For more than 25 years, I have supported two states as the only solution that would potentially meet both the minimum security needs of Israel and the minimum national aspirations of the Palestinians.
For me, this has always meant the right of Israel to exist as a sovereign Jewish state within roughly the pre-1967 Green Line borders, and equally the right of the Palestinians to an independent state within the West Bank and Gaza Strip. This means no coerced Jewish settlements within Palestinian territory, and equally no coerced return of Palestinian refugees within Green Line Israel.
In recent years, since the outbreak of the second Palestinian Intifada, I have become more critical of Palestinian beliefs and actions. Palestinian violence and extremism, as reflected in constant attacks on Israeli civilians via Qassam rockets and suicide bombings, and the growing power of the religious fundamentalist group Hamas, stand as significant barriers to any conflict resolution.
Nevertheless, I have not changed my fundamental opposition to the Jewish settlements. In my opinion, they remain a significant obstacle to peace and reconciliation irrespective of anything the Palestinians say or do. This is not to deny that Israel has legitimate military and security concerns in the Territories unless or until a lasting peace settlement is negotiated.
Over the years, many simplistic arguments have been advanced in an attempt to justify the West Bank settlement project. These arguments were dominant when I first entered the public debate in the Australian Jewish community in the late 1980s, but are perhaps less so today.
Some of the more common arguments included: Israel has a right to expand its territory due to having fought the 1967 Six Day War in self-defence; Jews have a religious duty to establish colonies in the 'liberated' Biblical heartland; Jews have the same right as any other people to settle anywhere in the world; Jewish settlements do not dispossess Palestinians; Palestinians do not constitute a real nation; and dismantling settlements would only strengthen Palestinian hostility.
None of these arguments had any substance in the 1980s, and they have even less validity now. But unfortunately their influence both within Israel and the Jewish Diaspora served to obscure the dire consequences of the settlement project.
Why the settlements are wrong
There are overwhelming political, legal, moral, ethical, economic, demographic, military and public relations arguments against the settlements. They include the following:
Political: Many of the settlements were deliberately established in or near densely populated Palestinian areas in order to foreclose the very possibility of creating a viable Palestinian State, and hence the prospect of a peaceful two-state solution. Their presence has provoked constant conflict and violence between Palestinians and the Israeli army, and caused much unnecessary loss of life on both sides.
According to Shlomo Gazit, the former Israeli coordinator of activities in the Territories, the settlements were planned to 'safeguard the Greater Israel vision. Therefore, as many settlements as possible had to be built. They had to be spread throughout the land, leaving no space or possibility of establishing autonomous Palestinian territorial units ... They became the main stumbling block on the way to an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.'
The former Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami labelled this practice 'the most absurd march of folly that the State of Israel has ever embarked on'.
The American Jewish political theorist Michael Walzer controversially argues that the settlers are the 'functional equivalent' of the Palestinian terrorist groups. He acknowledges that 'they are not the moral equivalent. The settlers are not murderers, even if there are a small number of terrorists among them.
'But the message of settler activity to the Palestinians is very much like the message of terrorism to the Israelis: We want you to leave, or we want you to accept a radically subordinate position in your own country.'
Legal: The settlements are arguably illegal since they contravene Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention which precludes an occupying power from settling its own citizens in territory taken by military force. According to Israeli journalist Tom Segev, this interpretation was confirmed by the Israeli Foreign Minister's own legal counsel, Theodor Meron, as early as September 1967.
The settlements also violate the legal sovereign right of the Palestinians to determine the population of their own territory.
Moral and Ethical: The extensive confiscation of private Palestinian land to build settlements involves a second dispossession for the Palestinians, many of whom had previously fled or been forced to leave their original homes inside Israel in 1948.
Further, the settlers regard themselves as the true owners of the territories, and make no attempt to seek the good will of the local population, or to recognise Palestinian national or political rights.
A significant minority of settler extremists engage in vigilante behaviour involving verbal and physical abuse of the Palestinian civilian population. This includes the destruction and theft of olive trees and other property, and some instances of violent assault and murder.
Most prominent were the Gush Emunim underground in the early 1980s who murdered a number of Palestinian civilians, and the Kiryat Arba resident Baruch Goldstein who slaughtered 29 Muslim worshippers in Hebron's Tomb of the Patriarchs in 1994.
According to the respected Israeli human rights group, B'Tselem, from late September 2000 to the end of 2004, settlers killed 34 Palestinians in the Territories. In some of these cases, the Israelis acted in life-threatening situations. In many cases, however, they did not act in self-defence.
Economic: The settlements are economically disastrous since they divert resources badly needed by Jews (including many poor Jews) living inside the borders of sovereign Israel. Settlers are provided with a range of financial incentives including a 7 per cent income tax break, large housing grants, subsidised mortgages, free schooling from age three, and grants for business industry, agriculture and tourism.
Funds are also directed through political parties such as the National Religious Party, and private cultural and religious organisations. Buying or building a home in the settlements is much cheaper than purchasing a home inside Israel.
According to a 2003 report by Haaretz and a more recent study by Israeli Ynetnews, the annual expense is about 2.5 billion shekels amounting to 50 billion since 1967. The government spends about ten times more money on settlers (an average of 8,600 shekels per year) than on the other 97 per cent of Israeli citizens living inside the borders of Israel.
