At the top of a good article on the prospects of a renewal of the Israeli settlement moratorium, my friend Eli Lake of the Washington Times unfortunately deploys a bit of right-wing Israeli jargon, referring to “the disputed territory of the West Bank.” The West Bank is “disputed” in the same sense that control of Kuwait was “disputed” by Iraq, in other words, a claim taken seriously by no one other than the occupying power. The United States, the Palestinians, and the rest of the international community, as well as large part of the Israeli polity, recognize this — including, notably, settler patron saint Ariel Sharon, who recognized Israel’s presence in the West Bank as an “occupation” in 2003.
This may at first seem a rather semantic point, and so it is, but in this conflict semantics tend to be really important. Treating the West Bank as “disputed” rather than “occupied” not only denies that international humanitarian law regarding the disposition of occupied territories applies there, it also suggests that, having lost over 75% of their homeland, the Palestinians should have to negotiate over the “disputed” remaining 25%. As with Netanyahu’s attempt to treat the settlement freeze as a “concession” rather than a pre-existing Israeli obligation, it’s a shrewd bargaining tactic. In terms of building trust between the parties, however, it’s not helpful.
Considering various methods by which the moratorium — the actual impact of which, as the New York Times reported in July, has been minimal — might be extended, Lake talked to Ori Nir of Americans for Peace Now, who “said one possible compromise would be for Mr. Netanyahu to decline to formally renew the moratorium, but for the defense minister, Ehud Barak, whose Labor Party favors the settlement construction freeze, to issue far fewer construction permits for the West Bank“:
“What is possible and maybe even likely to happen is that while the moratorium will not be officially extended, wholesale planning and construction in settlements will not resume because the Defense Ministry is responsible for issuing these permits, and Defense Minister Barak has both the interest and ability to issue these permits very sparingly,” Mr. Nir said.
An interesting idea, though one that also challenges previous Israeli claims that the growth of settlements are a legal bureaucratic process that cannot be stopped. In fact, they can be stopped at any time, though at a political price.
On that point, Daniel Dayan, chairman of the largest settler organization in the West Bank, the Yesha council, told Lake that the settlers “have succeeded in creating political leverage that will not allow Netanyahu to extend the moratorium,” and that even a “de facto” construction freeze of the sort Nir suggests would be opposed by his council:
“Even if the moratorium is not formally extended but the tenders for construction are not signed that will mean a de facto extension of the moratorium and that would be totally unacceptable for us,” he said.
Mr. Dayan added, “It would be inconceivable that less units would be built during Netanyahu than under [the last Israeli prime minister] Ehud Olmert, and if that is the case, we will use the political leverage we have within the Israeli political system in order to override that policy.”
Given the prominence of both the settlers as a movement and the settlements as a key issue overhanging negotiations, Dayan has been getting quite a bit of play, most recently last week, in this article by the Weekly Standard’s Fred Barnes, in which Dayan suggested that the Palestinian issue could be dealt with simply by committing a crime against humanity and expelling them to Jordan, and calling that “Palestine.” And he’s one of the “reasonable” settlers.