What a settlement freeze means and why it matters

Settlement expansion in the Palestinian occupied territories is endangering the viability of the Roadmap and, most importantly, of the two-state solution it contemplates and which forms the core of President Bush’s stated vision. Freezing settlements is not the Roadmap’s only requirement and, to Israelis, may not appear as the central one. But unless action is urgently taken, there is a serious risk that Israeli steps will jeopardise any realistic prospect of a fair and sustainable territorial solution.

The seriousness of President Bush and the wider international community about the objective of achieving a two-state solution must be matched by an equal commitment to halting the settlement enterprise that is jeopardising it.

Israeli efforts to expand settlements are not new. But their cumulative impact, in particular a series of projects launched over the past few years, are inflicting grievous harm to Palestinian territorial integrity. These include efforts to consolidate and expand the presence of Jewish areas in and around Jerusalem, the erection of caravans and attendant infrastructure in what are euphemistically called “settlement outposts”, and the construction that is underway of the security (or separation) fence.

The history of Middle East diplomacy is replete with efforts to slow down or halt settlement expansion. All have failed. In every case, exceptions were allowed in response to seemingly reasonable Israeli requests (e.g., to bar only the establishment of”new” settlements or to accommodate”natural growth”); the exception ended up swallowing the rule, thereby not only making possible settlement growth but providing it with a U.S. imprimatur as well. It is important that this time the Quartet - and principally the U.S. - strictly define for Israel what it means by a settlement freeze and that the Israeli government be held to the high standard expressed unambiguously in the internationally-endorsed Roadmap.

In this endeavour, there is a conundrum. While the freeze demanded by Washington and its partners needs to be hermetic if it is to be meaningful, the failure of past efforts reflects something more than either lack of U.S. resolve or Israel’s ability to circumvent restrictions through agreed-upon exceptions. It reflects as well the practical and political difficulty faced by any Israeli government, including the most peace-minded, in implementing a genuine and airtight settlement freeze as part of an incremental, confidence-building measure. The settlement enterprise has, by now, become an integral part of Israel’s political, economic, social and legal system. The informal system by which settlers and officials have entrenched the settlement project is harder to quantify; it also may be harder to undo.

Achieving a real, comprehensive freeze as demanded by the Roadmap, in other words, will require a momentous effort. In all likelihood, it will be achieved only in the context of a diplomatic endgame in which the Israeli government and its people are engaged in a process designed to end the conflict with the Palestinians - and, therefore, to evacuate the vast majority of the settlements. Like the demand that the PA dismantle the armed infrastructure of Hamas or Islamic Jihad even at the cost of a difficult and potentially bloody internal struggle, the demand that Israel wholly freeze settlements is one that is difficult to be undertaken at the front-end of an ill-defined and uncertain journey.

As the experience of the Oslo years amply demonstrates, the way out of this dilemma is not to disregard the need for a genuine settlement freeze or to dilute its contents any more than it would be to disregard the need for genuine and serious Palestinian action on the security front. To allow settlement activity to proceed in the run-up to the endgame is to endanger the possibility of ever getting to that endgame. Rather, insistence on a real settlement freeze must remain a centrepiece of diplomatic efforts and of on-the-ground monitoring. Diplomatic and political pressure should be exerted to maximise Israel’s adherence to it and publicly pinpoint any violations. In particular, the Quartet, with the U.S. front and centre, should highlight those aspects that are most threatening to the viability of a future Palestinian state - e.g., the outposts, construction around Jerusalem and the central West Bank, and the location of the security fence.

Certain exceptions related to basic needs of settlers may be allowed but, unlike in past cases, the Quartet, acting through a joint committee with Israel that is under U.S. chairmanship, will need to define them narrowly, approve them on a case-by-case basis and rigorously monitor compliance through on-the-ground and aerial surveillance.

