Israel Has to Surrender Its Settlements Policy

James Klurfeld

May 29, 2003

The psychological dimensions of the Mideast dispute have always been as important as the military or geographical. The barriers that Israelis and Arabs have created in their own minds about each other are the first obstacles that must be overcome if there is ever going to be peace.

The genius of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's trip to Israel in November 1977 was his recognition that he had to break the psychological barrier of fear and rejection that Israelis felt before he could make peace with them. The failure of the Israeli-Palestinian Oslo accords of 1993 is at least in part a result of both sides' failure to confront their fear of each other.

That is why Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's statement this past Sunday that Israeli presence on the West Bank and in Gaza is an occupation and that occupation is not good for Israel is significant. For Sharon, the hardest of the hard-liners, this is a watershed.

No matter how Sharon or his advisers try to condition what he said, the point has been made. His statement has the desirable effect of isolating even further the small minority of extremist Israelis who want to control the West Bank for historic and religious reasons.

But Sharon did not go far enough. He must also acknowledge that the Israeli policy of building settlements in the occupied territories has had a devastating impact on the Palestinian psyche. The new Palestinian prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, put it this way in a recent interview with the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz: "You can't imagine how powerful an influence that [the settlement activity] has on the Palestinian public."

The Israelis can produce all types of rationales for the settlements, but they must understand the impact of the settlements on the Palestinian mind. To the Palestinians, the settlements mean that Israel is not serious about a peace agreement and that Israel's real, long-term goal is to push the Palestinians out of the West Bank and Gaza and extend its border to the Jordan River.

Just as many Israelis believe the suicide bombers reveal the true intention of Palestinians to never accept a two-state solution and ultimately to push all the Jews into the sea, many Palestinians deeply believe that the Israeli settlements are proof that Israel ultimately wants all the land in the West Bank.

Many of the Israeli settlements, especially those built soon after the 1967 war, were designed to defend Israel's very vulnerable borders. That is understandable, and it is unrealistic to believe that a peace agreement will force Israel back to the pre-1967 lines. It will not. But there have also been large settlements built in the interior of the territories because politicians such as Sharon wanted to placate extremists who believe Israel has a religious and historical right to the West Bank.

The problem is that there are many more Palestinians in the territories than Israelis, and settlements mean occupation.

Sharon, the architect of the settlements policy, is face to face with its inherent contradiction. If he faces up to that contradiction, he must take action to halt the expansion of existing settlements and end the establishment of new, unauthorized "outposts." Ultimately, settlements not needed to change the border will have to be dismantled or settlers will have to agree to live under Palestinian sovereignty.

Obviously, the Palestinians must find a way to stop the suicide bombings against Israelis. That must be the sine qua non of any new peace effort. There is no comparison between building settlements and wanton killing of innocents.

But the Palestinian suicide bombings don't make the Israeli settlements policy right or just. Sharon must follow the logic of his words. The settlements are part of a policy of occupation, and they work against Israelis' long-term interests.

At the very least, Israel should start now to dismantle the unauthorized settlements and the psychological barrier they have created.

Copyright © 2003, Newsday, Inc.