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Mira Sucharov and Rhonda Spivak


By Mira Sucharov and Rhonda Spivak, November 1, 2009

[Editor’s note: Mira Sucharov, Associate Professor of  Political Science at Carlton university  debates the  editor of the  Winnipeg Jewish Review whether  halting of settlements in the West Bank  by Israel ought to include “natural growth.” ]

Dear Mira,
I wanted to write you to get your take on Obama’s recent statements in June 2009 about Israel having to halt construction of settlements in the West Bank (or Judea and Samaria as many Jews would call it).  I  can see why Obama would want to pressure Israel on this point, because he needs to  have the Palestinians feel that he is handing them some sort of achievement- since the chances of  them getting a  state with Hamas in power in Gaza appear  pretty non-existent   I think that Obama will be able to pressure Netanyahu enough that the Israelis will have to evacuate some illegal outposts, and it will be unlikely that the Israelis will be able to build altogether new settlements, but what do you think of Obama’s apparent insistence that Israel can’t allow for “natural growth “ in Jewish settlements?   I can’t at all see how Netanyahu could possibly be able to agree to this, without putting his coalition at risk.   Do you think that Obama is hoping to do exactly that-make Netanyahu’s government fall?
Dear Rhonda,
You raise a valid point -- that of the importance of domestic (and coalition) politics in foreign policy. In this case, Obama has two populations to worry about as he crafts his diplomatic approach to the Middle East: his own, and that of Netanyahu's. It's true that Israel is currently led by a right-wing coalition government that is generally viewed as a friend to the settler movement. However, we need to remember that Avigdor Lieberman, Israel's right-wing foreign minister who has garnered his share of controversy since joining the Knesset, is equally, perhaps, a wild card. Unlike Netanyahu, Lieberman has stated his support for a two-state solution. And he has even gone so far as to say that he would vacate his home in the West Bank settlement of Nokdim in the context of a peace agreement. So while his attempt to push for a loyalty oath for Israeli citizens has garnered him widespread criticism, his policy ideas toward the West Bank are actually less hawkish than those of his boss.
But aside from domestic politics, Obama is a president with a strong sense of justice. Recall Obama’s description of recent U.S. Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor. Obama spoke of"just decisions and outcomes," a term which had law professor and New York Times blogger Stanley Fish scratching his head. For legal experts, justness and legality do not always go together. For Obama, the West Bank settlements are both illegal and unjust. In their current geographic form, the settlements effectively block a two-state solution. They also give political ammunition to proponents of a bi- national state. (Witness the current controversy surrounding the York University conference that attempts to discuss various territorial proposals to the conflict.)
Perhaps a freeze on "natural growth" will be frustrating for West Bank settlers and for their government, but Obama knows it's the right thing to do. Besides, the more Obama pressures Israel on this issue, the more Netanyahu can tell his constituents that his hands are tied. Like my uncle used to tell his teenaged kids to keep them on the right side of rebellion, "just tell your friends you can't -- and blame it on me."

Dear Mira
I don’t really think that allowing for natural growth in the existing Jewish settlement blocs would prevent a two state solution. After all, all of the  peace initiatives  in the  last decade have been premised on the idea of Israel  being able to annex  about  4-8% of the  West Bank to retain large settlement blocs and  in return the Palestinians would get  an extra 4-8%  of territory in Israel proper.  The Barak-Clinton –Arafat deal in 2000 called for Israel to retain the main Jewish settlement blocks.  And in exchange Israel would give the Palestinians land from the Negev or not far from Beit-Shean. The notion of land swaps was also part of the latest ongoing negotiations between PA President Mahmoud Abbas and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, when Ehud Olmert was Prime Minister.
It’s hard to see why someone who is living in the city of Efrat, located within the Etzion Bloc of Jewish settlements, for example, shouldn’t be able to build a house down the street from where they are currently living. What about a resident of French Hill in Jerusalem, (technically built on occupied land) who wants to buy the  plot next door so he can fit more people around his Seder table next year? But, more than that, it’s hard to see how Israel shouldn’t be able to allow vertical natural growth.  Instead of taking more land, a settlement could build high rise apartments like in Tel-Aviv, couldn’t it?  As it is, after speaking to some Jewish settlers in my recent travels I learned that it is very common for settlers to build a house on stilts, and then if the settlement wants to increase its numbers, the home owner fills in the bottom floor of the house and this is often rented out to young people or to newly married children.  Should that be forbidden to do?
Moreover, the Obama administration is trying to ignore President Bush’s written promises to then Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon when he agreed to disengage from Gaza. It seems pretty clear that the Bush administration promised Sharon that Israel wouldn’t be expected to go back to the 67 border, such that it would be able to annex the main settlement blocs.   In light of that, it is quite a turn about to see Obama demanding that a freeze on settlements include natural growth.  Those American Jews who convinced themselves that there would be no real difference between Bush and Obama, must be biting their tongues.
Even if Tzipi Livni had been Prime Minister, I don’t think she would have agreed to stop natural growth either.  But then again, maybe Obama has been using the issue of natural growth to prod Netanyahu to agree to a two state solution, with the idea that if he does, Obama will quietly allow natural growth in the settlement blocs.

Dear Rhonda, You pose some tough challenges to your former Camp Massad camper. But the problem with vertical growth is that it will eventually involve more people to uproot if and when settlements are dismantled. And the term “natural growth” is a political one anyway. If a distant family member moves across the Green Line to a settlement, is that “natural” or “political” growth? Finally, you’re right that annexing certain settlement blocs will likely be part of an eventual agreement. However, those lands may still be contested. The almost-agreements of 2000 that you mentioned would have involved cutting the West Bank into two or three areas – leading to a non-contiguous Palestinian state in the West Bank.

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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

Opinions expressed in letters to the editor or articles by contributing writers are not necessarily endorsed by Winnipeg Jewish Review.