In his recent speech at the annual conference of the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), Vice President Joe Biden reiterated President Barack Obama’s call for a freeze of Israeli settlements and the dismantling of “illegal outposts” set up by Israeli settlers in the West Bank.
There are many issues that need to be resolved between Israel and the Palestinians. But settlements, an issue which has too long been on the diplomatic back-burner, are the root cause of most of the human rights problems in the West Bank.
From expropriation of Palestinian land, to severe restrictions on Palestinian movement, from the settler pogroms in Palestinian towns to putting more Israelis at greater risk of violence, the settlements make lives more miserable and hope more remote every day. And they throw Israel’s respect for the rule of law into question as well.
With Biden’s speech at so central a DC event as the AIPAC conference, it is clear that the issue of settlements is now as central in the diplomatic arena as it has been for years on the ground. This is good news but resolving the settlement question will not be easy.
The politics around it in Israel are complex, and even if an agreement is reached with the Palestinians, any withdrawal of settlements will take time. But in the meantime, there are steps that can be taken to ease the human rights conditions for Palestinians and start to repair Israel’s reputation.
Removing outposts and freezing construction in the West Bank, as President Obama has proposed, can contribute to both of those goals, if they are pursued properly.
“Outposts” are Israeli settlements established without government sanction. The settlers in these outposts tend to be among the most radical, and frequently harass and clash with Palestinians nearby. This aggravates the already tense situation in the West Bank.
Israeli law deems the outposts illegal, unlike the more than 120 settlements (generally viewed as illegal under international law, though Israel disputes this) that Israel has officially sanctioned. 100 outposts are dotted around the West Bank, and each one makes a mockery of the Israeli commitment to peace with the Palestinians.
Israel prides itself on its commitment to the rule of law. The fact that Israel doesn’t act forcefully to enforce its own laws and dismantle the outposts not only undermines Israel’s image as a democracy; it also undermines Palestinians’ ability to believe that Israel is serious about its commitment to a peaceful future for the two peoples.
Since the outposts are illegal under Israeli law, there should have been no need for an Israeli commitment to the United States, under the terms of the Roadmap, to dismantle them. Israel still made that commitment, yet neither that promise nor their own laws has compelled Israel to take down these outposts or prevent new ones from popping up.
President Obama must, therefore, be very clear with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu when they meet: Israel must start by fulfilling its commitment to take down all of the outposts. The longer it delays in removing them, the more difficult the task becomes.
Removing the outposts is part and parcel of the settlement “freeze” that was a buzzword even under the Bush
administration. It is crucial that Obama also be very clear about what he means by a “freeze.”
In order to be effective, a settlement freeze must be total. This means no more “exceptions” for building up existing settlements, halting all construction of roads off-limits to Palestinians, and a compete end to any more seizure of West Bank lands.
The US must also commit to working with Israel and the Palestinians to enhance security for both Israelis and Palestinians in the wake of these moves. Israelis in particular must be convinced that Palestinian human rights and Israeli security are not mutually exclusive goals, but are complimentary.
The removal of the outposts and a real settlement freeze will be helpful to any diplomatic process. They will also help to bring Israel back, both in the eyes of the world and for itself, to its democratic principles and ideals. And these steps will begin the process of dealing with the question of settlements once and for all.
The issue of settlements is certainly not the only day-to-day human rights issues on the ground in the Occupied Territories. Israelis continue to have serious security concerns, and the problems in the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem are severe and daunting.
But a total settlement freeze and the complete removal of outposts would go a long way toward rekindling hope on both sides. People will start to believe again that there are those on the other side who support their basic rights and can be good neighbors.
That will make all the tough tasks that much easier.