While a gap between Israeli obligations and performance is to be anticipated initially, it too can serve a political purpose. The difficulties entailed in implementing a genuine freeze will, one hopes, make it clear to the international community and to large segments of the Israeli public itself that, ultimately, the solution lies in a rapid evacuation of those Israeli settlements that will not be annexed by mutual agreement with the Palestinians. Such a solution would also help remove uncertainty among members of the settler community - both those in settlements that will become part of Israel through agreed border modifications and those who will return to Israel and seek compensation.

The Roadmap, by espousing an incremental, step-by-step approach, multiplies along the way the obstacles it is designed to overcome. As the process unfolds, and as implementation problems become ever more apparent, the argument for rethinking and accelerating the current approach ought to gain resonance. As ICG has argued consistently for more than a year, by fleshing out rapidly the contours of a final agreement and leap-frogging the myriad steps called for in the Roadmap, the U.S. and its Quartet partners would have a far better chance of achieving its ultimate objective.

Recommendations:

To the United States Government and other Members of the Quartet:

  • Make clear to the government of Israel their insistence on a genuine settlement freeze in all territories occupied in 1967 that includes the following core elements:

    a) dismantling all settlement outposts erected since March 2001, including all related infrastructure (e.g., electricity, water pipelines);

    b) ending all demolition and confiscation of Palestinian land, homes and property;

    c) ceasing all construction of new settlements and, within existing settlements, all construction of settler by-pass roads and settlement infrastructure, including other roads, water and electricity;

    d) revoking existing construction permits and prohibiting the issuing of new ones;

    e) prohibiting all financial incentives and special budgetary support to settlers and settlements;

    f) limiting those powers devolved to local settlement authorities, in particular those related to expansion of settlements and facilities, incentives to settlers and issuance of building permits; and

    g) establishing the principle that the route of the proposed security fence be along the lines of 4 June 1967 (“the Green Line”).

  • Make clear that the only exceptions that will be accepted to the prohibition on construction will be in the following four categories:

    a) construction within the built-up areas of Jewish neighbourhoods/settlements in East Jerusalem within the municipal boundaries, but precluding any land confiscation, any addition of new neighbourhoods/settlements, and the establishment of any”mini-settlements” or single-dwelling settlements in Palestinian neighbourhoods;

    b) completion of certain housing units where construction is beyond the foundations stage and that will not further harm the prospects of a viable Palestinian state;

    c) addition of certain vital public amenities (kindergarten, schools, playgrounds, etc), in particular in settlements with high birth rates; and

    d) repair of important services.

  • Establish a joint Quartet-Israel committee under U.S. chairmanship to:

    a) monitor compliance with the above; and

    b) review on a case-by-case basis, in a transparent and public manner, requests for exemptions to the above prohibitions in the four categories identified in recommendation 2.

  • Contribute to Israeli-established funds designed to:

    a) compensate Israeli contractors for economic losses incurred as a result of the freeze; and

    b) facilitate the voluntary relocation of settlers to pre-1967 Israel.

  • Publicise any violation of these obligations.

    Make clear to the government of Israel that, should the Quartet conclude that it has failed to adhere to the settlement freeze, it will consider accelerating the Roadmap’s stages and put forward its own more detailed vision of a final status agreement.

    To the Government of Israel:

  • Publicly announce its intention to enforce a settlement freeze, rigorously adhere to the freeze as defined by the Quartet and take all legislative and administrative steps necessary to enforce its implementation.
  • Cooperate with the U.S. chairman and the Quartet in the joint committee, and in particular:

    a) provide it with all requested information concerning activity in the settlements; and

    b) facilitate ground and aerial monitoring that should be conducted by the U.S. on behalf of the Quartet.

  • Set up a fund designed to compensate Israelis harmed by the settlement freeze.
  • Redirect resources previously used to encourage Israelis to move to settlements so as to provide financial incentives for Israeli settlers desiring to relocate in areas of pre-1967 Israel.

    Amman/Jerusalem/Brussels, 25 July 2003

    To download the full report click here.

    Related Links:

  • The International Crisis Group