Musing about Israel’s expansion of settlements as a punishment to the Palestinians

Last Week Israel announced more construction in the settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The new measure included publishing bids for the construction of nearly 1,500 housing units and the revival of plans for 1,800 more housing units.
For over a decade now I’ve been grappling to understand the logic behind Israel’s settlement policies. At first it was simply the puzzlement of one who still maintains some ties to the country he left and who loves to follow its fascinating (though often depressing) politics. In recent years, as I expended my study of religious radicalism to look beyond the jihadi universe, the “crazies” (?) of my tribe seemed a fascinating subject to explore.


Here is the problem as I see it: there are two people residing in one geographical area both claim is theirs by right. Both are genuinely attached to the land, or at least to the idea it presents. Over the years and through repeated clashes, they developed such level of hostility that peaceful coexistence without separation is no longer viable. True, there are some other issues both people will need to resolve to reach a peace agreement, but separation is the most important part of any compromise deal. I don’t see a bi-national state as a viable option at least for the next fifty years, if not longer. Too much bad blood, hostility, and mutual fear. Other alternatives hardly seem more promising: to the chagrins of many Arabs Israeli will not go away (though here the Iranians may also have a word). On the other hand, driving the Palestinians away will be the kind of ethnic cleansing even the most ardent supporters of Israel will not be able to accept. We are left with the two-state solution as the only game in town. Within this framework each side fights to gain some advantages while pushing its rival.
I can understand why Israel wants to show the Palestinian Authority that the price of its alliance with Hamas would make for a poor policy move. My real puzzlement is that the Israel’s preferred punishment is expanding the buildup in the West Bank. That will show those Palestinians! But it is so self-defeating: it costs money Israel needs for more productive and much needed other enterprises that affect the lives of considerably greater segment of the Israeli public than the few hundred thousand settlers in the West Bank. It expands IDF missions and diverts forces from essential security missions to protecting more ungrateful settlers. Moreover, building settlements does not add to Israel’s security, and it is so aggravating to the Palestinians that it increases the likelihood of another comprehensive round of violence from which no side truly benefits, and in reality both lose.
Israel’s move seems to rely on the logic that since the Palestinians vehemently object to any construction in the settlements by building more we are sticking it to them. For Netanyahu in particular not building in the West Bank is a compromise (i.e. never an Israeli basic interest) and it must be given in return for something. It is ridicules logic. Expanding settlements’ construction as a punishment to the Palestinians reflects shallow strategic thinking on the Israeli side. Israeli should consider what it would want for itself at the end of the day given the constraints it is facing (Palestinians, international community, and Israel’s own resource constraints). It must seriously think about how exactly these settlements benefit Israel (if they do at all). But Israel has a government that thinks tactics not strategy. It prefers to skip the question of what Israel needs. For normal countries such a question should be a guide for policy, not in Israel. Instead Israel acts like the hot-headed and brain-challenged kid that out of blind rage seeks to attack those that offended him by taking actions that hurt himself even more. I can see some value for moves that may help to establish one’s reputation for striking back after an offense, but to strike back in a foolish and counter-productive way is hardly a useful reputation to have and the strategic benefits from self-defeating actions are, well, self-defeating.
As tempted as I am to determine that it then must be stupidity is the explanatory variable for Israel’s recent response to the Palestinian unity government, much brighter minds have already noted that stupidity is not the most interesting or useful explanation in IR. They may or may not be correct. My sense is that ideology must be a primary cause for Israel’s ludicrous response. The main drivers behind Israel’s policy must be blinded by ideology. In their point of view, Israel’s complete freedom to do whatever it wants in the West Bank is the baseline against which each action is measured. Any restraints in Israel’s activities in the West Bank reflect compromises, not strategic interests, which must be traded for a very high price. According to this logic, Israel’s settlement buildup is thus less a punishment for Palestinian misbehavior then a return to legitimate actions Israel had previously avoided as part of a quid pro quo. If this is indeed Israel’s reference point, then its actions, while still not smart, can at least be understood as somewhat coherent (though presenting them as a punishment is then deceptive).
And this leads to my last point, it is easier for Israel to enact such counterproductive policies because it does not hold an open debate on what kind of country Israel sees itself, what it actually wants. Its decisionmakers prefer to cloak their actions regarding the West Bank by referring to the security narrative. An ideological debate might be too dangerous for the radical right in power in Israel and it seems unnecessary as long as Israelis can be persuaded that there is no point for that debate, because there is no chance for peace with the Palestinians anyway. But in the meantime Israel’s actions end up as tactical responses detached from a rational strategy, and they cause harm to Israel’s national interest. And a lot more harm is coming.

  • John

    Barak,

    Thanks for this; very thoughtful and, I think, correct on the point that ideology (settlements = legitimate thus non-construction = compromise) is driving the settlement enterprise.

    What I would ask more from you on, however, is that if this is so: non-settlement construction = compromise, then what does this mean for extant settlements? By this logic Israel would seem vastly unwilling to dismantle settlements in the West Bank in the event of any peace agreement which would be absolutely vital, however, for a viable Palestinian state. This is without even considering the issue of Gaza.

    Because of this reality the two-state solution seems impossible except by creating an aid-dependent quasi-state known as ‘Palestine.’ Thus, could I push you on why exactly you feel that a bi-national state is not a viable option? I’m particularly curious because I presume (from your post) that you are/were an Israeli and appear to be a part of the growing ranks of Israelis thinking seriously about the future of their country. Discourses as to what constitutes a nation-state can, we know, shift rapidly and given a majority of Jewish citizens of Israel are Arab in their backgrounds (as opposed to the minority Ashkenazi) this does not seem like such a crazy proposition: anyone who has spent time in both Israel and Palestine can note how the societies and cultures of each align so often. More than this, the bi-national solution is one that would solve basically every issue: gaza, refugees, the occupation, etc., and would, I think, be easily backed on the Palestinian side. The only question then is the ideological stumbling black of the ‘Jewish State’ but do you really think that is insurmountable: I suppose not since you posit this to be possible in 50 years? Would you support this or reject it on more ethico-political grounds? And if you would support it then don’t you think we could accelerate those 50 years to 25 or so and thus end this rather impossible two-state solution debate?

    Thanks!

    • Barak

      John,
      Surprisingly the similarities between Israelis and Palestinians are more evident for outsiders. I just don’t see how both people will get to see it anytime soon. Even if they did, at least the Israeli ethos is ethnic in its essence. In fact the focus on ethnicity became so much stronger in recent years that we see legislation initiatives which make Israeli liberal cringe in desperation (and then very depressed because they see what a small minority they have become). To change the narrative you will need a long period of quiet and interaction between both people. Unfortunately at present it seems as if the only significant interaction between Israelis and Palestinians takes place when settlers or the IDF confront Palestinians. Otherwise Israelis hardly see or know Palestinians. But they know that they don’t trust them. And as much as one can go with essentialising people I have to admit that they don’t have good reasons. Trust, on both sides, must be built over a long period of time. But the opportunity for that was in the early 1990s and it failed. The conditions now are so much more difficult (as is the need to overcome them). Separation is therefore the only thing that could bring a solution but as you note, it will require overcoming serious problems, primarily the settlements. Most will have to remain and still Israeli governments will have difficulties to evacuate the rest. I believe that despite the difficulties it could happen, I’m not sure whether by eroding the relationship between Israelis within the 67′ borders and the settlers, or by trying to bring the radical religious right in Israel to change their attitude. I hate to say it but probably the first option.