves as “seculars”. They don’t keep kosher, drive on Shabbat and rarely go to a synagogue. Hardly the religious zealots that might place biblical covenants above current political and demographic logic. “Well, that may be”, object the haters. “Israelis may not all be extremists – but they are led by extremists”. The problem with that accusation is that none of Israel’s prime ministers so far has been a practising Jew; they were all “seculars”; so were most ministers and most Knesset (Parliament) members – unsurprisingly given the composition of the population and Israel’s democratic system of governance. The next canard haters usually employ is that, while Israeli leaders tended to be secular, their coalitions depended on religious parties. But while religious parties may occasionally have punched above their weight in Israel as a result of being “coalition kingmakers”, those with knowledge of Israeli politics will know that – at least in the last 20 years or so – those religious parties tended to be much more interested in preserving their constituency’s budgets and privileges, than in settlements or claiming the West Bank. Simply put, the “religious fanaticism” motivation flies in the face of reason. It cannot explain anything.
How about the “land grab” theory, then? Is Israel establishing settlements out of greed for more land? Well, the question is: what is the value of that land to Israel? After all, even those anti-Semites who believe that Jews are genetically greedy don’t really think they are also stupid. The West Bank is essentially devoid of any natural resources. Haters and Western naïves will, of course, repeat ad nauseam the canard about settlements “taking the best land”, but no, they don’t. Most West Bank settlements are built on hilltops, where agriculture is difficult, if at all possible. That’s why there were no Arab villages there, in the first place. Interestingly by the way, the “land-as-agricultural-asset” view is of course a Palestinian concept, which the Westerners simply undiscerningly repeat. Frankly, despite her agro-Zionist beginnings, today’s Israel is not interested in agriculture: it accounts for just 2.5% of the country’s GDP and provides employment for just 2% of her labour force.
How much land is there to “grab”, anyway? According to the pro-Palestinian organisation B’Tselem, in 2010 the West Bank settlements’ built-up area totalled 1% of the West Bank. In 2000, the Palestinians themselves (more precisely, the PLO Negotiations Department) estimated that “all of the settlements in the West Bank currently occupy approximately 2 percent of the West Bank”. So, in 30-40 years of “settlements”, Israel managed to “grab” between 1 and 2% of the West Bank. However, let’s be generous: let us assume that Israel would somehow (hard to imagine how, but let’s go ad absurdum…) end up not with 2%, but with 10% of the West Bank. That would increase Israel’s current area (almost exactly the size of Wales) by a whooping… 3%. Some “land grab”! Is THAT what the settlements are all about?
A variant of the “land grab” theory is the “water grab”. According to this conspiracy theory, the settlements “happen” to sit atop West Bank’s scarce water resources, which of course Israel wishes to appropriate. Well, if they did, that would be an interesting case of water flowing upwards, since as mentioned most West Bank settlements are located on hilltops. The reality is that aquifers are not aware of borders and populations. They span underground for many miles, on both sides of the Green Line and are more easily accessible from the valleys, not from the hilltops.
So if neither religious fanaticism nor greed for land, what is the reason, then? Are Israel’s leaders (all of them, since 1967) plain idiots? Some certainly seem to think so; even some well-meaning but very naïve Jews have taken to wringing their hands in despair, rather foolishly “buying” the Palestinian narrative that the “ever-expanding” settlements will lead to the “one state solution”, Israel’s demographic demise.
Israel’s difficulty is, of course, that officially disclosing the real reasons would be self-defeating. But since I am in no way connected to the government of Israel, I feel free to analyse those reasons here. As for you, reader, if you find them credible, then well and good; if not… rest assured that officially Israel will deny them, anyway. But no, Israeli leaders are not idiots; nor are they religious extremists or yearning for “land”. Then what?
There are three different reasons for Israel’s obstinate entrenchment on the “settlements” issue.
