03.07.2013 commentary by Dr. Avner Inbar

The Irreversibility Myth

The settlements are an economically unsustainable project funded largely by the Israeli government. We must rid ourselves of the myth that settlement eviction must be done by force

Every day, new mourners join the funeral procession for the two-state solution. Some are advocates of partition who threw in the towel; others, longtime proponents of the Greater Israel vision, can hardly contain their satisfaction. The trend is spreading from the margins to prime time: Just recently, for example, a story on Channel 2's influential weekend news edition questioned the feasibility of the “two states for two peoples” formula given the dramatic changes on the ground – specifically settlement growth. Despite the fact that international consensus around the two-state solution remains as strong as ever, doubts about its feasibility increasingly frame the debate on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. US Secretary of State, John Kerry, recently said that the window of opportunity for a solution to the conflict based on two independent states would remain open for two years at most. Soon after, he declared, “its over”.

While partition skepticism has been more vocal recently, the basic notion isn’t new. The Channel 2 story featured Meron Benvenisti, an Israeli intellectual and onetime deputy mayor of Jerusalem, who has been insisting on the “irreversibility” of the occupation for nearly thirty years. Benvenisti's doctrine has lately become a surprising meeting point of the Israeli radical left and messianic right. Both oppose partition for ideological reasons (aversion to nationalism on the one hand, and a belief that the Jews own the occupied territories on the other) yet both sides prefer to repackage their goods in the form of pragmatic arguments about geography, demography, or economics. Echoing Benvenisti, Dani Dayan, former head of the Yesha Council, wrote last year in The New York Times that the settlements are an “irreversible fact”, and former Knesset spokesman Reuven Rivlin recently stated that, “the idea of partition has failed.” “We won,” declared (former Defense Minister and Greater Israel advocate) Moshe Arens on the Friday night news, while his ideological opponent Yossi Sarid seemed closer than ever to admitting defeat.

Benvenisiti is careful to give his words an empirical air, but his deep conviction that what is done cannot be undone must be understood in the context of his unique worldview, which he articulated in an interview with Ari Shavit last October: “The land of Israel is whole.1 It is a single geopolitical unit. Therefore, partition of the land is impossible.” Elsewhere, Benvenisti admitted that he inclines towards viewing the land of Israel, from the river to the sea as “a geopolitical unit, a physical environment whose partition is tantamount to the dismemberment of living flesh”.2 It is not surprising then, that Benvenisti’s oracular words for Channel 2 —“it just doesn’t stand, does not exist, does not work, no way, forget about it”—is reminiscent of a ruling Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu, a spiritual leader of the settlement movement, gave on the eve of the disengagement from Gaza in 2005: "It shall not happen”. Well, the disengagement did happen, as will, in all likelihood, a Palestinian state; and the mystical haze should be offset with lucid observation of fact, for it is facts that will dictate the fate of the occupied territories.

From the outset, the settlement movement had a twofold strategy: on the one hand, it sought to “settle the hearts”, that is, to elicit sympathy in order to ensure broad public support. On the other hand, the movement endeavored to "settle the hills", namely establish facts on the ground based on the assumption that each additional settler further entrenches Israeli control over the Occupied Territories. Now these strategies have both failed. Despite enormous efforts, the hearts of Israelis remained indifferent to the settlement project, and most continue to express a willingness to dismantle settlements in the context of a peace agreement with the Palestinians. Settlers likely sobered up from their fantasy of “settling the hearts” after the opposition to the disengagement from Gaza (wherein 25 settlements and some 8,000 residents were evacuated) failed to go beyond the limits of the devout right wing camp.

While the settlers’ public opinion achievements were minor, it is hard to deny their success in establishing facts on the ground. In the last few years, the remarkable spread of Jewish settlement in the West Bank has disheartened supporters of the two-state solution. But appearances can be deceiving, and the settler’s achievements are still a far cry from irreversible reality. As geographer and Israel Prize recipient Elisha Efrat recently wrote, the proliferation of settlements and their spatial layout undermines the viability of the whole settlement enterprise. “The settlement system established over many years through huge investments, is in fact geographically shaky, inconsistent with the logic of spatial planning, and therefore has little chance to maintain a lasting, independent existence,” wrote Efrat. “The collapse and disintegration of this system is only a matter of time.”3

Moreover, although the official jurisdictions of the settlements’ regional councils encompass some 40% of the West Bank, the built-up areas within these sprawling boundaries constitute only a single percent. In 1982, at a time when some 800,000 Palestinians lived in the West Bank, Benvenisti estimated that the settler population would gradually approach that of the Palestinian population since the latter would have no more living space and would have to emigrate from the West Bank. Today some 2.7 million Palestinians live in the West Bank, as compared with about 300,000 settlers. The settlements have developed no substantial local industry, commerce or agriculture, and more than two-thirds of settlers themselves work inside the Green Line. Of those of work in the settlements themselves, the percentage of government and municipal employees is considerably higher than in Israel. In fact, the settlement movement’s greatest achievement – that is, their success in luring droves of Israelis to move to the Occupied Territories for economic benefits – is also its clearest weak spot. Indeed, many of the non-ideological settlers can be just as easily incentivized (both positively and negatively) to relocate back to Israel.

The shaky settlement apparatus continues to exist solely thanks to artificial life support provided courtesy of the Israeli public. This comes in the form of colossal budgets embedded in economic benefits, massive investments in infrastructure, and security services. The settlements are an economically unsustainable project that would not last a single day without this profligate Israeli funding. An Israeli government determined to pull the plug on this spree will put an end to the settlement project without sending a single soldier to forcibly evacuate them. We must rid ourselves of the myth deliberately intensified during the Gaza disengagement that settlement eviction must be done by force. 

The settlements need not be forcibly dismantled; they should simply be discontinued. The settlement project has no viability without the constant economic and defensive support that comes from and at the expense of the Israeli public. Therefore, if Benvenisti’s prophecies are realized, it will not because partition is no longer possible, it will be because the Israelis who support it — that is, the majority of the Israeli public — has given up.

A Hebrew version of this article appeared in Haaretz on June 19, 2013.


1. Note that the Hebrew word, "shlema", is the same used by proponents of the Greater Israel vision (Eretz Israel HaShlema").

2. See Benvinisti’s autobiography, The Dream of the White Sabra (Hebrew), p. 263.

3. Elisha Efrat, The Two State Solution (Hebrew), Efi Melzer Publishing, Israel 2011, p. 91.

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