Amidst the whirlwind of activity surrounding President Obama's diplomatic efforts to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict, one issue has stood out among others as particularly contentious. The renewed statements by President Obama, Secretary Clinton and the rest of the US administration on ending Israeli settlement activity has caused considerable discord on how to find common ground in this controversial issue. The Obama administration's demand that Israel end all settlement activity, including natural growth, has been deemed unacceptable by Netanyahu's government, which insists that a total freeze will severely aggravate normal life and engender internal political rift. Mr. Obama reaffirmed his position in his address to the Muslim world from Cairo when he stated: "The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements; this construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop." It is unlikely after such a statement that the US administration will retreat from this position. This will undoubtedly compel Netanyahu to revise his stance on settlements and a two-state solution as he addresses his countrymen on Sunday.

A close review of the Israeli point of view suggests that putting an immediate stop to natural growth on settlements, especially those which have become full fledged cities like Ma'ale Adumim, will be extraordinarily difficult to implement both politically and practically. Not only would the settler's movement rattle the government, but violence might inadvertently erupt, creating a scene that the Netanyahu government would want to avoid at all costs. The question is, what can be done to resolve this problem which has such potential to strain US-Israeli relations and undermine the Israeli-Palestinian peace process?

To understand the serious nature of the problem it first must be put in its proper context: More than any thing else, the existence of the settlements reminds every Palestinian of the Israeli occupation, and the expansion of these settlements not only reinforces that painful feeling and humiliation, but suggests that Israel is intent on maintaining the occupation indefinitely. The fact that Prime Minister Netanyahu has refused thus far to accept the idea of a two-state solution further strengthens the Palestinian argument that Israel has no intention of relinquishing the occupied territories. President Obama must insist on stopping the expansion of the settlements as a prerequisite to instilling some confidence and integrity into the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. Mr. Netanyahu has thus far been against the freeze partially because it would imply an early concession on one of his main bargaining chips: the idea of the two-state solution.

To resolve this quandary it seems unlikely that President Obama will settle for less than a ‘moratorium' on further expansion. Changing the semantics from a freeze to a temporary moratorium could initially provide some maneuvering room to agree on a workable formula. A temporary moratorium would mean a halt on the expansion of all settlements and settlement related activity during a set negotiating process, likely between three to six months. This might well work if it were done with the understanding that Israel and the Palestinians would enter immediately into negotiations with direct and active American involvement to determine the future borders of the two states. Once the borders have been agreed upon, Israel can expand settlement activity within them and will be prohibited from any development outside these borders. Whether the objective of the negotiations from Netanyahu's perspective would be a Palestinian state or not, he has already conceded as much when he stated that the Palestinians have the right to self-rule living side by side Israel in peace. Netanyahu may be able to sell the moratorium idea to his centre-right coalition partners because the alternative will be a direct confrontation with the United States, which could bring his government down. This may explain his likely change of heart, especially when recent polls show a majority of Israelis support the freeze.

During these negotiations, Israelis and Palestinians can agree within a few months as to which of the settlements will be incorporated into Israel proper under a peace agreement, and what contiguous land of equal size and quality can be swapped with the Palestinians in its place, which should be enforced under American monitoring. The two sides have negotiated in the past (at Camp David and in Taba in 2000-2001) and agreed in principle about the status of these settlements. Although the Palestinian Authority will want all issues on the table to reach a final status agreement-including the Palestinian refugees and Jerusalem-it appears that they are willing to discuss borders first once Israel accepts the moratorium. Mahmoud Abbas, along with Jordan's King Abdullah has publicly agreed that borders would be the first order of business. Throughout the duration of these negotiations, the Palestinian camp would be expected to make discernable progress on security and ending incitement, in keeping with the mission of the US security coordinator for Israel and the Palestinian Authority General Keith Dayton.

It should be noted that historically the Israeli public has not tolerated and will not support any Israeli government that alienates the United States. Moreover, no Israeli Prime Minister could hold a government together should the United States decide to exert direct pressure-which the Obama administration appears to be willing to wield. The Wye River negotiations between Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Clinton in 1998 over Hebron clearly indicate that Netanyahu is capable of surpassing expectations. The idea here is to start the negotiations with a significant concession, and then let momentum and American pressure move the process forward.

To provide some practical suggestions, it is necessary to break down the settlers' movement into its three basic constituencies. In doing so, some interim solutions can realistically be made to satisfy the American demands, meet the Palestinian and Arab requirements for resuming negotiations, and to provide Netanyahu with a face saving way out that he can bring to his coalition.

