Israeli settlement plans should shake up American policymakers

E1 should be a serious wake-up call for American policymakers, Michael Cohen argues below. If the controversial building project in the West Bank goes forward, he writes, it’s time to start saying what everyone in Washington knows – the two-state solution will die and the U.S. risks supporting a future of apartheid.

By Michael Cohen

If there is one singular, yet frustratingly unattainable idea that has animated the Arab-Israeli peace process for the past two decades it is that of a two-state solution to the conflict – a Zionist and a Palestinian state living next to each other in peace within the confines of the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River.

It is an aspiration mouthed by all sides in the conflict – by the current Israeli prime minister, the head of the Palestinian Authority and U.S. and European policymakers – even if confidence in the achievement of this long-sought after goal seems more distant than ever, even if the present Israeli government has demonstrated little apparent interest in seeing its realization and even if we are perhaps further away from its realization at any point since Oslo.

The fact that the two-state solution is receding is too rarely uttered. For this reason, the recent announcement by the Israeli government that it intends to ramp up settlement growth in the West Bank, and begin construction planning in the E1 area, which connects Jerusalem to the Israeli settlement of Ma’aleh Adumim, is both so controversial and also so clarifying.

Indeed, reaction to the Israelis government’s announcement has been loud and furious, from the threat of European countries to recall their ambassadors from Tel Aviv to the stern response from Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, one of only nine countries to support Israel in the UN General Assembly during the recent vote on Palestinian statehood at the United Nations. Even the United States has criticized the Netanyahu government and by all accounts gave its European allies a green light to apply diplomatic pressure on Israel.

The reason is not simply because of Israel’s continued flaunting of global public opinion, the spirit of the Oslo agreement and the positions of its allies in the United States and Europe (and also the humiliation of its one legitimate Palestinian ally, President Abbas) but rather because construction in E1 would make it practically impossible for a contiguous and viable Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital to take form.

Building in E1 would not necessarily put a stake in the heart of a two-state solution, but it would come awfully close.

None of Israel’s political allies who regularly voice their support for the now moribund peace process while tut-tutting at Israel’s continued settlement program want to entertain such a possibility. It would mean ending the increasingly unlikely notion that a two-state solution – particularly one not born from future conflict – is still possible. And it would put enormous pressure on Israel’s allies to re-examine their bilateral relationship with a country that could potentially find itself ruling over a majority of politically disenfranchised Palestinians.

Now this question, of whether the two-state solution is dead on life support or whether it can still be achieved, is one that generates great controversy.

There are more than a few observers of the region who will argue that a two-state solution is out of reach. By this argument, Israeli settlements have become so intertwined with Palestinian society that it would be virtually impossible to disentangle them.  At present, there are an estimated 350,000 settlers in the West Bank. Beyond that there are approximately 70,000 settlers living beyond the separation barrier, which was built by the Israeli government over the last decade to keep Palestinian terrorists from entering Israel. The challenge in moving these individuals out of the settlements – and in particular the most zealous and religiously committed of them – means reaching a deal with the Palestinians, and that is only half the battle. Israeli society and its leaders will also have to find the political will to uproot settlement communities and in the process risk civil conflict among Israelis.

Indeed, the current Israeli government, which is one of the most right-wing ever to hold power in Israel and certainly the most opposed to two states than any since the signing of Oslo in 1993 (despite its official rhetoric), has shown precious little inclination to take on the settler community.  If anything, it shares the settlers’ goal of perpetuating and expanding Israeli control over the West Bank. Considering that this government led by Benjamin Netanyahu is highly likely to secure another four-year term come January, settlement expansion that runs the risk of ultimately blocking the creation of a Palestinian state will continue unabated. And every month and every year that there is no progress on the two-state front the achievement of a potential Palestinian state becomes that much more unrealistic.

Beyond these issues is the general apathy and resignation of the Israeli public to the current trajectory of peace efforts. Even though a sizable percentage of Israelis continues to support two-states a recent poll of Israeli Jews shows that 55 percent of them “don’t believe [a lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians] will ever be achieved.” Of course, the fact that Hamas continues to reject Israel’s right to exist, pines for all Palestine to be under its control and fires rockets indiscriminately into Israeli cities makes the realization of a lasting peace even more difficult and hardens the conviction of Israelis that they have no true partner for peace, further reinforcing Israelis’ belief that maintenance of the status quo is the only alternative

These are glaring political challenges that Western policymakers – and in particular U.S. leaders – have generally been loath to acknowledge, particularly the increasingly significant impediments to peace on the Israeli side. For the United States, in particular, which has such a close relationship with Israel, those impediments are almost too painful to consider – namely the possibility that five, 10 or 15 years from now, the United States will be providing billions of dollars in aid to a Jewish state that fails to offer full political rights to a majority of Arabs – in effect, an apartheid state.

This is why E1 construction is such a hot button, not simply because of the damage it would do to the creation of a Palestinian state, but also because it brings to the fore this exact issue, which U.S. policymakers have done their best to ignore as they mouth the latest platitude about the need for negotiations toward a lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

In the end, while is likely that Bibi will eventually back down from this latest provocation (even as other less controversial settlement projects go forward, like new construction in East Jerusalem) this event should serve as a wake-up call to Israel’s supporters, particularly the Obama Administration. For the past four years, the U.S. administration has demonstrated nothing but meekness in the face of Israeli impertinence. The Jewish state is on a dangerous and unsustainable course. It is one that leads in few pleasant directions – like a renewal of violence, growing international pressure or an Israeli state that is Zionist but not democratic.

Everyone knows this is happening, but no one wants to talk about it, including Israel’s benefactors in Washington. The E1 imbroglio creates a small chance to make sure everyone has to.

Michael Cohen is a fellow at the Century Foundation. Follow him on twitter: @speechboy71.

E1 is not a ‘land without a people’
Resource: What is the E1 area, and why is it so important?
Following E1 decision, Israel is more isolated than ever but not likely to change course