"Israeli settlement activity is an impediment to peace." For years the Arabs, American officials, and the Israeli Left have claimed that the continuing Israeli settlement activity hurts the peace process. If anything, settlement activity acts as a catalyst to press the Palestinians to move forward in the peace process.
Israeli settlement activity is the only action from the Israeli side which threatens the Palestinians with the prospect that the deal they may refuse today may be considerably better than the deal that Israel will be able or willing to offer tomorrow. Even if the negotiations are bogged down due to Palestinian intransigence and Israeli redeployments are postponed, all of this is temporary in nature. A short blip in the century old Arab-Israeli conflict. But settlement activity is quite another story. Growing settlements define areas which the Israeli national consensus will never support returning. Settlements stretching on key roads turn the tables on future possible solutions, ending the isolation of Israeli settlements and, in turn, isolating Arab villages. Is Israeli settlement activity a violation of the Oslo Agreements? Palestinian complaints about settlement activity cite Article XXXI Paragraph 7 of the Interim Agreement: "Neither side shall initiate or take any step that will change the status of the West Bank and Gaza Strip pending the outcome of the permanent status negotiations."
The meaning of "status" means "legal status". A violation of the agreement would take place if Israel annexed part of the West Bank or Gaza Strip or the PA declared an independent state in the area before the negotiations were concluded. Israeli settlement activity is no more a violation of the Agreement than Palestinian construction. Many Palestinian officials recognize this and instead argue that the settlements are not "in the spirit of Oslo". But the agreements are legal documents, and as legal documents what counts is what is written - not some amorphous "spirit".
Besides encouraging the Palestinians to lower their demands and expectations, settlement activity, if properly packaged, can be used as a prime tool in the battle against terror. Historically, settlements were considered the "Zionist response to terror." A look at the map of modern Israel finds it sprinkled with the names of settlements named in memory of the victims of various Arab attacks. Today's terrorists are popular folk heroes in Palestinian society. The cost to the Palestinians of terror, in the form of restrictions on movement and commerce, may be painful, but the pain is temporary in nature. Large terrorist attacks may postpone Israeli redeployments and talks, but, again, these are temporary setbacks.
Terrorist attacks may, in fact, be viewed in the long run by the Palestinians as serving their interests by softening Israel's resolve. When one well known Israeli Leftist declared in an interview on Israel Radio after the bus bombings in Jerusalem that "we celebrated the day that the wall dividing Jerusalem was torn down in 1967 and we will celebrate the day it is erected again" this was not lost on the Palestinians.
But what if the Netanyahu Administration returns to the "Zionist response to terror"? Sure, the Palestinians won't be pleased to learn that the "Shchunat Munk" neighborhood is being built in the memory of the Munk family recently murdered in a drive-by shooting. But will the murderers still be the same heroes they were before their action lead to the building of yet more Jewish homes? The "Zionist response to terror" has another benefit. Besides deterring Arab terror, it would serve to bolster the morale of the Israeli public by offering it a positive emotional outlet through which to respond to Arab terror. By establishing living memorials, Israel would be effectively saying: "We are on the map. Terror will not vanquish."
It is said that the Arabs decided to make peace with Israel when they came to the conclusion that they could not destroy the Jewish State on the battlefield. By the same token, settlement activity today may very well convince the Palestinians that they must compromise now or face the prospects of a considerably worse deal in the future.
Dr. Aaron Lerner ia an Associate of IMRA (Independent Media Review & Analysis).