The quality-of-life settlers are those who moved to the West Bank primarily for economic reasons, the majority of whom live in the block of settlements located closer to the green line. According to Peace Now statistics, there are about 196,000 residents in these settlements, several of which are no longer considered settlements and resemble large cities, home to more than 30,000 people each including Ma'ale Adumim, Modi'in and Beitar Illit. The routing of the security fence leaves most of these settlements on the Israeli side of the fence, though some deep inside the West Bank may not be included into Israel proper. The pressure on the government to allow for natural growth in these settlements is enormous and it is here where the Netanyahu government will experience the greatest difficulty in trying to implement the moratorium. This can be done however, because American overt pressure offers a high degree of political cover and limited options.

The second group consists of ideological settlers who use religious arguments to justify their presence in the West Bank. They view the return of the Jews to the land of "greater Israel" as a fulfillment of God's will. They occupy settlements located for the most part deep inside the West Bank and often in the heart of Palestinian populated areas. It is quite evident however that the public support for these settlements is declining. A growing majority of Israelis accept the fact that Israel will need to evacuate most of these nearly 100 settlements that dot the West Bank. The pressure to expand these settlements is minimal and it can be denied without considerable cost in political capital.

The third group is made up of Ultra-orthodox settlers in the West Bank who are a function almost exclusively of cheap and segregated housing close to the Green Line. They are descendents of devoutly religious Jews who oppose change and modernization. They have historically rejected active Zionism and continue to believe that the path to Jewish redemption is through religious rather than secular activity. There are eight ultra orthodox settlements that were built in the eighties and nineties with roughly 80,000 residents, all of whom are located within the settlement blocs that Israel wants to incorporate into Israel proper. These settlements are currently expanding more rapidly than others due primarily to a higher birth rate. Here-once an agreement on the borders is achieved-the expansion can then be quickly resumed within Israeli lines.

Based on the settlers' ideological leanings and location of the settlements, and considering the political constraints under which Netanyahu's coalition government operates, the Obama administration should focus on four possible areas where it can persuade the Israeli government to take action.
First, the US should push for the dismantling of all illegal outposts-which the government has already begun-but must also insist that no new outposts be allowed to rise under any circumstances.

Second, the United States should focus on removing small clusters of settlements occupied by ideological activist settlers in places such as Nablus and Hebron that are troublesome and heavily tax Israel's security forces. All of these settlements are deep in the West Bank and most Israelis agree that they must eventually be evacuated for any peace deal as soon as there is an agreement.

Third, Israel must create a program of diminishing incentive that will provide settlers who are willing to relocate voluntarily with equal housing an extra incentive if they leave within the first year from the initiation of the program. The incentive will then be reduced every few months thereafter. The idea is to create reverse migrations to Israel proper while psychologically preparing the Israeli public and the Palestinians for the inevitability of ending the occupation.

While many settlers will not accept the compensation and try to hold out for a better deal, the government must be resolute and not give into blackmail. There have been some discussions about the fate of a few thousand Israeli settlers who simply refuse to relocate to Israel proper. Some suggest that they may continue to live in their homes under Palestinian authority, though neither side has reached an understanding on this issue in previous negotiations. This idea remains a viable one as a matter of principle, and can be worked out between both governments. Finally, as difficult as a complete moratorium on expansion of settlements will be, the United States must still exert sufficient pressure on Israel to be sensitive to Palestinian and Arab sensibilities and stop major development projects in and around East Jerusalem.

The Obama administration is likely to intensify the pressure on Netanyahu to make meaningful concessions for advancing peace. Although Netanyahu as a Prime Minister will be a tough negotiator and will demand full compliance in return from the Palestinians for any concession he makes, he may also prove to be the more worthy interlocutor and more trusted by the public. It should be noted that the largest territorial concessions-the Sinai, Hebron and Gaza were all made by Likud leaders Begin, Netanyahu and Sharon respectively.

Special envoy George Mitchell, who is now President Obama's Arab-Israeli point man, concluded his report of the Sharm el-Sheikh Fact-Finding Committee with the following words, "Israelis and Palestinians have to live, work, and prosper together. History and geography have destined them to be neighbors. That cannot be changed. Only when their actions are guided by this awareness will they be able to develop the vision and reality of peace and shared prosperity."

No American president has taken such a keen and immediate commitment to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict this early in his term as President Obama. And no agreement between Israel and the Arab states has been achieved without direct American involvement. If time, resolve and visionary leadership matter, there may not be a better time to push for a solution than now.

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Hi Luc,

My understanding is that the answer is simple.

