President Obama has called for Israel to freeze all settlement activity. Obama’s policy has given the Arab states a free pass to avoid any constructive steps to normalize relations with Israel and dovetails with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s position that the Palestinians will not be pressured into resuming peace talks with Israel as long as construction in Jewish settlements continues. Together, the policy of the administration and the Arabs guarantees the settlement population will only grow.
Bethlehem Mayor Elias Freij understood the folly of this policy when he said in 1991, “The Palestinians now realize that time is now on the side of Israel, which can build settlements and create facts, and that the only way out of this dilemma is face-to-face negotiations.”
Freij verbalized what many analysts and Arab leaders will not admit today – that the Palestinians could have prevented the building of most Jewish settlements in addition to achieving their own independence had they accepted any one of the numerous offers for statehood.
The Palestinians’ miscalculations can be traced back to 1937 and their rejection of Lord Peel’s plan to divide Palestine into Jewish and Arab states. A decade later, they were offered an even more generous division by the United Nations. The 1947 partition plan created a Palestinian state that encompassed significantly more territory than just Gaza and the West Bank; in fact, it would have included about 40 percent of what is now Israel. The Palestinians, however, would settle for nothing less than the entire territory. A few months later, they joined the neighboring Arab states in a war to drive the Jews into the sea.
Instead, Israel emerged victorious from the 1948 War and with an even larger Jewish state than the UN had envisioned. During the next 19 years, not a single Jewish settlement was built in the West Bank or the Gaza Strip because those areas were conquered by Jordan and Egypt and Jews were prohibited from living there. The Palestinians, however, did not demand an independent state in the occupied territories. No international outcry was heard calling on the occupiers to withdraw from “Palestine” and the United Nations showed no interest in the occupation of “Palestinian land” by the two Arab states.
In 1967, Israel fought a war of self-defense that led to the capture of Gaza and the West Bank. Immediately afterward, Israel expressed a willingness to return most of the territory it had acquired in exchange for peace. Moshe Dayan said he waited for a phone call from Arab leaders to start negotiations. That call never came. Instead, the Arab leaders proclaimed a policy of three “noes” – “no peace with Israel, no negotiations with Israel, and no recognition of Israel.”
It was only after the Palestinian rejection of these peace offers that Israel began to settle Jews in the West Bank and Gaza. Still, 10 years after the Six-Day War, when Israel began to negotiate a peace agreement with Egypt, only 6,000 Jews lived in the disputed territories.
In 1979, Israel and Egypt negotiated a peace treaty. Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin offered the Palestinians an opportunity to have autonomy in Gaza and the West Bank. Begin’s plan fell short of the full independence Palestinian leaders demanded, but autonomy would have inexorably led to statehood. As in 1947, the Palestinians were unwilling to compromise on their maximalist demands.
The decision proved catastrophic for the Palestinians. While Israel dismantled the settlements it had built in the Sinai and returned the territory to Egypt in exchange for peace, Begin also began to develop more Jewish communities in the West Bank and Gaza. By the end of 1979, the settler population had doubled to 12,000.
At any point after 1979 the Palestinians could have said they were prepared to end what had become an incessant campaign of terror against Israel and begin negotiations. It was not until 1993, however, that the leader of the Palestinians, Yasser Arafat, agreed to renounce terror and to negotiate what became known as the Oslo accords. The decision was reached because Arafat, like Mayor Freij, realized that if the Palestinians did not reach an agreement, so many Jews would be living in the contested territories that a Palestinian state would no longer be a viable option.
Israel agreed to the creation of a Palestinian state within five years, but the Palestinians had to fulfill certain promises, the most important of which was the cessation of terror. Violence never stopped, however, even as Israel withdrew from 80 percent of the Gaza Strip and more than 40 percent of the West Bank. Facing daily attacks by Palestinian terrorists, Israel was reluctant to continue to make territorial concessions. The bargain they made at Oslo was land for peace, not land for terror. While terrorists killed hundreds of Israelis in the hope of forcing Israel to capitulate to their demands, more than 50,000 Jews moved to the territories under Israeli control.
The Palestinians blamed Israel for the failure of the Oslo accords. They claimed that Israel had not stopped building settlements regardless of the fact that a halt in construction was not part of the Oslo agreement. The expectation, which had been the understanding of Israel and the United States since 1967, was that Israel would retain some territory for the “secure and defensible borders” specified in UN Security Council Resolution 242. Israel therefore had no reason not to develop those areas. Furthermore, once a final agreement was reached with the Palestinians, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin expected that either the settlements would be dismantled or the Jews would be allowed to remain in the new Palestinian state. At that time, Israelis felt that just as Arabs lived in Israel, Jews should be permitted to live in Palestine. It was the Palestinians who insisted that the entire area be free of Jews.
