There are few aspects of the peace process on which all serious observers can agree, but one of the closest areas of unanimity is this: the settlements are not the key obstacle to peace. The Israeli left is no more enamored of settlers now than they have been over the last two decades since the beginning of the Oslo process, but they are also not foolish enough to think the settlements are the reason there is no peace. The Palestinians have only reinforced this understanding by using any land Israel clears of settlers as a launching pad for terrorism.
Another truism of the conflict is that the American media–farther removed from reality than Israelis could ever afford to be–will publish stories focusing on the settlements as soon as peace negotiations roll around. The Washington Post chimes in today from an alternate reality with a story headlined: “As talks begin, Jewish settlements loom as challenge.” Now, under normal circumstances a story based on a baldly false premise would not serve much of a purpose to those who don’t have time to read historical fiction. But the Post story, while untrue, actually contributes something to the discussion on a related issue: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s choice of preconditions to restart negotiations.
Netanyahu chose to release about a hundred occupants of Israeli prisons demanded by the Palestinian leadership, including child murderers and other monstrous criminals. That decision has won him some praise from supporters of the peace process and disapproval from those who worried about the security risk the released terrorists would pose. But in recent days, a new critique of the prisoner release has emerged. Netanyahu reportedly was given three choices to entice the Palestinians back to the negotiating table: base talks on the make-believe non-borders of early June 1967, release murderers, or freeze settlement building. In the Times of Israel, David Horovitz explains this line of criticism:
Internal Likud dissent aside, however, the concern is that Netanyahu has chosen the wrong one of the Abbas preconditions — the most damaging — on which to concede. By definition, talks on Palestinian statehood take place on the basis of the pre-1967 lines, since those are the limits of what the international community considers to be legitimate Israeli sovereign territory. And a settlement freeze is instantly reversible if negotiations collapse. Not so the release of callous, largely unrepentant murderers. Not so the damage to the Israeli rule of law.
This is certainly a reasonable concern. Horovitz is no doubt correct that freeing terrorists is a more permanent step than the settlement freeze, and the pessimism about the chances of a deal would seem to argue against such irreversible preconditions. It is probably up in the air as to whether accepting the pre-1967 lines is more temporary than permanent, or even simply rhetorical. It would depend on how such a promise is worded and understood by the two sides, and it should be remembered that no premise offered once will ever truly be temporary; the Palestinians would use it as a baseline for future talks.
But that brings us to the settlement freeze. And here is where the question gets a bit more complex. It’s difficult to argue that freeing murderers is preferable to freezing settlement building–and I don’t intend to argue it. Indeed, a simple comparison between the Israeli public’s response to the previous settlement freeze and its viscerally aggrieved reaction to the prisoner release makes clear which is the more painful concession to Israeli society.
But it should at least put in stark relief how silly and counterproductive it is to have such preconditions in the first place. It’s fair enough to criticize a prime minister for choosing the worst among three terrible choices. But what does it say about the peace process, and the American diplomatic role in these discussions, that Israel was forced to choose between three terrible options in the first place?
Freezing settlements as a precondition would be unjustifiable this time around on its own; it only seems reasonable in light of the possibility of freeing child murderers instead. But a settlement freeze has been tried before, and the talks still went nowhere. Employing it as a precondition yet again would be a cartoonishly impractical suggestion. It would also predicate the negotiations on a false premise by elevating settlements as a primary obstacle to peace. What do Western negotiators think will be the result of talks based on a lie?
That we even have to ask the question is dispiriting enough. That Netanyahu would be forced by American pressure to choose between freeing murderers or basing negotiations on a lie that delegitimizes the status of Jews, most of whom are on land that would be part of Israel in any final deal, reflects terribly on Secretary of State John Kerry and the administration he represents. And it only encourages stories like today’s Washington Post feature that distort the reality of settlements and undermine the chances for true peace.