Settlements as punishment?

Settlements as punishment?

The building of settlements in the West Bank of Israel is, to say the least, controversial. In Israel itself, there is a lack of consensus regarding the effort. The Palestinians believe that the settlement enterprise makes it impossible for them to form a viable state. And the international community views the activity as illegal.

That is the hard political reality that faces any Israeli government that considers planning or building new housing units beyond the Green Line. So no one should have been surprised by the outcry that accompanied the Aug. 31 announcement by the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that Israel was declaring 1,000 acres of private land on the West Bank near Bethlehem as “state land,” and thus eligible for the building of new settlement housing.

The 1,000 acre expropriation has been described as the largest in a generation. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki was quick to call on Israel to reverse its decision, claiming that it runs “contrary to Israel’s stated goal of a two-state solution” and a peace agreement with the Palestinians. News reports suggest the Obama administration is considering taking further action beyond that stern reprimand.

A prevailing view among moderate, but fiercely pro-Israel Americans, is that despite purported justifications for the move — the land, which is close to the communities of Gush Etzion, is generally considered as future Israeli land anyway, and officials reportedly told the Americans that it will be years before construction actually begins — the timing of the announcement is unwise and serves to deflate what little sympathy the Jewish state garnered through the recent Gaza war. And there is a sense of déjà vu about the announcement, recalling the events of 2010, when Israel welcomed Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to Jerusalem by unveiling a plan for new settlements. That move was viewed as a slap in the face of a staunch friend.

And then, of course, there is the juxtaposition with the decision by a Jerusalem committee backed by Mayor Nir Barkat, which came at almost the same time as the West Bank announcement, to approve a plan to build a 2,500 unit Arab neighborhood in East Jerusalem — a bright spot in Israeli-Palestinian relations.

It has long been recognized that settlement decisions are often a product of coalition politics. But in this instance, the announcement appears less a carefully planned strategic plan and more as something designed to punish the Palestinians. Thus, it is reported that Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon ordered the expropriation as a response to the murder of three Jewish teenagers in June. Whatever the merit of the plan — perhaps to connect three Jewish settlements or to enhance security for some West Bank residents — the move will unquestionably divide Israel from many of its friends and further inflame its enemies.

All things considered, was it really necessary?