The Israeli cabinet’s vote Sunday to pour money into 91 outlying West Bank settlements has touched off a fierce debate here about the propriety of funneling resources into settlements that may be abandoned in a peace treaty.
“Any resources you add to the outlying settlements are an obstacle to peace either now or down the road,” according to Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union of Reform Judaism, a group that has long opposed continuing settlement in the West Bank. “Those settlements have to be removed in order for a Palestinian state to come into being.”
If the decision does, in fact, result in additional funds flowing to remote settlements, it could throw new fuel on controversies within the American Jewish community aboutsupport for settlements, create new obstacles to renewed Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and, ultimately, set the stage for new friction with Washington — although the Obama administration has been conspicuous in its silence over the decision.
It will also intensify the debate over the Netanyahu government’s response to growing violence by extremists among the West Bank settlement population.
Rabbi Yoffie charged that the Israeli government was “giving into blackmail” by settlers who have been staging demonstrations protesting the government’s decision to impose a 10-month freeze on West Bank construction.
“The prime minister has made an important move in instituting a settlement [building] freeze and deserves credit for it, but the government is undercutting that move by simultaneously committing resources to those settlements,” Rabbi Yoffie added.
In order to give money to the outlying West Bank settlements, the cabinet redrew the country’s national priority map. That will direct about $1.2 billion towards education, employment and land allocation programs within that zone. The zone includes about 110,000 West Bank settlers living outside the major settlement blocs.
Alon Ben-Meir, a professor of international relations and Middle Eastern studies at The New School and New York University, pointed out that the “money involved is not that substantial” and would go also to “dozens of Palestinians in villages in the West Bank.”
He said the U.S. said it has no objection to the Israeli action because “it is one thing to expand settlements and another to make life easier with financial aid. Many of the settlements don’t produce the kind of money necessary to be self-sustaining.”
About 40 percent of those in the zone are Israeli Arabs, according to Ami Nahshon, president and CEO of the Abraham Fund Initiatives, an organization that works for a shared and inclusive society for all of Israel’s citizens.
Although saying that his organization does not take a position on the funding of West Bank settlements, Nahshon said it was pleased that a “significant portion of Israeli Arabs live in the areas targeted for economic incentives and preferences.”
“Israel has frequently granted tax breaks and incentives to help areas it has considered significant, and much of the time the preferences were weighted in favor of the Jewish parts of Israel,” he said. “The Abraham Fund has always contended that government investment in social, economic and educational development of Israel’s Arab community is vital to Israel’s future. This latest set of investment policies certainly is a step in the right direction.”
But Ori Nir, a spokesman for Americans for Peace Now, said that although his organization has not released a statement, Peace Now in Israel strongly opposes the move. He pointed to statistics on its Web site that seeks to refute the contention that the settlements were in need of economic assistance.
Peace Now Secretary-General Yariv Oppenheimer was quoted in the Jerusalem Post as saying that the group’s research found that the “quality of life in the settlements is much higher than in the rest of Israel. … These benefits are meant to help close socioeconomic gaps. In our research, we found that in most of these places in the West Bank, there is no socioeconomic gap to cover, not when compared to the rest of Israel.”
Oppenheimer added: “When you take something that is meant to help poor areas and use it to strengthen your standing with the right wing, it can easily be seen as a political maneuver.”
The Israeli organization said its data found that the median income for a family in the settlements is 10 percent higher than the national average, and that the unemployment rate in the settlements is on average 6.5 percent compared with 7.3 percent in Israel.
Yitzchak Reiter, a professor in the department of Islamic and Middle Eastern studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said the decision to add resources to settlements might not do much to stop settler protests over the building freeze.
Settler unrest may have been the spark that caused arsonists to set alight a central mosque in the West Bank Palestinian town of Yasuf. Sacred books including the Koran had apparently been torn from library shelves and thrown onto the floor before the fire was started.
By midweek, no arrests had been made. But authorities were examining a front stoop of the mosque where vandals had scrawled in Hebrew, “Price tag – Greetings from Effi.”
“Price tag” is the name of a policy some radical settlers created last year to respond to Israeli government moves against settlements. Effi is an acronym for a far-right Jewish group.
Israel’s Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi Yonah Metzger reportedly said the vandalism reminded him of the Holocaust and Kristallnacht because “we as Jews have a sensitivity to attacks against houses of worship being set ablaze.”
“Irresponsible people did this, but I can’t put my finger on anyone or group,” he said, adding that the attack did not “hint at a Jew being responsible for the attack.”
“Such an act places Jews around the world in danger,” the rabbi added, “since we are a minority in every country and this may result in acquiring new enemies where we never thought possible.”
Reiter said that although demonstrations may continue, the cabinet’s action has added stability to the government.
“This is the way to appease the right-wing parties,” he explained.
“Unfortunately the current Israeli government is speaking a double language. On the one hand it speaks about a future independent Palestinian state, which means a return to the 1967 borders plus the condensed bloc [of settlements]. On the other hand, it supports settlers even in remote and isolated places in the West Bank.”
Reiter said he understands that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is doing this to keep his government together.
“He is an expert in survival,” he said. “And he believes this is not a huge price to pay for the primary goal, which is to move ahead with [President Barack] Obama’s vision” of a two-state solution.
Asaf Shariv, Israel’s consul general in New York, said he does not believe that many of the settlements to receive money will, in fact, be dismantled.
“Eighty percent of the settlers will stay on 2 or 3 percent of the land,” he said.
David Makovsky, a senior fellow and director of the Project on the Middle East Peace Process at The Washington Institute, agreed with Shariv’s assessment that many of the West Bank settlements outside of the large blocs might remain even with the creation of a Palestinian state.
According to his calculations, only about 55,000 of the 285,000 Israelis now living in the West Bank would need to be displaced.
He said he believes most are children under the age of 18, because only 23,000 of them voted in 2007.
Makovsky stressed that to keep 80 percent of the settlers in their homes, Israel would have to swap land with the Palestinians. The 20 percent of settlers whose homes could not be saved would have to move to other settlements or Israel proper, he said.
“The issues of refugees, Jerusalem and security are too hard [to resolve immediately],” Makovsky said, “but give the settlers a break [and resolve the border issue quickly]. The settlers have been living in limbo for 40 years.”
Shariv said that both the U.S. and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had demanded that Israel halt construction activity in the West Bank as a precondition for resuming peace talks. He said that by imposing a 10-month construction freeze, Israel had complied with that demand but that Abbas still refuses to talk.
In a statement Tuesday, Abbas reportedly told the Central Council of the Palestine Liberation Organization in Ramallah that once “Israel stops settlement activity for a specific period and when it recognizes the borders we are calling for, and these are the legal borders, there would be nothing to prevent us from going to negotiations to complete what we agreed to at Annapolis.” He insisted he was not setting terms, just reiterating Israel’s obligations under the Road Map agreement for talks.
Shariv said that by stipulating such preconditions, Abbas has undermined the talks.
“What is there to negotiate?” he asked. “They can dictate the entire peace agreement with us. If we are going to have negotiations, come to the table and talk. Enough with the preconditions. We could say that before we negotiate, he [Abbas] has to declare that Israel is the homeland of the Jewish people. It’s easy to declare preconditions.”
Shariv said he believes Abbas’ “domestic political problems” have crippled his ability to resume talks.