Israel: The Problem with Peace Talks

Hazem Maali's only warning was his wife's clipped scream. The 34-year-old Palestinian salesman was driving his family through the stony hills and olive groves of the northern West Bank, on their way to a wedding. As they sped past the turnoff for the Israeli settlement of Yitzhar, a Frisbee-size chunk of asphalt came crashing through his windshield. His wife, six months pregnant, started to vomit; blood poured from her head. Only when Maali screeched to a stop at a nearby Israeli Army checkpoint did he pivot to check on his children. The projectile had ricocheted into the back seat, knocking his 7-year-old daughter unconscious.

At Yitzhar, an Orthodox religious settlement high on a Samarian hilltop, Israeli authorities arrested 19-year-old Daniel Avraham and charged him with the attack. Even in the West Bank, where tit-for-tat stone-throwing is part of the landscape, Yitzhar has earned a nasty reputation this year. In June, settlers attacked Israeli police with stones and tear gas as they tried to evacuate an illegally built trailer. In July, a Jewish seminary student from Yitzhar was arrested after trying to launch a homemade rocket toward a nearby Palestinian neighborhood. Last month, after a Palestinian snuck into the settlement and stabbed a young boy, a mob of dozens of settlers stormed through a neighboring Arab village, smashing windows, firing wildly and injuring six Palestinians. Even Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert condemned the retaliatory rampage as a "pogrom."

The uptick in violence is worrying Israel's security services, which have convened anxious strategy sessions in recent weeks. At one such meeting, according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, officials reported 429 attacks in the first half of 2008, compared with 551 in all of 2007. And the problem is likely to get worse: settlement construction has surged nearly twice as fast this year as it did last year. According to the Israeli watchdog group Peace Now, some 2,600 new housing units are currently under construction throughout the West Bank. Tenders for new structures have climbed 550 percent in the past year, and in East Jerusalem the numbers are even more stark—38 times higher this year than last (1,761 since the start of the recent peace talks, compared with 46 the year before). Even as Bush administration officials have demanded a settlement freeze—furiously trying to cobble together a peace deal by the end of the year—Yitzhar settlers have erected 10 new caravans in a dusty lot on the hilltop's fringe.

The uncomfortable truth is that those peace talks are probably fueling the building boom. Violence may be spiking, but it's still far quieter than during the height of the intifada; that relative calm makes settlers feel more at ease risking their money and lives in the occupied territories. The Israeli ruling party often turns a blind eye to (or encourages) such expansion, rationalizing that keeping its parliamentary coalition together and protecting the prime minister's right flank is a more important short-term goal. At the same time, the prospect of returning land to the Palestinians under any deal—however distant—intensifies the settlers' determination to build. Olmert's bold acknowledgment in a farewell interview that Jerusalem will ultimately have to be divided is certain to redouble the settlers' efforts.

In fact, the current situation is the worst of all possible worlds—enough movement to scare the settlers, but very little prospect for a genuine deal. The relationship between diplomatic initiatives and Israeli settlement growth tends to work like a ratchet: it's easy to crank up construction, but, failing a peace deal, hard to reverse it. "If you pursue negotiations without an absolute determination to reach an agreement, you end up with more settlements," says Gershom Gorenberg, author of "The Accidental Empire," a history of the settler movement. "It's been a consistent pattern for the past 40 years." With all three key diplomatic players hopelessly weak, the most recent peace initiative, which takes its name from a summit in Annapolis, Maryland, convened last year, is a textbook case. Olmert's successor, Tzipi Livni, will need to rely on fringe parties if she's to form a governing coalition; Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is facing his own bleak re-election prospects; and George W. Bush, of course, is preoccupied at the moment.

In theory, at least, any American involvement in the process should be better than none at all. In their smart recent book, "Negotiating Arab-Israeli Peace," Daniel Kurtzer and Scott Lasensky point out that "large asymmetries of power require a robust third-party role"; without one, unequal parties are "unable to reach viable negotiated agreements on their own." Jaw-jaw is probably still better than war-war. But the historical record is discouraging. The first settlement in the Gaza Strip, Kfar Darom, emerged in the wake of the Rogers Initiative, a 1970 push by the then U.S. Secretary of State William Rogers to end the War of Attrition between Israel and Egypt. During the mid-1970s, the ultranationalist Gush Emunim movement built one of the first settlements near Nablus, fearing the outcome of negotiations between Israel and Jordan. In 1998, after President Bill Clinton's Wye River summit, Ariel Sharon, then foreign minister, exhorted his countrymen to fan out and settle the West Bank. "All of those hilltop outposts are a specific result of Oslo," Gorenberg says.