First, there is a security-related reason. Sure, Israel has – in the regional context – a strong army. But her challenge has always been the lack of strategic depth in the East-West direction. At her most narrow point, Israel is just 9 miles wide between the Green Line and the Mediterranean. Worse, there are just a couple of miles as birds fly between the Green Line and the densely populated areas of the Coastal Plain, where half of Israel’s population lives. And while IDF is indeed strong, its strength relies on speed and manoeuvrability; which can only manifest itself in wide flanking movements, not in static defence. (Actually, the only time Israel attempted static defence – the Bar Lev Line in 1973 – it failed as irredeemably as the Maginot Line had 33 years earlier). Thus, in her pre-1967 “borders”, Israel is vulnerable to an attack from the East along that longest border. While a Palestinian or Jordanian attack on that eastern border may not be a problem, a “slender” Israel would fear an Iraqi, Iraqi/Iranian or even a pan-Arab attack. In that context, some of the larger settlements contribute strategic depth: they are likely to remain under Israeli control in any envisageable situation, most likely as “fingers” of territory pointing eastwards. Such Israeli-controlled territory can become crucial in terms of concentration of force and providing a base for flanking manoeuvres.
|The 2008 Olmert offer map: note the settlement "fingers" protruding eastwards|
Contrary to popular belief, it was not the result of some abstract form of “Arab intransigence”. It was the doubt that that was the best achievable deal. Were the Palestinian leaders convinced that no better deal could be achieved, they would have accepted the offers. But they were not convinced, hence they did not. There is a strong current of belief in the Palestinian (and generally Arab) society, which tends to regard the West Bank and Gaza as “in the pocket”. According to this world view, Israel can ill-afford to annex the West Bank, because she does not want to absorb its more than 2 million Arab inhabitants. On the other hand, maintaining the West Bank under occupation opens her to accusations of “apartheid”. Hence, assert promoters of this view, withdrawal from the West Bank is an Israeli interest, more than it is a Palestinian one. In effect, they say, West Bank and Gaza are already “Palestine”. All the Palestinians have to do – goes this theory – is “steadfastly” wait; time and demography is on their side and will eventually lead to their “regaining” of “all of Palestine”. It would be a mistake to believe that such views are shared only by supporters of Hamas; in fact, it is also deeply entrenched within the ranks of the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority. Of course, not all Palestinian leaders are convinced that such dreams will ever come true; but, since Gaza is already “disengaged” and the West Bank essentially “in the pocket”, there seems to be no harm in waiting. Why rush and sign on the dotted line, when a better deal may be waiting just around the corner? It is here that, in Israel’s view, the “settlements” may make a difference. In negotiations, actions speak; words are just noise. Israel’s “message” has always been that, each time Arabs refuse to make peace, they lose an opportunity; the next offer will necessarily be smaller. Consolidating the settlements is Israel’s way of telling the Palestinians that they have something to lose; that if they choose to spurn peace now, less “land”, rather than more, may be on offer next time. Some may call it a rather extreme negotiations tactic; but when were Middle Eastern politics anything else but an exercise in brinkmanship?
There is, as well, a third motivation for settlements: Israel knows from past experience that, whenever she makes a concession, it is nonchalantly pocketed by the other side, discounted immediately by her critics and even soon forgotten by her allies. All of whom then turn to demanding the next concession. Israel did not get less criticism when she withdrew from South Lebanon, “disengaged” from Gaza or allowed Arafat to take control of 40% of the West Bank; in fact, all that brought Israel new and harsher criticism. Israel has learned that she will be criticised, whatever she does or fails to do. Channelling the criticism onto “settlements” is, in the context, the lesser evil from an Israeli point of view. It focuses haters’ energies in a direction which is, frankly, rather innocuous; it allows European and US leaders to sue for Arab oil and sympathy by delivering the obligatory criticism of Israel; while continuing to support her in the more essential aspects.
And that’s what the “illegal settlements” are for.