By 2000, the optimism of Oslo had faded. More than 250 Israelis had been killed in Palestinian terror attacks while the Jewish population in the territories had swelled to more than 200,000. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak then tried to resolve the conflict with the Palestinians in one sweeping gesture. In talks with Yasser Arafat and President Bill Clinton, Barak offered in exchange for a peace 97% of the West Bank and all of the Gaza Strip, agreed to dismantle most settlements and to allow the Palestinians to establish a state with the predominantly Arab part of Jerusalem as its capital.
Arafat rejected the deal without making a counteroffer. In the end, American negotiator Dennis Ross explained, Arafat was not prepared to end the conflict. Rather than peace, the Palestinians again resorted to violence and instigated another uprising.
In a 2001 report on the cause of the uprising, George Mitchell called for an end to Palestinian terror and recommended a cessation of settlement construction as a “confidence builder” for the Palestinians. Mitchell’s report and subsequent statements made clear that Israel was not expected to act before the violence stopped. It never did and Jews continued to move to the territories. Since rejecting Begin’s autonomy offer, the settlement population had grown 20-fold to more than 225,000.
Following on the Mitchell Report, the Bush Administration joined with the United Nations, the European Union and Russia in 2003 to promote a road map for peace aimed at the establishment of an independent Palestinian state within two years. The agreement was again predicated on a cessation of Palestinian violence, but instead terror escalated. Over the five years (2000-2005) that the Palestinians waged war against Israel, more than 1,000 Israelis were murdered. The failure of the Palestinians to fulfill their promise to stop terror allowed Israel to evade its commitment to freeze settlements and another 50,000 Jews moved to the territories.
Like prior initiatives, the road map was a failure and a Palestinian state was not established as hoped by 2005. The Palestinians were given a second chance, however, when Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon decided to evacuate all 21 of the Jewish settlements in Gaza as well as four settlements in the West Bank. More than 8,000 Jews, many of whom had lived in their homes peacefully for decades, were uprooted in September 2005.
The Israeli move provided a test for the position long held by the Palestinians and their supporters that the “occupation” and settlements were the obstacle to peace. Now there was no occupation and no settlements in the Gaza Strip and the way was cleared for the Palestinians to begin to build the infrastructure for a state. Instead, they launched a three-year rocket and mortar bombardment against southern Israel that kept the civilian population in a state of constant anxiety. Once again, instead of land for peace, Israel traded land for terror. Rather than force Israel to give up more land, however, Israel further strengthened its hold on the West Bank as another 25,000 Jews were added to the population.
Many Israelis believed the disengagement had reinforced the Palestinian view that they could force Israel to make concessions through violence and the group that believe Palestine can be liberated through terror, the radical Islamic organization Hamas, violently seized control of the Gaza Strip from the Palestinian Authority in 2007. Hamas continued the attacks on Israel until they finally provoked Israel to mount Operation Cast Lead in December 2008 to stop the rocket fire.
In the preceding months, Israel had once again offered the Palestinians an opportunity for statehood, with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert agreeing to withdraw from all but 6.5 percent of the West Bank and swapping land inside Israel to make up for keeping the land where most Jewish settlers live in the major settlement blocs. The Palestinians once again rejected the deal and now seem to believe it is just a matter of time before Israelis capitulate to all their demands. The Palestinians’ chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat, said in a June 2009 interview that “At Camp David  they offered 90% [actually 97%] and [recently] they offered 100%. So why should we hurry, after all the injustice we have suffered?”
This belief that time is on their side has been reinforced by Obama’s position. Following his May 2009 meeting with the president, Abbas expressed the view that Obama’s opposition to Israeli settlements would eventually bring down the Netanyahu government and he was content to put off any peace talks until Netanyahu is out of office. Jackson Diehl wrote in The Washington Post that “Abbas and his team…plan to sit back and watch while U.S. pressure slowly squeezes the Israeli prime minister from office. ‘It will take a couple of years,’ one official breezily predicted.” Until then, Abbas stated, “in the West Bank we have a good reality… we are having a good life.”
For Israelis, Obama’s rush to diplomacy in an effort to resolve the conflict is also out of sync with their current political, strategic and psychological outlook. Instead of the disengagement representing the start of a gradual withdrawal from the territories, the Palestinian terror campaign has made the prospect for statehood more remote. Few Israelis today are willing to risk giving up land in the West Bank that could become a launching pad for rockets that would threaten Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Ben-Gurion International Airport.
Six decades of Palestinian irredentism and violence has not brought them independence. Meanwhile the Jewish population in the territory they claim has grown from zero to 276,000. Whether that total will continue to grow remains, as it always has been, in the hands of the leadership of the Palestinians.