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Obfuscating settlements: how asking loaded questions is designed to mislead

Earlier this month, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Defence Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, approved the construction of 42 new "settlement units" in Kiryat Arba, an illegal settlement located near Hebron, the biggest city in the occupied West Bank. According to media reports, this new construction was licenced by the government as a kind of punishment for the cold blooded murder of Hallel-Yaffa Ariel a 14-year-old girl – an unforgivable, merciless and horrific crime.

The use of this murder as a pretext to build more settlements is also – one would have thought – wrong given the general consensus that Israeli settlements are illegal and immoral. Yet, nonetheless, it has opened up the discussion among some in the commentariat around weather or not some settlements are less bad than others. To my mind, this is a tactic rather like a loaded political question, one designed to blur an issue and potentially embarrass the interviewee rather than bring any real clarity on their views.

In short, it represents a deliberate obfuscation on the basic facts of the matter in that it presents the question over settlements in terms of degrees of wrong doing, implying that if Israel makes some concessions around the edges, it deserves to keep some of the settlements as a kind of reward.

Are their differences between settlements?

If you read some of the analysis from pro-Israeli think tanks, and some of the statements by Israeli politicians, you might be forgiven for thinking that there are meaningful reasons to doubt the idea that settlements as a whole are the problem. Indeed, as outlined by a recent column by Michael J. Koplow of the Israel Policy Forum, there is a belief that "not all settlements should be treated equally". In short, this perspective suggests that there are at least four sub-categories of settlements.

According to Koplow, these different classes of settlement are:

  1. Those settlements that will be evacuated in a final deal (a two-state solution);
  2. Settlements that would be annexed to Israel in the event of a two-state solution;
  3. "Neighbourhoods" of East Jerusalem that will remain under Israeli control in the event of a two-state solution; and
  4. Settlements in East Jerusalem that would be contentious in the event of a two-state solution.

He also outlines examples for each of these categories. Kiryat Arba is an example of the first – as it is far inside the West Bank and considered highly contentious even within the Israeli media. Ma'ale Adumim and Ramot are examples of the second and third categories. The basis for his categorisation of these settlements is that both are pretty well integrated into Israel's military and colonial infrastructure.

For example, he suggests that Ma'ale Adumim – a large settlement to the east of Jerusalem – is considered by the "vast majority of Israelis … to be completely non-controversial and part of Israel, and it has been included in the territory that Israel would like to annex."

Yet, as this example suggests, a more honest evaluation of Koplow's argument reveals that his central claim – that there are four different kinds of settlement – is clearly misleading. Indeed a better understanding of his position is that there are not four different categories of settlement but two. That is to say, his real position is there are (a) settlements that Israel may choose to give up in order to allow a two-state solution and (b) settlements that it will keep whether the Palestinians like it or not.

Perhaps most importantly, however, is the obvious assumption that Koplow makes that it will be Israel that will make these decisions exclusively and, to put it bluntly, any other concern – such as International Law, the Palestinians – can be damned.

Liberal Zionism

Koplow is thus an advocate of a kind of left wing/liberal Zionism. His view that Israel should seek a two-state solution – and as a corollary he is prepared to accept Israel will trade in and withdraw from some settlements from some parts of the occupied West Bank – resonates very evidently with the position held by the main Israeli opposition, the Zionist Union. For example, Tzipi Livni recently suggested to Foreign Affairs that, as an alternative to Netanyahu's approach, she would:

Stop expanding settlements, especially those outside the fence that are not going to be part of Israel. Then let's change the atmosphere. Let's show we're serious.

This statement stands in contrast not only to the position of Netanyahu and Lieberman but also the current Justice Minister, Ayelet Shaked, who has argued for the application of civilian law to settlements – effectively normalising them within the Israeli system – and considers annexation of the West Bank to be something that is "put on the table".

A deal that doesn't exist

While Shaked's position is obviously ridiculous it is at least slightly more honest than that of the Leftist Zionist argument. That is to say, Shaked is an Israeli colonialist who is making an overtly colonial argument; by contrast, Koplow and Livni are colonialists who pretend to be peaceniks.

A clear example of how this works is to compare Koplow and Livni's line on the "two-state solution" – both suggest that a "two-state solution" is something that has a realistic prospect of coming into being. Shaked is far more dismissive: "What I'm saying is that the two-state solution will not happen in the near future. The gaps between the Palestinians and the Israelis are much too big to bridge."

Of course, about this specific issue (though not much else), Shaked is right. The "two-state solution" may once have been a potential means to bring about a reasonable end to the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip by Israel (though it would have never fully addressed the concerns of refugees). But after 20 years of procrastination, settlement building (by both leftist and rightest governments) and Israel's insistence on maintaining strategic superiority at the expense of the basic rights of Palestinians, the "two-state solution" is clearly dead.

In other words, the approach that killed the "two-state solution" is exactly the line taken by the liberal Zionists in this context: promise progress, but ensure that none is made on any of the important decisions. Specifically: argue for the removal of some settlements, but keep the decision-making exclusively an Israeli affair.

Cut the crap

A simpler answer to the question of settlements is to simply follow the law. According to UN Security Council Resolution 242, which was passed unanimously in the aftermath of the 1967 war, the answer is simple: it is inadmissible to acquire "territory by war" and, further, according to the Fourth Geneva Convention (1949), "The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies". In other words, there are no differences between this or that settlement, it simply is against international law to conquer someone else's country and then build a bunch of houses on it.

There is of course one alternative answer to this conundrum that would square all the circles – enabling Israel to keep its settlements where they are as well as satisfy the qualification of treating Palestinians with basic decency and respecting their human rights – this is: end the racist exclusionary nature of settlements. In other words, instead of insisting on settlements being populated by Jewish Israelis exclusively, why not allow them to be accessed by anyone who is willing to buy or rent them on the open market?

As they stand, settlements in their totality are racist, colonial enclaves built on occupied land without the consent of the indigenous population. There are no differences between settlements. If the so-called Leftists like Koplow or Livni were serious about dealing with them, or about peace, they would adopt either a strategy of withdrawal or inclusivity. Anything else they say is mere waffle.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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