The mood in Washington is despondent, at least on Secretary of State John Kerry’s initiative aimed at breaking the Israeli-Palestinian deadlock.
Recent weeks have seen the parties introduce stumbling blocks aimed at frustrating any breakthrough, including Israel reneging on its commitment to release a further batch of Palestinian prisoners. A measure of the desperation felt by Mr. Kerry and President Barack Obama is that they considered releasing Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard from prison as a tradeoff for Israel fulfilling its prisoner release commitments, which Israel has now cancelled.
Each step seems preceded by quid pro quos – for instance, Mr. Netanyahu demanding a priori Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state as a condition for any deal, never before a negotiating prerequisite, and already clearly recognized in United Nations Resolution 181 of 1948, which gave international sanction to there being both Jewish and Arab states.
For skeptics, this raises the question of whether the current government in Jerusalem really wants forward movement – and whether this new series of demands is not a closely thought-out mechanism to introduce unexpected elements into the equation in an effort to derail the process.
In Washington, rumours abound that Mr. Kerry’s initiative may have run its course. Having set out to facilitate a final-status agreement, Mr. Obama’s administration retreated to seeking agreement on a framework for eventual further discussions, and if that were unattainable, to release its own ideas on the shape of a future agreement. There are now strong suggestions that even this has gone the way of all flesh.
With a breakdown in the talks near certain, the question becomes the course of future events on the ground. To answer this, one has to look at past and current trends. Although polling shows a majority of Israelis ready to support a peace agreement with far-reaching concessions, this is not reflected in the composition of the Knesset, government or bureaucracy. Supporters of a Greater Israel, stretching far into the West Bank, hold sway there. They compose the power elite on the peace issue.
Unless Mr. Netanyahu, himself an ideologist, forgoes his base (and there is no past behaviour to suggest he will), absorption of the territories into Israel will continue unabated. Although there may be a pause or “freeze” in settlement construction because of external pressure, past precedents uniformly demonstrate that such moves are tactical, never strategic, and almost invariably temporary.
The number of settlers in the West Bank is growing exponentially. In 2000, they numbered just over 190,000. Today, that figure rests around 450,000 – excluding East Jerusalem, at about 200,000. The area controlled by settler municipalities extends to 45 per cent of the land mass. There are more than 200 settlements connected by an elaborate network of roads and infrastructure. There are more than 100 additional outposts, settlements built without government authorization but for the most part tolerated and protected militarily.
The strategic use of the land in the exercise of state power seems therefore well established. Planning decisions neglect economic, ecological and demographic criteria in the interests of building Greater Israel, whatever its implications for Palestinians.
In the view of ultra-nationalists, the Zionist concept gives legitimacy to their quest. And their quest goes beyond settlements and outposts, per se, to include the expropriation of Palestinian urban property in Jerusalem through a mix of evictions and construction in Arab neighbourhoods. There are plans, for instance, to build a multistorey Talmudic academy in the middle of Sheikh Jarrah, meshing with a growing settler presence in this particular Arab neighbourhood, where Israeli settlers are already living side-by-side with Palestinians in expropriated property. In certain instances, by court order, they share single homes with Palestinians – forced co-habitation.
Many Israelis of the centre and left seem to have given up hope that they can reverse this tide. They see themselves as powerless to prevent a one-state solution, an unequal paradigm where Palestinians remain, but without citizenship and under military rule. In this context, retributive rule seems the order of the day, fostered by rising star Naftali Bennett, leader of the radical Jewish Home party, upon which Mr. Netanyahu’s Knesset majority depends. Mr. Bennett advocates the annexation of 62 per cent of the West Bank into Israel with the residue going to the Palestinian Authority on a cantonal basis, with Israeli security oversight.
In the absence of any serious negotiating process, this absorption will continue apace, creating a violent, ungovernable mix. This is the seemingly insurmountable challenge Mr. Netanyahu, or a successor of any stripe, will have to face – with more blood and pain for both Israelis and Palestinians.
Michael Bell has served as Canada’s ambassador to Jordan, to Egypt and to Israel. He is an adjunct professor of political science at the University of Windsor and teaches at Carleton University.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this column incorrectly said the number of settlers in the West Bank was just over 190,000 in 2010. In fact, that number, from the Israeli Statistical Year Book, refers to the number of settlers in 2000.