Hard Facts on the Ground—Daniel Levy is one of the more insightful progressive voices in Washington regarding Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, which are collapsing because of a disagreement over Israeli settlement policy. A British-born Israeli, Levy has worked as a policy advisor for Yossi Beilin when Beilin served as Israel’s minister of justice. He was a member of the Israeli delegation at the Taba negotiations with the Palestinians in January 2001 and was on the negotiating team of the Oslo B negotiations in 1995, when Yitzhak Rabin was Israel’s prime minister. He is one of the founding members of the “pro peace, pro Israel” J Street advocacy organization. Two days after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refused to extend the limited moratorium on settlements on the West Bank, Levy joined a panel at the Palestine Center in Georgetown. His observations, summarized and quoted below, suggest both the difficulty of keeping the peace process afloat and the precarious politics of restraining settlers moving into Palestinian territories on the West Bank:
Senatorial Courtesy—Eighty-seven senators have signed a letter to President Obama, circulated by Senators Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Johnny Isakson (R-GA), Robert P. Casey Jr. (D-PA) and Richard Burr (R-NC). The senators praise Obama’s efforts to restart direct peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians and urge the president to keep the parties in direct talks. The letter refers to “enemies of peace” who will do everything in their power to impede peace negotiations, mentioning specifically Hamas, Iran and Hezbollah. It praises Israeli Prime Minster Netanyahu for his commitment to the process in the aftermath of the murder of four innocent Israeli civilians by Hamas militants.
The senators urge the Arab states to do more, politically and economically, to support the process. They encourage an agreement that provides for Israel’s lasting security. And they argue that neither party should make threats to withdraw as negotiations are getting started. They do not, however, mention “settlements.” All in all, an argument that plays well at home, but in the Arab world reinforces the image of the U.S. as Israel’s agent.
- • In 1993, when the handshake between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat took place on the White House lawn and the Oslo Peace Accords were launched, there were 111,000 Israeli settlers on the West Bank alone. Today there are more than 300,000.
- • There are more than 500,000 Israelis living beyond the Green Line that separates Israel from the West Bank, Gaza, and the Golan Heights. One half million out of a total Israeli population of 7.5 million is a sizable pro-settlement constituency, which is bolstered by ideological and religious supporters living within the Green Line.
- • The growing strength of the Ultra-Orthodox population in Israeli society is changing the demographics and politics of Israel. In the current academic school year, 52 percent of Jewish Israeli children entering the first grade went into Orthodox or Ultra-Orthodox schools. Two years ago, 31 percent of officer candidates in the Israeli Defense Force were Ultra-Orthodox Jews.
- • The Ultra-Orthodox population in Israel has not been traditionally involved in the settler movement. Recently, however, settlements have been created to cater to the burgeoning Ultra-Orthodox population in Jerusalem. The two fastest growing settlements in the West Bank are settlements of Ultra-Orthodox Jews. That has turned two religious parties that control 16 seats in the Knesset into resolute opponents of any policy that would create problems for settlements and settlers.
- • It is politically foreboding for any Israeli prime minister to take on the settler and settler-sympathizer community. “If an Israeli prime minister wakes up and thinks that the occupation is not a smart move strategically for Israel, and I think that [Ehud] Olmert did sincerely believe that, he or she knows that you would have a huge fight on your hands to do anything about it. If you wake up in the morning and do nothing … if you’re either proactive about entrenching or you just allow the inertia of occupation and settlement status quo to continue, nothing happens. That’s a pretty easy political equation. Especially in the politics where Israel is a government by coalition. You have to have 61 votes backing you on any given day or your government falls. What is it, 32-odd governments in 63 years? I think without changing that incentive-disincentive structure, why would an Israeli prime minister do anything different?”