Giving hope to Israeli Settlers

New York Daily Post 5/24/12

Though almost everyone wants to see an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the negotiations in their current form appear to be dead, no closer after 20 years to solving the core issues of Israeli settlements, Palestinian refugees, final borders and the status of Jerusalem than when talks first started.

While support for the two-state solution still exists, both populations are skeptical about a Palestinian state in the West Bank actually being created in the next decade.

One issue that every American administration, along with the rest of the international community, has focused on has been Israeli settlements, particularly with the many thousands of Jews in the West Bank.

While, certainly, they do not represent the only barrier to a peace agreement, the fact remains that settlers are currently living on land that the Palestinians claim as their future state, a claim supported by the majority of worldwide observers.

When Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, came to Capitol Hill last year, he acknowledged that some settlers would have to move in the vision of peace he wants to pursue. Every major political party in Israel accepts that at least 30,000 people are going to have to be relocated.

Yet where will these people go? The settler community fears that they will have nowhere to live. They fear their fate will be the same as that of settlers in Gush Katif, a series of more than a dozen Jewish towns in the Gaza Strip whose residents were removed by the Israeli Defense Forces. The images from that expulsion remain a focal point for thousands of other settlers who fear that they will be expelled next.

There is a variety of reasons why settlers chose to live in the West Bank. Some laid down roots for ideological reasons, others as a result of government economic incentives and the option to live in small, like-minded communities.

Simply expelling settlers, as many assume will happen, and trying to repatriate them into Israeli society does not make sense — that is not the life they are used to or the life they want for their families.

With the current housing shortage, just giving cash to settlers, as has been suggested by some Israeli politicians, will not work either. It will add to the strain on the housing market and create economic turmoil within Israel.

Israel instead needs to start building empty villages on open land — in the Galilee in the north and the Negev in the south — all of it within Israel and thus not open to Palestinian claims. By building villages into which to transplant settlers, it can start to lay the groundwork for peace.

This idea is by far the most humane to the settler communities that will be displaced — and which could resort to violence if they sense another Gush Katif coming. Moving as a community will help retain some sense of solidarity during the transition, and the new villages will have their own schools, synagogues and amenities, just like the settlements that have been left behind.

These new communities also need to be connected to the train system in Israel to allow people to continue to commute to the main economic regions of the country.

By moving the settlers to empty lands, Israel achieves four key goals.

First, Israel demonstrates its commitment to life after the occupation, building the necessary infrastructure for a forward-looking and growing nation. Second, Israel shows that it cares about the settlers whom it has evacuated. Third, it lengthens its strategic corridor away from the coastal region by allowing more of its citizens to live elsewhere — but still commute via rail to large urban centers like Tel Aviv.

Finally, Israel can rebalance the demographic worries in the north and south of the country without any talk of transfer of Arab citizens, who make up significant portions of the population in those regions.

The costs of this undertaking can be met with the new gas finds that Israel has made in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Though the Netanyahu government has seemed reluctant to give any sort of preconditions to negotiations, this idea is much more politically feasible.

With Netanyahu’s acknowledgment of some settlements being evacuated in a peace accord, he needs to demonstrate compassion for his base by building them a place to live, rather than giving vain promises of future compensation.

If the settler community is going to have to bear the brunt of the costs of peace, we need to make sure that its members can remain together: children staying in the same classes as their friends, parents still being able to maintain their jobs.

There can surely be no better confidencebuilding measure that Israel can offer than building homes for settlers who will have to make a new life in order for the Palestinians to have a new state.

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