The Settlement Problem

Andrew Sullivan —  Apr 13 2012 @ 7:43pm


by Zack Beauchamp

Robert Wright, with Gideon Levy, declares the two-state solution dead. Levy's column, as it is mostly generalization from anecdote, isn't all that persuasive. Zvika Krieger brings the evidence:

The majority of settlers are motivated by economic or quality-of-life concerns, since Israel subsidizes housing and amenities in the settlements, and could likely be convinced to relocate voluntarily with economic incentives…According to Israeli pollster Rafi Smith, data collected in 2007 from settlers in 60 of the most remote (and most radical) settlements suggests that at most 37 percent of them would accept compensation in return voluntary evacuation. Let's be clear: A significant majority of the remaining settlers will need to be evacuated in some form. According to the poll, 25 percent of them said they would "actively oppose" a governmental decision to evacuate their settlements (as opposed to "no opposition" or "passive opposition"). Almost 75 percent of respondents did not predict any violence from settlers against soldiers who come to evacuate them. 

Perhaps the most interesting part of Krieger's article is his documentation of sub-state efforts to ease the settlements out:

Israeli NGO Blue and White Future in particular has taken the lead on [settler repatriation] and is doing a lot of innovative work to help relocate the settlers, according to their website, "in a manner that demonstrates compassion and respect for the settlers and in recognition of the sacrifices they have made first by settling the land at the behest of numerous Israeli governments and then by relocating back to Israel." They are working, in conjunction with Israel's leading university, as well as local and municipal leaders, on a comprehensive national plan to absorb of those settlers that would return either before or after an agreement is signed, including urban and vocational planning. 

These are the sorts of steps that sympathetic critics of Peter Beinart have in mind when he asks what the alternatives to settlement boycotts are. Thinking about settlements isn't well served by a simple, are-they-or-aren't-they expanding binary. It's figuring out the best strategy to pry the settlers apart from the settlements.

Proponents of a settlement boycott teeter between seeing it as an instrument of economic pressure that can push settlers back into Israel proper and a symbolic approach that attempts to galvanize moral disapprobation as a force against settlement activity. The former is implausible given the significant financial inducements low-income Israelis are given by the government to move into the West Bank. It's incumbent on boycott advocates to explain  how and through what mechanisms enough pain could be brought counteract the slew [pdf] of policies that give bottom-line reason for non-ideological Israelis to move east. Absent an international campaign of unprecedented strength (an implausible bet given the demonstrated failures of the currently existing BDS campaign), economic pressure is unlikely to dislodge settlers from their homes.

And what about moral suasion? That's when Krieger's distinctions between different types of "settlers" become critical. Since a) most settlement expansion today happens near the border in zones that will likely become Israel in any two-state deal, b) that's where most of the population already was, and c) most settlers today aren't hyper-ideological, the central problem with settlement expansion isn't running Palestinians out of the West Bank. Rather, the biggest concern is that settlement expansion creates a new voting bloc that will support political parties unwilling to give way in final status negotiations (and, of course, that expansion limits the Palestinian leadership's ability to enter into negotiations in the first place).

How would putting pressure on settlers persuade them to support pro-peace political parties or policies? One route would be simple moral shame, but it strikes me as radically unlikely that anyone already willing to move to the West Bank is going to be persuaded by symbolic gestures by non-Israelis. The second would be to persuade Israelis inside the Green Line that settlements aren't in their interest, and hence to use their vote to dismantle the incentive structure for settlement activity. But the track record of this strategy, too, is dubious. Israelis have historically seen international pressure campaigns (e.g., "Zionism is Racism" or any of the countless U.N. resolutions condeming Israel) as reasons to circle the wagons at home. Promoting a siege mentality is most likely to shore up support among Israelis – non-ideological settlers and non-settlers alike – for Israeli political factions least inclined towards compromise.

As Krieger outlines, there are less confrontational alternatives already in play. Further, there's evidence that the seeming right-wing consensus in Israeli politics is more fragile than one might think: the enormous tent protests last summer were motivated by high housing prices inside Israel proper partially caused by the policies incentivizing settlement. Though those protests quite explicitly didn't touch the settlement issue, it's possible that the underlying economic outrage could help fuel support for parties less willing to abet settlers.

The question, then, isn't boycott or naught. It's whether a boycott is likely to help move Israelis and Palestinians closer to or further from a two-state solution. The evidence suggests the latter.

(Map from Krieger.)