The claim is often made that “settlements are an obstacle to peace.” If, at almost any juncture in the last 42 years, the Palestinians had said yes to peace and no to terror they could have stopped the growth of Israeli communities in the territories. The Arabs in general, and Palestinians in particular, were unwilling, however, to make peace before a single settlement existed and have repeatedly missed opportunities to establish a state. The implication of this lack of courage and vision can be seen in the following table:
Had the Arabs responded to Israeli overtures immediately after the 1967 War, only a handful of Jews would have lived in the territories. In the next dozen years, it was still possible to turn away from violence and make peace and no more than 6,000 Jews would have been in the territories. That population doubled after Menachem Begin came to power in 1977, but the Palestinians had still another chance to move toward independence, but rejected the offer of autonomy that would inevitably have led to statehood. Meanwhile, the settlements in Sinai were removed when the area was exchanged for peace with Egypt.
The Palestinians showed no interest in reaching an agreement with Israel for the next 14 years. During that time the number of Jews living in the territories increased more than ten-fold. It was this population explosion that prompted PLO leaders to enter into the Oslo agreements. Israel agreed to the creation of a Palestinian state within five years, but the Palestinians had to fulfill certain promises, the most important of which was the cessation of terror. Violence never stopped, however, even as Israel withdrew from 80 percent of the Gaza Strip and more than 40 percent of the West Bank.
After a series of heinous attacks in the mid-1990s, Israelis had enough and the Oslo process effectively came to an end. The terror may have been intended to drive Israel out of the territories, but the population instead grew by another 50,000 Jews.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak decided to jettison the incrementalism of Oslo and try to conclude a final agreement all at once. He offered to withdraw from 97 percent of the West Bank, 100 percent of Gaza, dismantle most settlements and establish a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital. The Palestinians not only rejected that offer, they did not bother to counter it. Today, many Palestinians regret turning down that deal.
Instead of building a state, the Palestinians instigated a five-year war that cost more than 1,000 Israeli lives. During that period, the Palestinians again committed to ending terror as part of the road map aimed at creating a Palestinian state. Their failure to live up to the promise to stop terror essentially let Israel evade its road map commitment to freeze settlements and the population increased by another 50,000.
In 2005, Israel boldly decided to unilaterally withdraw from Gaza, evacuating all its soldiers and dismantling 21 settlements with approximately 9,000 citizens, many of whom had lived in their homes peacefully for decades. Israel also removed four settlements in the West Bank. The hope was that “ending the occupation” and evacuating settlements would satisfy the Palestinians’ demands and provide an opportunity for them to begin to build the infrastructure of an independent state. Instead, they launched a three-year rocket and mortar bombardment against southern Israel that kept the innocent civilians there in a state of constant anxiety. Once again, instead of land for peace, Israel traded land for terror.
Today, while most Israelis still believe in a two-state solution, there is little enthusiasm for additional territorial concessions that could put Jerusalem, Ben-Gurion International Airport and Israel’s heartland within the range of the type of deadly rockets that Hamas unleashed over the last three years from the Gaza Strip. The unremitting terror campaign has again made the prospect for Palestinian statehood more remote and allowed the population of settlers to grow in the last three years from approximately 250,000 to 276,000.
The historical record clearly documents the relationship between Palestinian irredentism and the number of Jewish settlers. It is not settlements that are the obstacle to peace, but Palestinian terror and obstinance. The Jewish population in the territories will continue to grow exponentially as long as the Palestinians pursue this failed policy. Israel proved it would dismantle settlements in exchange for peace after signing a treaty with Egypt. If the Palestinians want to achieve independence and reduce the number of settlers, they would be wise to adopt the successful model of negotiation pursued by Anwar Sadat.