Prior to the withdrawal from Gaza, the government was even spending an estimated quarter of a million dollars per family to protect residents of the two isolated settlements in the middle of the Gaza Strip.
Demographic: The annexation of the West Bank including the settlements would mean Jews becoming a minority in their own country. This would leave Israel with two equally bad choices: either a Greater Israel which is likely to become a pariah state due to denying national and civil rights to the Palestinians despite their demographic majority, or one unified or bi-national state which would inevitably become a Greater Palestine due to the higher Palestinian birthrate.
The demographic threat is recognised by the current Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert who argued in a November 2007 interview with Ha'aretz that Israel was 'finished' if it forced the Palestinians into a South African-style struggle for democracy and equal voting rights.
Military: The settlements are arguably a military burden rather than an asset. Huge numbers of troops have to be deployed to defend residents. The Israeli political scientist Menachem Klein has estimated that Israel employs 100,000 armed personnel to defend the 100,000 women and children in the settlements.
Public relations: The continued existence of the settlements is a public relations disaster for Israel. Numerous anti-Zionist propagandists point to the settlements as evidence of Israel's alleged quest for territorial expansion and ethnic domination, rather than its stated preference for territorial compromise and a negotiated peace. The settlements also provide a convenient excuse for the rationalisation of Palestinian violence and extremism.
Today's reality: is it reversible?
The number of West Bank settlers has steadily grown since the mid 1970s — from 3,000 in 1976, to 48,000 in 1984, to 108,000 in 1992, to 218,000 by 2002.
This included massive growth following the signing of the Oslo Peace Accord in September 1993, despite the widespread expectation that Israel would evacuate many if not most of the settlements. This expansion seems to have occurred in part because the Peace Accord contained no specific clause freezing the construction of new settlements.
Today, the Peace Now Settlement Watch Report refers to 121 Israeli settlements and 260,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank (not counting East Jerusalem) including large cities such as Ariel and Ma'ale Adunim, which have populations of more than 15,000 people.
In addition, there are 105 illegal outposts populated by 3,000 settlers. Eighty per cent of the settlements and outposts sit (fully or partially) on private Palestinian-owned land.
Anti-Zionist authors such as Virginia Tilley and Ali Abunimah claim that the settlements are irreversible. For example, Tilley claims that it is inconceivable that any Israeli government would have the political will to dismantle the settlements.
She argues that the settlements have prospered because they have enjoyed the ongoing patronage of Jewish national institutions such as the Jewish National Fund and all Israeli governments, whatever their political persuasion.
This support also reflects the dependence of Israel on the key water aquifers in the West Bank, and the power of the settler movement, which threatens to respond to any pullback by shattering the unity of Jews both inside and outside Israel. Others note that any threat of forced evacuation may provoke an armed uprising from militant settlers leading potentially to a civil war.
However, the withdrawal of 8000 settlers from Gaza in 2005 suggests that significant evacuation is possible, and that the settlement process can be reversed. The Gaza withdrawal also demonstrated that a strong Israeli government can overcome resistance from hardline settlers.
Ideally, most if not all of the West Bank settlements would be dismantled. However, most Israelis and even many leading Palestinians concede that this objective may be unrealistic. The political challenge is prohibitive, and the cost of evacuating all the settlers is estimated at more than 250 billion shekels.
The best outcome that can probably be hoped for is a two-state solution which involves the evacuation of many settlers, and the permanent retention of the larger settlement blocs within Israeli territory in exchange for land inside Green Line Israel. The final adjusted borders would need to ensure the creation of a viable, contiguous Palestinian State, and should be accompanied by an explicit amendment to the Israeli Law of Return designating that it does not apply to the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
In the current context, these plans may seem like a pipe dream, but they have already been discussed at length in previous peace negotiations. For example, during the January 2001 discussions at Taba, Israel proposed to annex the suburbs of Jerusalem, the Etzion Bloc and the town of Ariel, and evacuate 75,000 settlers.
Similarly, the unofficial 2003 Geneva Peace Accord stipulated an Israeli annexation of 2.2 per cent of the West Bank including 21 settlements and 140,000 settlers close to the Green Line. All other 100 plus settlements including the city of Ariel and about half the settlers were to be evacuated.
It is also significant that the amended security fence line (as per February 2005) annexes 8.6 per cent of the West Bank including 49 settlements and 190,000 settlers. That leaves over 70 settlements and about 70,000 settlers on the eastern Palestinian side of the fence who may be ripe for evacuation.
There are currently a number of political initiatives in Israel to encourage those settlers east of the fence to return home. For example, a number of public figures established an NGO called One Home to lobby for a fair evacuation compensation law to encourage the evacuation of settlers.
An associated parliamentary bill drafted by Knesset members Abshalom Vilan of Meretz and Labor's Collette Avital would buy the properties of settlers located east of the security fence for around $200,000 each. Vilan commissioned a poll which showed that half the 80,000 settlers on the Palestinian side of the fence would return if offered adequate compensation.
The bill has the support of both Labor Party leader Ehud Barak, and Deputy Prime Minister Haim Ramon of Kadima. Only time will tell whether such measures are successful.
Dr Philip Mendes is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Social Work at Monash University, and the author or co-author of six books including most recently Australia's Welfare Wars Revisited. Email Philip Mendes
Flickr images by RPB1001 (West Bank protest), Bettsy1970 (Jewish settlement) and RPB1001 (boy with Palestine map)