Are the West Bank settlements an obstacle to peace? Steven Bayme concedes that they are an issue, but considers the “real obstacle” to be Palestinian unwillingness to recognize a Jewish state.
Bayme, director of the William Petschek Contemporary Jewish Life Department of the American Jewish Committee, will discuss the topic on March 30 at Congregation Ohr Shalom-The Summit Jewish Community Center. Bayme will explore the history of the settlement movement, analyze its strengths and weaknesses, and explore its role in peace negotiations.
Ahead of his talk, Bayme discussed the settlement movement, whose expansion was encouraged under both right- and left-wing governments in Israel. Below is an edited version of that conversation.
NJJN: Were there differences between Labor and Likud with regard to settlements?
Bayme: The number of settlers in ’77 was a grand total of 6,000. When Labor returned to power in ’93, it had grown to 150,000 within a 16-year period of mostly Likud rule. The second major difference was Labor was unalterably opposed to mixed settlements — settlements inside of Arab areas. The Labor party insisted that settlements were for security. Likud argued that Jews have the right to settle anywhere in the Land of Israel, as a matter of historical patrimony. One can argue that this vision has a certain compelling aspect to it; why should Jews be forbidden from settling in the Land of Israel? The question is — were all the settlements politically wise?
NJJN: Do the people living in the settlements expect to be part of the Jewish state?
Bayme: 1.1 million Arabs are living in pre-’67 Israel, so why should the West Bank be Judenrein? Another question: The prime minister is on record as saying that in the context of a peace agreement some settlements have to go. The most recent maps distributed indicate that Israel could retain settlement blocs that would have as much as 70 percent in the State of Israel if appropriate land swaps are made. The remaining 30 percent (approximately 85,000 people) is much larger than the approximately 9,000 settlers removed from Gaza.
Rather than saying settlements are an obstacle to peace, most settlements, those adjacent to the ’67 line, can be maintained by land swaps. Of the others, there are those who will accept compensation, and there may be those who want to live under a Palestinian state.
NJJN: What about the recent construction in the settlements? How does that affect prospects for peace?
Bayme: Throughout the Oslo years, 1993 to 2000, settlement construction continued, parallel to the negotiations. The implication I draw is that the resolution of the settlements issue needs to be negotiated rather than a priori saying there won’t be negotiations as long as settlements continue.
NJJN: Do you think that the existence of the settlements will make it impossible to create a contiguous Palestinian state?
Bayme: In terms of the present map of settlements, a contiguous Palestinian state is still a live possibility. The reasons there is no Palestinian state continues to be Palestinian rejection of Israel as a Jewish state. [In past negotiations,] Palestinians would not sign on the dotted line. Sure, settlements are an issue, but they are not the ultimate problem to peace. The real obstacle is Palestinian unwillingness to settle on recognition of a Jewish state alongside its borders.
NJJN: Why do you think the Palestinians are unwilling to recognize Israel?
Bayme: What is necessary is an evolution in the Palestinian position…. If you look at the Palestinian camp, you still have Hamas, which really does regard Israel as a theological sin. With the Palestinian Authority, there has been a fundamental shift. The older generation, of which Abbas is emblematic, wants a two-state solution; the younger generation is not as sure of it. The real obstacle is that Abbas cannot bring himself and his people to recognition of a Jewish state; that means seeing Israel as a permanent reality in the Middle East as a Jewish state, and the Palestinian state or entity will only be on a portion of the historic land of Palestine.
NJJN: Do Israelis really believe that peace is not possible?
Bayme: I remain convinced that given the possibility of real, viable peace, Israel will choose peace rather than territories.