UNWRA was responsible for all refugees until 1950

From one can see that:
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was established on December 14, 1950 by the United Nations General Assembly. The agency is mandated to lead and co-ordinate international action to protect refugees and resolve refugee problems world-wide. Its primary purpose is to safeguard the rights and well-being of refugees. It strives to ensure that everyone can exercise the right to seek asylum and find safe refuge in another State, with the option to return home voluntarily, integrate locally or to resettle in a third country.

The responsibility for all refugees was assumed by UNHCR in 1951. The exception was the Palestinian Refugees. The Arab and Muslim blocks refused to agree to the transfer of responsibilities. So UNWRA survived.
Paul, your answer to Luc carries over (and expands on) the inaccuracies embedded in his question. In fact, the UN created and empowered two agencies to deal with Palestinian refugees, with initial support from both Israel and all the Arab States then in the UN.

From its inception in December 1949, UNWRA (full name: United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East) had no responsibilities for any refugees other than Palestinians.

But a year earlier, Dec. 1948, the General Assembly had also created the UN Conciliation Commission for Palestine (UNCCP). The Commission had a broader agenda than UNRWA, not just dealing with refugees. But while UNRWA's purpose was to assure that refugees got the material assistance they needed, UNCCP had the job of advocating for the rights of the refugees and making sure the "peace process" of the time (the Commission's overarching responsibility) took their rights and needs into account.

That was the situation in December 1950 when the UN created the office of the High Commissioner for Refugees to take responsibility for both assisting and protecting all otherrefugees. Palestinian refugees, it was reasoned, already received those services from the two existing UN agencies dedicated specifically to them.

There was no blocking of any transfer of authority, Paul, nor any attempted transfer to block. The UN retained its two Palestine-specific agencies mainly for reasons of conscience: It was burdened by the fact that its own 1947 General Assembly resolution calling for partition - an attempt in part to solve the UN's first big refugee crisis of several hundred thousand displaced and stateless Jews in Europe - had not only failed to resolve the Palestine conflict, but also resulted in the creation of a new crisis of 700,000 Palestinian refugees. That is what made the Arab-Israeli conflict (as it was usually perceived back then, before Fateh put Palestinian resistance back at the center) a special case for the United Nations, even before the UN grew to include a large, self-organized bloc of post-colonial countries and became a Cold War ideological battleground.

Assigning responsibility for Palestinian refugees to two separate UN agencies, rather than the UNHCR, might have worked out ok, but for one major glitch: The "conciliation" process for Palestine (mainly between Israel and the Arab states) never bore fruit, and the UNCCP ceased operations. That left the UN providing Palestinian refugees, unlike all others, with assistance only (via UNRWA), and no UN agency responsible for protecting their human rights under international law, or advocating for their political needs in any negotiations. For some 25 years, the PLO filled the political gap (though hardly the human rights one), but with that organization's post-Oslo atrophy, and the PA speaking only for Palestinians under Israeli occupation, Palestinians in exile are again effectively represented by no one.

Ironically, in my view, the absence of any UN body charged with protecting the rights and interests of Palestinian refugeees (remember, they are excluded from the UNHCR's purview) has contributed to the proliferation of useless (at best) inflammatory rhetoric in their name throughout many UN bodies, none of which has any actual responsibility or means to act on their behalf.

Were the Palestinian Refugee problem solved, there would be no reason for UNWRA's existence.

I completely agree. And I'm pretty sure we agree that the choice of citizenship in the countries in which they currently reside is an important part of solving it. Do you think Israel has no share of responsibility and no role to play in that resolution?

Sholem aleichem Luc,

Did I ignore this misconception? I thought not, but I'm sorry if I did. Let me take this opportunity to reject it explicitly:

UNHCR was charged with (among other things) working for the repatriation of all refugees who desired it - except for Palestinian refugees, who are explicitly excluded from UNHCR's purview.

It was UNCCP whose mission included the repatriation of Palestinian refugees - but UNCCP is long defunct.

That leaves no one minding the store - and so we often find the GA and other UN organs, including various subcommittees of UNHCR, shouting belligerently and without effect from the sidelines.

Luc, if you mean to suggest that responsibility for protecting and advocating for the rights of Palestinian refugees should therefore be transfered to UNHCR, I'm all with you. Not that it would change the balance of power significantly, but at least it would give the UN an authorized voice with greater leverage and a clear address from which to intervene on behalf of Palestinian refugees - whether for repatriation, restitution, resettlement, or naturalization.

But wishing it had been done, wanting it to be done, does not make it so.


Note that UNWRA seems not to be mentioned on the UNHCR web site. I certainly have found no reference there.

