Reassessing Israeli Settlements

On June 4, 2009, President Barack Obama delivered his much-anticipated speech to the Muslim world from Cairo, Egypt. Mr. Obama asserted that he will pursue the creation of a Palestinian state and that Israeli settlement growth must be stopped because it is illegitimate. The previous week, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated, "He [Obama] wants to see a stop to settlements -- not some settlements, not outposts, not 'natural growth' exceptions."

The Palestinians cite settlements as the most significant obstacle to peace. Much of the Arab world supports that narrative. Now, it appears, the current U.S. administration does, too. However, the administration may be ignoring key aspects of the debate, and in the process, placing undue stress on a Middle East ally committed to peace with its neighbors.

Settlements in context

Settlement activity began after Israel's victory in the 1967 Six Day War­, a preemptive and defensive battle ­whereby the Israeli military surprised even its own top brass when it gained control over the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Sinai Peninsula, east Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights. During the initial settlement period, between 1967 and 1977, the territories were viewed as bargaining chips that Israel could, in the future, trade for recognition and peace. Jerusalem authorized limited settlement activity based on national security, according to the Alon Plan. This plan, created by Israeli Defense Minister Yigal Alon in 1967, spawned a string of settlements in strategic areas along the Jordan Valley to create a line of protection around the country's vulnerable midsection. Indeed, many settlements began as military stations located in strategic but uninhabited areas.

In 1977, Israel's Likud Party rose to power. Under Ariel Sharon, the so-called "grandfather of the settlements," the settlement project skyrocketed. Prior to 1977, 4,500 Israelis lived in 36 settlements -- 31 in the West Bank and five in the Gaza Strip. By 1981, West Bank settlers nearly quadrupled to over 16,000. With the party's second victory in 1981, the settlement project became a state-sponsored venture involving subsidies to encourage growth. By 1990, the West Bank settler population reached over 78,000.

Today, there are 187,000 settlers in the West Bank. And while that number indicates significant expansion since 1967, Israeli settlements comprise only a small area of the West Bank. According to the Palestine Monitor, less than three percent of the West Bank is dotted by settlements and Israeli military or industrial facilities. Moreover, settlers amount to less than 10 percent of the West Bank's population of 2,461,267.

Settlements built, settlements destroyed

However, even if Israelis constituted a more sizable percentage of the West Bank population, settlements are not an obstacle to peace. They are impermanent. Indeed, Israeli leaders on both the Left and the Right have repeatedly illustrated their willingness to vacate settlements in exchange for peace.

After the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt in 1979, Israel uprooted its settlements in April 1982 from the Sinai Peninsula, an area measuring some 22,500 square miles, in exchange for peace. The majority of settlers left without protest. Those who didn't were evacuated forcefully by the Israel Defense Force (IDF) in accordance with then-Minister of Defense Ariel Sharon's orders. Israel also relinquished the Alma Oil Field, which it discovered and developed, and would have made Israel an oil exporter; dozens of early warning stations; and military installations, such as airfields and a naval base.

The Sinai evacuation was not an isolated incident. In 2005, Israel again vacated settlements in what Prime Minister Ariel Sharon called a "unilateral security step of disengagement." Sharon dismantled all 21 settlements in the Gaza Strip and four in the West Bank. The evacuation process, which lasted five days, uprooted approximately 8,500 civilians. Like in Sinai, evacuating the settlers was no easy task. In some towns, settlers protested from their rooftops, throwing paint, foam, and other liquids at the soldiers.

Israel also demonstrated its willingness to relinquish land for peace in negotiations with Palestinians. In December 2000, under the auspices of former President Bill Clinton, Israel agreed to offer the Palestinians a sovereign Palestinian state on roughly 96 percent of the West Bank and 100 percent of Gaza, as well as sovereignty over the Temple Mount in Jerusalem and control over Arab sections of Jerusalem. The plan afforded Israel just four to six percent of the West Bank -- areas housing 80 percent of the settlers, as well as key early warning military stations. The Palestinians, under Yasser Arafat, rejected the plan. Israel offered to relinquish even more settlements during final status talks at Taba in January 2001, to no avail.