US Secretary of State John Kerry had just concluded yet another visit to the Middle East. On his agenda were visits to Oman and Jordan to discuss the horrific Syrian civil war, and day and a half in Israel and Ramallah to continue his ongoing - but still unsuccessful - effort to reignite direct Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. His plane barely took off before some commentators started putting forward an old but very flawed theme - 'it is all because of settlements'.
Just ask Lori Allen, who in an article on The Conversation ('US is the real obstacle to peace between Israel and Palestine,' 24.5.2013) argued that "Settlements are at the heart of the conflict." But not a sentence goes by, before she contradicts herself: "The ever-expanding colonial enterprise has been at the core of Israel's existence as a state and at the heart of Zionist national identity since it developed more than a century ago," she immediately continues.
Needless to say, there were no settlements prior to the 1967 war, let alone "a century ago" - unless your argument is that any Jewish neighbourhood anywhere in Israel is a "settlement." Nor are settlements "at the core" of Israel existence, as evident by the numerous withdrawals from territory and eviction of settlements Israel has conducted throughout the years, most recently in 2005 when it implemented a disengagement plan and withdrew from Gaza and part of northern Samaria, removing thousands of citizens from their homes
Once Israel is falsely depicted as a "colonial enterprise," instead of the result of long struggle for self-determination for the Jewish people (who came not just from Europe, but rather from all over the world - including many who are indigenous to the Middle East region), one can pretty much be certain that we are not talking about settlements, human rights or peace anymore.
The chorus might blame "the settlements," but too often the settlements are merely a distraction, when the real objection is to "Zionist national identity," and its political manifestation - Israel - alone of all the national identities in the world.
Meanwhile, incomplete and misleading numbers are thrown into the air: 'Israel approved construction of 296 houses in the settlement of Beit El,' it is claimed. But nowhere mentioned is that those new Beit El units are being built as compensation for families who were evicted from five buildings in that settlement which were then demolished by an Israeli court order after it ruled that they were built on land privately owned by Palestinians. Somehow, instead of commanding Israel and its judicial system for correcting any misdeeds and giving back land to its owners, Israel is berated for settlement "expansion" even when we are talking simply about re-housing families that already live in Beit-El.
In fact, Israel has created no new settlements in the West Bank since 1998, and has had policies in place since 2004 which effectively bar any substantive territorial expansion of existing settlements. This means that claims that growth in settlements is supposedly making a future Palestinian state impossible are just baseless.
But facts often get lost in the shuffle to place blame and build outrage.
Otherwise, how would one explain the contradiction between Allen's claim that settlements "dominate more than 40% of the West Bank and East Jerusalem" with Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat's own admission that settlements have been built on approximately only 1.1% of West Bank land?
Settlements are a complex and multidimensional issue that consists of legal, demographic, political, territorial, logistical and human rights-related aspects. They will doubtlessly remain a key issue for any future peace negotiations. However, they are only one among many such key issues.
Over and over again consecutive Israeli governments have stated that they will withdraw from territory and remove settlements in the West Bank under a peace agreement based on a two state solution. Ehud Barak offered the late Yasser Arafat such a deal in 2001, which Arafat rejected. Then Ariel Sharon withdrew from Gaza. Shortly afterwards, it was seized by the terror organisation Hamas, and the south of Israel has been repeatedly shelled with rockets from there ever since. In 2008, then Prime Minister Ehud Olmert made yet another peace proposal to the Palestinians, this time while hosting President Mahmod Abbas at the Israeli Prime Minister's residence in Jerusalem. This was the most far-reaching proposal by an Israeli leader and included the most significant territorial concessions ever offered, with extensive land swaps to allow for an independent and viable Palestinian state, while Israel would retains most of the major settlements communities along the Green Line. But the Palestinian got cold feet about reaching a final peace agreement even though the terms were close to everything they could have reasonably expected.
The ultimate proof that settlements are not an obstacle for peace lies in the 2010 settlement freeze. For 10 months Israel stopped construction in West Bank settlements, following a request by US President Barack Obama in order to foster direct negotiations. Yet even during the settlement freeze, Abbas refused to negotiate with Israel, until the very last month of the freeze, and even then only agreed to discuss its continuation. Surely, if settlements were an obstacle for peace, the Israeli willingness to withdraw from territory, to engage in negotiations without preconditions - as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had called for many times - and to halt construction in the settlements for months would have created the settings for resumption of negotiations. Indeed, it has been widely reported in Israel that an unannounced policy of "restraint", that is an unofficial freeze, has been put in place over recent months to aid US Secretary of State John Kerry's efforts to restart negotiations. But negotiations were not resumed, either in 2010 nor recently. So settlements are not at fault.
People who place all the fault for the stalemate in the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians on settlement construction are failing to see the broader picture - there are many core issues that must be hashed out for the conflict to be justly resolved to the benefit of both sides; territory (and yes, that includes settlements), the status of Jerusalem, refugees, prisoners, mutual recognition - the list goes on and on. The only way to reach a solution for these issues (and yes, that includes settlements) is through direct negotiations without preconditions.
Those who are deeply concerned about the rights of Palestinians, and first and foremost the right for self-determination, could promote this important cause much more effectively if they called for such direct negotiations.