As talks begin, Jewish settlements loom as challenge


The last time that Israeli and Palestinian negotiators sat down for extended, serious peace talks, in the waning days of the second Bush administration, the effort to reach a compromise was excruciating.

It could be even more difficult now.

In the past five years, the population of Jewish settlements in the West Bank has grown by about 20 percent, and pro-settler politicians have become major players in Israel’s government.

Here in the West Bank, which Palestinians claim as a basis of their future state, settlers have built museums, a full-fledged university, archaeological parks, shopping malls, heritage sites and wine bars. The impossible-to-miss message: These settlements are here to stay.

On Monday, Secretary of State John F. Kerry acknowledged the challenge of old and new realities as he opened preliminary talks in Washington with Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat.

“It’s no secret that this is a difficult process. If it were easy, it would have happened a long time ago,” said Kerry, adding that the negotiators would seek “reasonable compromises on tough, complicated, emotional and symbolic issues.”

Many of the core issues to be addressed have remained unchanged for decades: how to arrange for Israel’s security needs; whether, where and how to divide Jerusalem to create a Palestinian capital; what to do about Palestinian refugees and their desire to return home; and where to draw the borders for a future state of Palestine.

But the growth of the settlements presents a particularly thorny challenge. About 340,000 to 360,000 people live in Jewish settlements in the West Bank, according to Israeli government data. An additional 300,000 Jews live in East Jerusalem, which Palestinians claim as their future capital.

Although there are still rugged encampments of tents and trailers on isolated hilltops, manned by youths with extreme views, many of the settlements in the West Bank have taken on the air of middle-class permanence: comfortable villas of white stone and red-tile roofs, landscaped with olive trees and date palms. They are the kind of gated communities that look more Southern California than Holy Land.

“Settlement life is a great life,” said Veronica Gareleck, who moved with her husband and family to the Ofra settlement. She tends to guests who want to sample some Psagot chardonnay at the Binyamin Regional Council’s visitor center — a 15-minute drive and only one checkpoint north of Jerusalem.

Gareleck said residents do worry that a peace deal could change their way of life. When Israel unilaterally pulled out of the Gaza Strip in 2005, about 9,000 settlers were uprooted.

“But we hope we can do peace,” she said, “without moving.”

U.S. diplomats assume that some of the largest Jewish settlements in the West Bank, located near the pre-1967 lines, will remain under Israeli control in any peace deal and may be exchanged in land swaps with the Palestinians.

Some Israelis have taken to calling these housing projects “quality-of-life settlements,” meaning that residents are there for economic reasons, not ideology — for spacious homes, affordable mortgages, and dedicated byways to shuttle commuters to day jobs in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

“Approximately 80 percent of the settlers live in 5 percent of the land, largely adjacent to the pre-1967 boundary. This gives hope that you can do land exchanges for that 5 percent of the land,” said David Makovsky, director of the Project on the Middle East Peace Process at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

But what about settlements deeper in the West Bank?

Palestinian leaders have said that they will not tolerate settlements that disrupt the territorial integrity of the West Bank portion of a future state, which would also include the Gaza Strip.

“The Israelis talk about peace, but on the land they act otherwise. We want peace, but the settlements are taking the land. This is an enormous problem,” said Yousef Abu Maria, a spokesman for the Popular Movement, a Palestinian group that is protesting Israeli occupation with its own encampments.

Aaron David Miller, a veteran of many past U.S. attempts to shepherd Mideast talks, said the landscape today is a lot different for the Palestinians than in 2008, and their footing worse. The dismal West Bank economy, the enduring split with the Hamas rulers of the Gaza Strip and the erosion of Palestinian support for talks put Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in a very tight spot, Miller said.

“Let’s hope there is something new here,” he said. “If this is old wine in a new bottle, there’s going to be trouble.”

The United Nations and many governments consider Israeli settlements built in the West Bank illegal under international law because they are on occupied lands. The Israeli government disagrees.

Although the number of settlers has climbed steadily in the past five years, they remain controversial in Israel. In a Pew Research Center poll of Israeli Jews in May, 35 percent said continued Jewish settlement building “hurts security,” 31 percent said it “helps security,” and 27 percent said it “makes no difference.”

As he enters negotiations, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu must work within a coalition government that contains many pro-settler politicians.

Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, the third most powerful member of Netanyahu’s coalition, was formerly the director general of the Yesha Council, an umbrella organization of Jewish settlement councils.

“As negotiations get underway, we will insist on continuing construction in Jerusalem and the West Bank,” Bennett said at an event in the Shiloh settlement this month. “History has taught us that building produces life, while dismantling settlements produces terror.”

Indeed, unlike the last time that the Obama administration launched Mideast peace talks — a short-lived effort in 2010 — there is no settlement freeze this time around.

Kerry announced Monday that veteran diplomat Martin Indyk will run the talks for the United States. Indyk, who will take a leave from the Brookings Institution, maintains deep contacts in the region, particularly among Israeli officials.

In his 2009 memoir of the Clinton-era efforts to win a peace deal, “Innocent Abroad,” Indyk wrote that “future presidents need to insist that during final status negotiations all settlement activity be frozen, including in the settlement blocs, unless it is done in agreement with the Palestinians.”

President Obama marked the resumption of talks with a cautious statement Monday. “This is a promising step forward, though hard work and hard choices remain ahead,” he said.

That caution is matched in the region. Some settlement advocates say they have little to fear from the talks because the settlements have become such an integral part of Israel.

“I think in the last two or three years, we have passed a point of no return,” Dani Dayan, a leader of the Yesha Council, said in an interview at his home in Maale Shomron, a settlement founded with 40 families that now has 250.

“I don’t mean to say the Israeli military couldn’t handle forcibly evacuating settlements,” he said. “What I am saying is that from a psychological point of view, there is no going back. We are here to stay. Dismantling the settlements would break the back of Israel. There would be no Israel. There would be no Zionism. There would be no point.”



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