The Center for Security Policy

Transition Brief No. 96-T 130 [December 17, 1996]



(Washington, D.C.): The past few days have seen an escalating effort on the part of past and present U.S. government officials to challenge the government of Israel over its declared policy of strengthening settlements in the disputed territories around Jerusalem, elsewhere in the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip. On Sunday, eight former American Cabinet officers -- including former Carter Administration Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski and former Bush Administration Secretary of State James Baker -- wrote Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to oppose his settlements policy which Dr. Brzezinski described as "inimical to the peace process and even dangerous." During the Carter years, Israel settlements were called "illegal" and "illegitimate." During the Bush-Baker period, they were described as "obstacles to peace."

Clinton Administration policy-makers were clearly delighted with the letter (so much so as to raise suspicions that they may have encouraged its preparation). One unnamed "senior American official," who insisted on remaining anonymous, told the New York Times over the weekend, "What [the authors] propose is quite consistent with our own view of the problematic nature of settlement activity." The letter "is balanced, but clearly with a certain among of concern, and the concern is warranted."

Then, yesterday, President Clinton used his press conference with European Union leaders to join the fray. Agreeing with a questioner's characterization that Israeli settlements are "absolutely, absolutely" an "obstacle to peace," he urged Israel not to take steps that would "preempt the outcome of negotiations." This focus on process, however, belies an implicit objection to the substance of Israel's policy: Israeli settlements make it more difficult for the Jewish State to surrender territory Yasir Arafat and his supporters hope to transform into a sovereign Palestinian state.

Settlements Work

But that is precisely what settlements have been intended to do under both Labor and Liked governments. Indeed, in the decade that followed the 1967 Six-Day War, no one in the Israeli body politic -- whether from the Left or the Right -- believed, as the Arabs maintained, that it was illegal for Jews to live in the territories. During this period, the Israeli Left envisioned essentially partitioning the West Bank. Following a scheme known as "the Allon Plan," Labor governments put settlements in places deemed of strategic value (primarily in the Jordan valley)(1) and hoped to turn the rest over to Jordan.

For its part, the opposition Likud believed that the disputed territories should be retained indefinitely. The principal debate was over the prudence of relinquishing areas deemed to be strategically dispensable and particularly those that had large Arab populations. But both major Israeli political parties were adamantly opposed to the creation of a Palestinian state in these areas. As Yitzhak Rabin put it in his memoirs published in 1979:

"Although Labor and Likud differ in their views on the solution to the Palestinian question, we both oppose in the strongest terms the creation of a Palestinian 'mini-state' in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, first and foremost because it cannot solve anything../..../..The leaders of the PLO have declared -- and I believe them - that they view such a 'mini-state' as but the first phase in the achievement of their so-called secular, democratic Palestine, to be built on the ruins of the State of Israel." (Emphasis added.)

And in the Spring of 1980, Shimon Peres wrote in Foreign Affairs:

"../...Interlocutors who claim that Arafat may be satisfied with a less ambitious goal, namely that Israel withdraw to the pre-June 1967 borders, that it abandon East Jerusalem, and concede the establishment of a Palestinian army, may not realize that they sponsor a scheme that would prejudice Israel's capacity for self-defense and would leave it without defensible borders.

"A PLO state on the West Bank could never settle the problem of the Palestinian refugees. The open space of Jordan could. A PLO state would prolong, not end warfare; it would build a base for the continuation of the struggle, not work for reconciliation, (Emphasis added.)

True Then, True Now

In the wake of the intifada, however, Labor became more enthralled with the notion that land could be traded for peace. After it returned to power in 1992 (on a platform that rejected negotiations with the PLO and pledged to oppose the creation of a Palestinian state), the Rabin-Peres government quickly became frustrated when this policy failed to produce peace. As documented by Douglas J. Feith, a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense and founding member of the Center for Security Policy's Board of Advisors, in the March 1996 edition of Middle East Quarterly, Labor's response was to adopt a policy of unilateral withdrawal.

"Seeing that he could not insist on a secure peace while bringing the occupation to a prompt end, Rabin decided, fatefully, that the latter took priority. This was an historic and radical departure. Labor's slogan for decades after all, was Land for Peace -- not Unilateral Withdrawal, not Land for Nothing, and not Land for Your Assuming Our Burden.

"This new logic meant accepting [then-Deputy Foreign Minister Yossi] Beilin's characterization of the territories as 'a burden and a curse.' It meant abandoning the demand for a credible, non-terrorist Palestinian Arab negotiating partner. It meant initiating withdrawal before a peace settlement. And it meant leaving open the possibility that the final settlement would lead to the creation of a Palestinian state."

The implications of such a dramatic policy shift by the last Rabin-Peres government for Israel's settlements policy were profound. As Mr. Feith put it in his Middle East Quarterly essay entitled "Withdrawal Process, Not Peace Process":

The 'peace process' is more accurately called the 'withdrawal process.' 'Ending the occupation' and relinquishing responsibility are the key goals; peace is not. If peace develops, all to the good. If it does not, the process moves forward regardless. (During the last Labor government,] Israeli officials, to be sure, continued to negotiate and sign agreements with the PLO, to ascribe importance to their terms, and to demand that the PLO comply with the agreements. But their main concern is that enforcement of PLO pledges not interfere with the withdrawal.

"This applies to all PLO promises -- whether about amending the covenant, preventing or condemning terrorism, respecting the status quo in Jerusalem, abjuring belligerent rhetoric, or extraditing terrorists suspects. The [Labor] government highlights the benefits of peace, but it intends to complete its withdrawal plans whether or not there is peace." (Emphasis added.)

