Those intransigent Israelis have done it again. Just when the world was hoping for gestures of peace, they’ve done something making the two-state solution with the Palestinians harder to implement. Or so most of the world is claiming today after Israel’s government declared that 988 acres of vacant land in the Gush Etzion bloc south of Jerusalem is “state land” and therefore might be used for development. But the diplomatic condemnation raining down on the Israelis today is illogical and has very little to do with the terms of what a real peace deal might look like. If the Palestinians really wanted peace, this move wouldn’t affect it in the least.
As the New York Times reported today, the seizure of the vacant land is being considered proof that the Netanyahu government doesn’t want peace. It was condemned by the Palestinian Authority, the United Kingdom, and even criticized by Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni. But the way the story is being presented in the mainstream press is highly misleading.
The New York Times simply refers to the land in its headline as “West Bank Land Near Bethlehem.” That’s true in that the place is in the area taken by Israel in June 1967 and it is near the city of Bethlehem. But savvy readers should have picked up on the mention in the story of the fact that it is “in” a settlement bloc. Though the Peace Now organization condemned the move as one that would “dramatically change the reality” in the area, since it is already inside an area that is heavily populated by Jews and claimed by the Jewish state, it’s hard to see how anything that happens inside it would affect the future of other parts of the West Bank which might theoretically be conceded to the Palestinians as part of an independent state.
But this isn’t just any settlement bloc; it’s Gush Etzion. That may not mean much to Americans, let alone Europeans who can be counted on to condemn anything the Israelis do, but it does put the matter of whether this decision actually affects possible peace negotiations in perspective.
It needs to be remembered that most peace advocates keep telling us that the terms of peace between Israel and the Palestinians are well known and that all that is needed is the will to implement them rather than more discussions about the details. But among those terms is the concept of territorial swaps that was endorsed by President Obama and even approved by the Palestinian participants in the Geneva initiatives. The swaps would allow Israel to keep the blocs of settlements—most of which are adjacent to the 1967 lines—in exchange for other territory to be given to the Palestinians. While there is some dispute as to which blocs are part of this consensus, there is no doubt that one of them is the Etzion bloc.
There are two reasons for the assumption that Gush Etzion stays inside of Israel even if a Palestinian state is created in the West Bank.
One is that it is just south of Jerusalem and requires no great manipulation of the map. It guards the southern flank of Israel’s capital and the area containing 22 Jewish communities with over 70,000 living there can be retained while leaving Bethlehem inside a putative Palestinian state.
But this land is also significant because, contrary to the narrative in which Jews are portrayed as “stealing” Arab land, Gush Etzion was actually populated and owned by Jews not only prior to 1967 but also prior to Israel’s War of Independence. Gush Etzion was a bloc of Jewish settlements that was overrun by Jordanian army units and local Palestinians after a bitterly contested siege. Its inhabitants were either massacred or taken prisoner and their homes and farms destroyed. As such, it was the first land to be reclaimed for Jewish settlement after the 1967 war put it back in Israeli hands.
Let’s be clear about this. Neither the ownership nor the future of Gush Etzion is up for debate in any peace talks. In every peace plan, whether put forward by Israel’s government or its left-wing opponents, the bloc remains part of Israel, a reality that most sensible Palestinians accept.
The legal dispute about whether empty land can be converted to state use for development or settlement or if it is actually the property of neighboring Arab villages is one that will play itself out in Israel’s courts. Given the scrupulous manner with which Israel’s independent judiciary has handled such cases in the past, if the local Arabs can prove their dubious assertions of ownership, the land will be theirs.
But no matter who wins that case, it won’t affect the territory of a Palestinian state since whether individual Arabs own these lots or Jews won’t make a difference in peace talks. If Jews wind up living there it won’t impact the future borders of a Palestinian state any more than the fact that Arabs are building on lots in Bethlehem.
Why then is the Gush Etzion land decision being represented as such a blow to a peace process that was already torpedoed earlier this year by the Hamas-Fatah reconciliation fact and rendered even more unlikely by the terrorist war of attrition launched by Hamas this summer?
The reason is fairly obvious. The Palestinians and their cheerleaders aren’t really interested in negotiating peace and drawing lines that could effectively divide the land even on terms favorable to their side. The Obama-endorsed land swaps that would include Gush Etzion or any other possible provisions to achieve peace are irrelevant to their goals because it is still impossible for Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn.
That’s a fact that pro-peace Israelis like Livni and others here in the United States need to understand. Livni didn’t condemn the Etzion announcement because she believes it actually could impact the terms of a peace deal. She knows it won’t. Rather, she thinks that the move will draw attention to the area and encourage Arabs and foreign governments to advocate for Israel to give up even this land that Jews originally owned. But whether or not attention is drawn to the bloc, the Palestinians are no more willing to let the Jews keep it than they are to let them keep any other part of the West Bank or those lands that were inside the pre-67 lines.
Livni, like some other Israelis, is also uncomfortable with the idea that the motivation for this decision is to send a message to the Arabs about terrorism. Giving more land for Jewish settlement in this area may also be a response to the kidnapping of the three Israeli teenagers that set off the war with Hamas since the trio were taken and killed in this very area. Sending such a message is a policy that can be debated, but whether or not it is wise or appropriate has nothing to do with the terms of peace.
The Gush Etzion announcement is no land grab. It concerns vacant lots inside an area that will always be kept as part of Israel. But the anger that it generated does send a signal to Israel that the Palestinians aren’t going to accept their continued presence in any part of the country. That’s bad news for peace but remedying it will require a shift toward acceptance of Israel’s legitimacy among the Palestinians, not the surrender of Jewish communities.