Feature

The Other Housing Crisis

Why can't Israel and the Palestinians make peace? There are many complicated reasons, but the facts on the ground point to a simple answer: It's the settlements, stupid.

[UPDATE, Jan. 5: At the moment, the temptation is to look at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with a zoom lens that shows the battles in Gaza up-close, in detail. But a zoom lens flattens the picture you see, and entirely leaves out the panoramic view.

In the panoramic view, Israel's strategic problem remains ending its rule over the Palestinians safely, in order to avoid the alternative of an unstable binational state. That means leaving the West Bank, and giving up settlements. Indeed, the reason Ariel Sharon insisted on leaving Gaza unilaterally three years ago is that any negotiated agreement with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas would have meant taking down most settlements. But the unilateral withdrawal empowered Hamas, and is at the root of the current crisis.

The longer the challenge of removing West Bank settlements is evaded, the more overwhelming it becomes.

-- Gershom Gorenberg]

Each time I drive out of Jerusalem into the West Bank, it strikes me: The hills are changing. Israeli settlements are redrawing the landscape -- daily, insistently. While governments change, while diplomatic conversations murmur on and stop and begin again, the bulldozers and cranes continue their work.

From my home in West Jerusalem, the road that Israelis use to head south toward Hebron runs through two tunnels in the mountains. Known simply as the Tunnel Road, it was built in the mid-1990s during the Oslo peace process, when Bethlehem was turned over to Palestinian rule and Israelis wanted a way to bypass the town on their way to settlements that remained in Israeli hands.

A turn from the Tunnel Road takes you past the Palestinian village of Hussan to Beitar Illit, a settlement covering two hills. The streets are lined with apartment buildings, faced in rough-cut, yellowish-white stone, all with red-tile roofs, so alike they could have been turned out by the same factory. In 1993, when Yitzhak Rabin and Yasir Arafat shook hands and peace seemed close enough to touch, about 4,000 people lived in Beitar Illit. Now, 34,000 live here, and more will soon move in.

The message written on the landscape is simple: Every day, the settlements expand. Every day, Israel grows more entangled in the West Bank. To a large degree, the Israeli and Palestinian publics have accepted the need for a two-state solution. But time, and the construction crews, are working against it. No one knows exactly where the point of no return is -- when so many Israelis will have moved into so many homes beyond the pre-1967 border that there is no going back. But each passing day brings that tipping point nearer. If a solution is not achieved quickly, it might soon be out of reach.

The failure of slow-motion diplomacy can be told in numbers. In 1993, when the Oslo process began, 116,000 Israelis lived in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank (excluding Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem). Seven years later, when negotiations collapsed, the settler population had risen to 198,000.

Watching this steady march, Ehud Olmert, then Ariel Sharon's deputy prime minister, stunned Israelis in late 2003 by renouncing his lifelong commitment to keeping Gaza and the West Bank under Israeli rule. "We are approaching a point where more and more Palestinians will say: 'There is no place for two states between the Jordan and the sea,'" he warned. Instead, he said, they would demand equal rights in a single, shared political entity -- one person, one vote. The only way to preserve a Jewish state was to withdraw, he argued. By then, according to the Israeli Interior Ministry, there were 236,000 settlers.

Olmert's declaration presaged Sharon's decision to withdraw from Gaza. In 2006, Olmert was elected prime minister. Despite the Gaza evacuation, the settler population was then more than 253,000.

Last year, when Olmert resigned and elections were announced, the number of settlers in the West Bank had passed 290,000, living alongside 2.2 million Palestinians. (Another 187,000 Israelis lived in annexed East Jerusalem, next to 247,000 Palestinians.) By the time the next prime minister takes office, more than 300,000 Israelis are likely to be living in the West Bank, with the number continuing to climb.

Why do the settlements keep growing? In part, because it has been hard for Israelis to accept the pre-1967 borders. Successive leaders have hoped to hold onto significant pieces of the territory seized in the Six Day War. Olmert, despite his warning in 2003, came to office seeking a border that would roughly follow the security barrier that Israel is building through the West Bank. Officially intended to keep Palestinian suicide bombers out of Israel, the barrier loops around clusters of large suburban settlements, putting places such as Beitar Illit on the Israeli side of the de facto border. While negotiating with the Palestinians, Olmert encouraged building in settlements inside the fence.

But building has also continued in smaller settlements beyond the fence -- the strongholds of the settlers most committed to permanent Israeli rule of the West Bank. They have taken the initiative in expanding their communities. But they also enjoy backing from within the civil service. The Housing Ministry, for instance, still provides subsidized mortgages for homes in such settlements. An entrenched bureaucratic culture trumps orders from the top.

Olmert lacked the strength to crack down on that bureaucracy or risk confrontation with the settlers. Of his potential successors, Benjamin Netanyahu is the candidate of the pro-settlement right, and Tzipi Livni, the candidate of Olmert's Kadima Party, has shown no signs that she is willing or able to stop the building in the absence of a peace deal.

The settlers' growing power makes it harder for any Israeli leader to act. The head of the Shin Bet security agency recently described "very high willingness" among settlers "to use violence -- not just stones, but live weapons -- in order to prevent or halt a diplomatic process." He was articulating a country's half-spoken fears: Withdrawal involves more than the social and financial costs of moving hundreds of thousands of people. It poses the danger of civil conflict, of battles pitting Jews against Jews.

The more settlers, the greater the danger. The longer the wait, the more settlers. The more settlers, the more hesitant politicians are to talk about evacuating them, much less do anything else about them. It's anybody's guess where the point of no return lies.

But there are no good alternatives to pulling back. Olmert's plan to redraw the borders, with fingers of Israeli land extending to major settlements, would slice up Palestinian territory, while the smaller, more radical settlements would need to be evacuated. Some observers still cling to a one-state solution -- a fantasy held by those who believe that nationalism is about to fade away. Such a state would teeter between communal violence and mere political deadlock as Jews and Palestinians would try and fail to form a stable government.

So, time is in short supply. As U.S. President Barack Obama enters office, he might be tempted to put off dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But delay may mean finding the road to a solution closed. The alternative is to exert pressure on the Israeli government to freeze settlement -- and then move quickly toward a final-status agreement.

Of course, the greatest responsibility falls on Israeli leaders. The next prime minister will have the choice of learning from Olmert's unfulfilled pledge or repeating his failure to act. If Israel is to withdraw from the West Bank, the essential first step is to order an immediate stop to settlement construction. Confronting the settlers will require great courage. Yet failing to do so risks Israel's existence as a Jewish state. That's the lesson written on the hills.

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