Such a policy was widely admired by those like James Baker, Cyrus Vance, Zbigniew Brzezinski and the State Department's Arabists. They tended to see withdrawal as the sine qua non of the "peace process." By definition, anything that impeded withdrawal was an impediment to that process. And,since Israeli settlements were, by design, intended to make withdrawal more difficult, they were impediments. For this reason, among others, the last Labor government enjoyed the overt support of the present American administration and like-minded officials of previous administrations.

The unilateral withdrawal policy was ultimately rejected by the Israeli people, however. In the election last May, Benjamin Netanyahu campaigned on a platform of peace with security. A key element of his vision of security was preserving -- and even expanding -- Jewish settlements in the disputed territories to help ensure that the territories would remain under Israeli control. While the overall electoral majority that voted for Mr. Netanyahu was narrow, the Jewish population rejected the Rabin-Peres withdrawal policy by an electoral landslide (i.e., by a 56-44% margin). Since what is at issue is a fundamental aspect of the Israeli-Arab conflict that may determine the future survival of the Jewish State, that margin is relevant, even though under Israeli democracy, Arab votes count just as much as do those of Jews. Israel

Has a Legitimate Claim to the Territories

What is more, Israel is at least as entitled as the Palestinian Arabs to settle in the lands of the disputed territories. In an earlier, seminal article entitled "A Mandate for Israel," which appeared in the Fall 1993 edition of The National Interest, Douglas Feith convincingly argues that the Palestine Mandate adopted by the League of Nations -- which "secured Jewish rights to a homeland and to 'close settlement' in Palestine" -- provided international recognition of the Jews' claim to territory there. He notes that:

"../...[Although] the Mandate distinguished between Eastern and Western Palestine../ did not distinguish between the region of Judea and Samaria and the rest of Western Palestine. No event and no armistice or other international agreement has terminated the Mandate-recognized rights of the Jewish people, including settlement rights, in those portions of the Mandate territory that have yet come under the sovereignty of any state. Those rights did not expire upon the demise of the League of Nations, the creation of the United Nations, or the UN General Assembly's adoption of the 1947 UN Special Committee on Palestine plan for Western Palestine."

Mr. Feith also cites Professor Eugene V. Rostow -- a distinguished international legal scholar who, as Under Secretary of State during the Johnson Administration, helped draft UN Security Council Resolution 242 -- as having concluded that "Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip constitute portions of the Palestine Mandate trust territory that have not yet been allocated to a sovereign." As Mr. Feith observes:

"It is not necessary, however, to decide whether the Mandate and all its institutions remain in full effect for these territories in order to conclude that, since Britain's resignation as Mandatory, no event has legally terminated or superseded the right of Jews to settle there, as derived from the 'historical connection of the Jewish people with Palestine' recognized in the Mandate." (Emphasis added.)

The Bottom Line

Israel is fully entitled to expand existing settlements or build new ones in the disputed territories. Prime Minister Netanyahu is to be commended for resisting intense international pressure in order to engage in the former and to reserve the right to undertake the latter after final status negotiations have been completed. By so doing, he is engaging in the well-established Israeli practice of strengthening its physical position in strategic regions, increasing Israel's self-defense capability and undergirding U.S. interests in the region by enhancing the security of America's most reliable and powerful any in the Middle East.

Importantly, Mr. Netanyahu is, in the process, also honoring the commitment that earned him his mandate over a candidate who promised more of what amounted to unilateral withdrawals without enhanced security. The majority of Israelis understood that the policy they preferred might make it more difficult to realize further peace agreements with Arafat. They remained persuaded that the creation of a Palestinian state would be inimical to Israeli interests and, to the extent that Israeli settlements in the disputed territories constitute an obstacle to such an outcome, a democratic polity has freely adopted the Netanyahu policy.

It behooves the United States to respect this sort of democratic choice and to refrain from statements that can only encourage the inflammatory rhetoric exhibited by Yasir Arafat -- who called last week on Palestinian Arabs "to firmly confront with all possible means the Israeli settlement aggression in order to defend the land." American interests will be very badly served if Arafat and Company conclude that their threats of renewed violence on a scale as great, if not greater, than the recent Temple Mount tunnel episode will be rewarded.(2)

Even if the United States were willing to ignore the will of the Israeli people, to disregard the legitimacy of Israel's right to modify or build settlements in the disputed territories and to remain indifferent to its own interests in the Jewish State's ability to defend itself, President Clinton and like-minded former officials would be on weak ground to decry such Israeli construction -- unless they also insisted that all Arab construction in the territories halt as well.

After all, if Israeli building in the West Bank amounts, as the President put it yesterday, to "preempt[ing] the outcome of something both sides have agreed../...should be part of the final negotiations," it stands to reason that so mugs Arab building. By the estimate of Mr. Netanyahu's Director of Policy Planning and Communications, David Bar-Ilan, the Arabs "have more than 10 times the number of buildings under construction [in the territories] than those approved for the [Jewish] settlers.'' While it may suit the likes of James Baker and Cyrus Vance -- no friends of Israel -- to ignore Arab efforts to "change the facts on the ground," such a double standard must not be made a basis for U.S. policy in the Middle East.


(1) Interestingly, a study performed in 1967 for the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff which concluded that Israel could not safely surrender the territories it acquired during the Six-Day War, judged the high ground of the Samarian mountains overlooking the Jordan valley were the more strategic points. Since those sites tended to be inhabited by Palestinian Arabs, however, the Allon Plan opted to stake an Israeli claim via settlements to the less valuable but uninhabited lowlands in the valley.

(2) See the Center's Decision Brief entitled Summit Postmortem: If Only Clinton Were Half as Resolute as Netanyahu in Safeguarding U.S. Interests in the Middle East (No. 96-D 96, 3 October 1996)

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