US, Israel square off over settlement expansion

On a hillside neighbourhood in the West Bank settlement of Efrat, workers construct a foundation that will expand a building towards a nearby playground.

Such construction, which Israel terms “natural growth” to meet the needs of growing Jewish settler families, threatens to cloud relations with its main ally, the United States, whose president, Barack Obama, is to address the Muslim world in a speech in Egypt on June 4.

“I think that most Israelis are in favour of people living in these areas,” said Efrat settler Tom Shmeltzer. “Historically this is Israel. It’s a unifying factor, not a divisive factor.”

In reality, however, support in Israel for settlers in the occupied West Bank, where Palestinians want to build part of a state that would include the Gaza Strip, fluctuates depending on what is meant by “these areas”.

About half a million Jews live in settlements and smaller outposts built in the West Bank and Arab East Jerusalem, territory captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war.

A 2003 US-sponsored “road map” that was supposed to set Israel and the Palestinians on a course toward peace calls for a halt to Israeli “settlement activity”, including natural growth.

At odds with Israel over the issue, Obama said after White House talks on May 18 with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that “settlements have to be stopped for us to move forward” toward peace.

Netanyahu has said natural growth will continue, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who will meet Obama this week, has ruled out restarting long-stalled peace talks until Israel halts all settlement activity.

The Palestinians say settlements, which the World Court has deemed illegal, could deny them a viable and contiguous state in the territories Israel captured in a 1967 war.

Half a million Jews live in more than 100 settlements Israel has built since the 1967 Middle East war and occupation of the West Bank and Arab East Jerusalem, territory in which close to three million Palestinians live.

Settlement blocs
Efrat is part of Gush Etzion, one of the larger Jewish settlement blocs, and one Israel hopes to keep in any peace agreement with the Palestinians.

Support for major settlement blocs, which account for most of the settler population, is high among Israelis, experts say, but it wanes dramatically for the scores of smaller settlements and “outposts” that dot the hilly West Bank landscape.

Such outposts, often a group of caravans inhabited typically by a few dozen people who many Israelis see as part of a fringe minority, were built without government authorisation.

The distinction in Israel between the settlement blocs and the smaller outposts is one of mainstream pragmatism versus religious and nationalist ideology that stakes a biblical claim to the West Bank.

Peace Now, an Israeli group that opposes settlements, says on its website that many of the settlers in the major enclaves came there in search of a better quality of life and cheap housing rather than for ideological reasons.

“Thus, most of these settlers come from the Israeli mainstream, and as a result, they are much easier for the mainstream of the Israeli population and political leaders to relate to and sympathise with than the ideological settlers.”

Ephraim Yaar of Tel Aviv University, who conducts monthly surveys of Israeli sentiment on the peace process, said public support for evacuating settlements was “hard hit” after Israel pulled troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip in 2005.

Palestinians there have since fired thousands of rockets into Israel, which has responded with a blockade and a major offensive last winter, both with strong support from voters.

Yaar said there is a need to differentiate between the 25% to 30% of Israelis who ideologically oppose giving up any West Bank land and “the majority with a more pragmatic approach”.

“About 60% of Israelis, if not more, in the framework of a peace agreement would be willing to evacuate the isolated settlements and outposts while keeping the larger settlement blocs,” Yaar said.

In a move likely to be welcomed by Washington, Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak has vowed to evacuate and dismantle some of the smaller, unauthorised enclaves.

He gave no timeframe and said he would first consult with settler leaders on avoiding violent confrontations, underscoring challenges an Israeli government would face in putting into effect any settlement evacuation under a future peace agreement.

In an interview this week, Barak also highlighted a distinction that most of the international community does not recognise.

“If you ask the citizens [of Israel], who is in favour of stopping settlement building in order to move forward with peace negotiations and relations with the United States, 85% will tell you of course, stop the settlement building,” Barak said.

“But when you ask, who thinks that a family that bought a house in a settlement ...
with two rooms for two children, and now has six children and needs to build another room, 95% will tell you no one in the world really thinks that this will make or break an agreement with the Palestinians.” - Reuters

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