Since its survival, UNWRA has morphed into an organization supporting Palestinians only. For more, see

There are many reasons for its ongoing survival. UNWRA is the largest employer of Palestinians. Like all bureaucracies, the survival of the bureaucracy is probably UNWRA's unstated and understood primary mission.

Were the Palestinian Refugee problem solved, there would be no reason for UNWRA's existence.
Dear Luc,

On July 11, 2009 at 2:22pm in
you wrote "I await your reply..."

I replied two hours later. Since July 11, 2009 at 4:26pm, "I await your reply...".

Be well...
History booked are full with blame game of who the British supported, I think that the British acted in complex situations and had intentions to have Jewish nd Arab state in the territory of Palestine,

The Arabs of Palestine are so far the losers in the conflict but their future should be good as the future of the Israelis. We are one human tissue mixed and connected with bloody history, we must overcome the historic mistakes and make a good decisions for our future.

The Palestinians indeed remained steadfast because all their Arab brothers (except Jordan) refused and refuse to treat them like human beings and grant them citizenship and a humane refuge and continue to treat them like verrmin who must be refugees until Israel is destroyed.

UNWRA exists to try to facilitate all that.

we are in a Peace process for years, some times, as this few month, we have door of opportunity. It is so sad that a person like you seem to invest energy to hide our hope with blame and one sided world view.
The Time is now for taking a step into the door of opertunity.

Israeli public need to embrace the Settlers and recognize their pain, even the quality-of-life settlers are people who will need to move, change work and life condition and have many dreams broken down.

The Gaza evacuee settlers are still open wound, even if some of them manipulated to be workless and homeless years after the evacuations from Gaza - these are families and Israeli citizens we need to take care of.

The Settlement project is painful, it is one of the sticks that block peace progress, and it is human pain for many. The Jews and the world can help if they wish, Israel need their help for getting change manifest and better option for peace to manifest.
Alon, I don't know if you're still following the mostly off-topic discussion in response to your original post here, but in case you are I'd like to ask you a couple questions about it.

1) You wrote:

During these negotiations, Israelis and Palestinians can agree within a few months as to which of the settlements will be incorporated into Israel proper under a peace agreement, and what contiguous land of equal size and quality can be swapped with the Palestinians in its place

Yes, that's one plausible outcome of negotiations to anticipate, but why do you assume it is the only possible outcome? It is a proposal in which Netanyahu's camp have no stake or commitment. It also faces some serious inherent obstacles.

If major settlements near the Green Line are incorporated into Israel without substantial tracts of land surrounding them (Geneva Initiative model), then the borders are completely irrational, with long squiggly lines (basically just roads) connecting small settlement pods at their extremities to the "mainland" of Israel proper. That might be fine if the conflict were already resolved in the hearts and minds of Israelis and Palestinians, but given that the aim of the "peace process" (though I'm not sure it's a tenable one) is to reach a diplomatic agreement that can allow the pressure cooker to cool down slowly over time, such borders are likely to be a continual irritant and provocation. If, on the other hand, the borders are rationalized by annexing blocs of land around the settlements as connective tissue, then a big disruptive bite is taken out of the center of the West Bank, one that can hardly be compensated by any exchange of equal acreage (or dunamage).

Finally, as a matter of principle, there is no good reason why those settlements should have to be removed from Palestinian sovereignty in order for the Jews who live there to continue doing so. Aren't there, after all, Palestinians living under Jewish sovereignty? Why not let the residents decide for themselves whether to remain or leave? Maybe they could even retain Israeli citizenship when their adopted hometowns become part of Palestine (and cease being exclusively Jewish enclaves). These, too, are merely a few additional plausible outcomes; they do not exhaust the possibilities. Yet you speak as if territorial exchange for settlements is fore-ordained by G!d.

2) You wrote:

The Obama administration's demand that Israel end all settlement activity, including natural growth, has been deemed unacceptable by Netanyahu's government, which insists that a total freeze will severely aggravate normal life and engender internal political rift.

Isn't part of the purpose of demanding a complete settlement freeze precisely to create that political rift, essentially requiring even Likud and its allies to finally choose sides between greater Israel and democratic Israel?
Hayyam you wrote...."There is no good reason why those settlements should have to be remove........"
Have you seen the behaviors of the settlers in the Westbank towards the Palestinians....
There is every reason to have them removed........
The majority of settlers appear to be extreme right wing khanist types.
Making the settlements a poisoned chalice to hand over to any Palestinian independent state.
These are not your law abiding average citizens that would respect a Palestinian government.
These are armed to the teeth,radicals, who have no respect for anything Palestinian.



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