Yitzhar was founded in 1983, on a towering, rocky perch with biblical views that stretch from Shiloh to Shechem. When a colleague and I visited earlier this month, one of the settlement's leaders, Yigal Amitay, insisted we bring along a Bible as a kind of guidebook. Wearing a blue polo shirt, sandals and a scraggly black beard, Amitay at first claimed that the reports on settlement expansion were wrong; there were only four new buildings in the community, he said. "The government isn't allowing anything," he explained. "There's a lot less building than there should be." Still, when I asked about a horseshoe of 10 new-looking caravans on the outskirts of the settlement, Amitay just grinned, saying, "You can ask your American satellites about those." The newly constructed trailers now house young couples who have arrived in the past six months.

This June, Israeli authorities raided Yitzhar, sending 200 border police to the settlement. After clashing with stone-throwing demonstrators, they dismantled a trailer on a winding path outside the center of the settlement, evicting the young newlyweds who lived there. Still, the settlers are shrewd enough to realize that the crackdowns are partly political theater designed to please U.S. officials like Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. I asked Rivka Ben-Jacob, a 28-year-old mother of four who moved to the settlement three years ago, how often the police tear down an illegal caravan. "Every time Condoleezza comes," she said. "It's this game, and everybody knows it." As for the newlyweds, the settlers rebuilt their caravan the same day.

After Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005, religious and ultranationalist settlers were widely seen as a spent force in Israel. Conventional wisdom held that most Israelis had begun to take seriously the demographic threat the settlements posed: high Palestinian birthrates meant that if Israel didn't withdraw its troops and settlers from most of Gaza and the West Bank, it would be impossible to preserve Israel as both a Jewish and democratic state. As for the settlers themselves—many of whom had been in denial right up until the successful evacuation—the forced withdrawal was seen as a repudiation from God. "We learned that you can't say it won't happen," says 22-year-old Shifra Schreiber, who moved two months ago into one of the new trailers on the outskirts of Yitzhar. But she hasn't given up. "We'll do what we have to do, which is to keep building."

At first glance, it would be easy to assume that ideologically motivated settlers are now enjoying a renaissance. On a recent trip to Kiryat Arba, a hard-core redoubt near Hebron, settler leader Boaz Haetzni put on a defiant act as he walked me past an illegal outpost. "Condoleezza Rice doesn't sleep at night because of this," he said. "Tell Condoleezza: every time there's pressure, every time there's a peace process, the settlements grow." But later, as we sat around the lunch table, he dropped the macho air. "Look, there's a joke," he said. "Two Jews are riding on a train in London. One sees the other reading an anti-Semitic newspaper. He asks why. 'In our newspaper, there are only problems,' the second rider answers. 'In their newspaper, we're controlling the world'." As for the settler rebirth, "it makes my day to hear it," said Haetzni. "I hope they're right. But I see the other side. I see the empty side."

Indeed, the new settlement figures are "a little misleading," says Hagit Ofran, the head of Peace Now's Settlement Watch unit. Only about 18 percent of the newly constructed housing units are east of the planned route for Israel's separation barrier, which means much of the recent growth has been in settlements within the wide envelope of land around Jerusalem that Israel hopes it can keep in any final peace deal. Many of those approximately 280,000 settlers are secular and moved there for cheap housing—not for religious or ideological reasons. Even as Israeli leaders insist they're committed to dismantling illegal outposts beyond the wall, they may be encouraging construction on its west side, including in East Jerusalem, as a means of staking out their claim to that territory in advance of any deal. On Rice's most recent stop in Jerusalem, Livni (then foreign minister) sharply warned the Palestinian negotiators not to use settlement building as an "excuse" to back away from the negotiating table. Still, Palestinian-rights advocates argue that the Jerusalem-area settlements can be just as dangerous as isolated outposts. "All construction—even in East Jerusalem—is undermining our partner," says Ofran.

It certainly antagonizes Palestinians like Hazem Maali. His wife, Falastine, ended up spending 12 hours in the emergency room, in surgery for a brain hemorrhage. Their daughter, whose skull was fractured by the projectile, still has a baseball-size scar on her forehead and will need cosmetic surgery. Falastin says she gets pounding headaches, and her daughter, when she isn't crying, is more aggressive with her sisters. As for his family's attackers, "I want to break their necks," says Maali.

The real tragedy of the attack is that Abbas has almost certainly lost one family's support. The backbone of the American diplomatic strategy has been to try to strengthen the moderate Palestinian president, betting that if the two sides can come to a deal—at least on paper—Palestinians will turn away from rejectionist rivals like Hamas. Hazem and Falastine Maali should have been natural supporters: cosmopolitan, wealthy, both from families who traditionally favored secular Fatah over its Islamist rivals. But Hazem isn't buying the party line. "I don't see any benefit to this peace process," he told me, as we talked outside near the scene of the attack. "We haven't achieved anything." Drawing on a cigarette, he explained that Abbas can no longer count on his vote. As we talked, a clutch of young Israeli settlers walked to the bus stop across the street, smiling and laughing. Quickly, reflexively, Maali ducked behind my car.