The Oslo accords were intended to mark the beginning of a gradual end to the Israeli presence in the occupied territories. Instead, the accords opened a new era for the settlement enterprise, which continues its expansion in the so-called C areas, which encompass 60.2 percent of the West Bank territory and remain under full Israeli control. “This is one of the strangest maps of existing and potential autonomous territories ever agreed-upon by two conflicting parties,” said Elisha Efrat, Israel Prize winner for geographical research. He referred to the way 176 “orange stains” (B areas), representing the Palestinian rural space, are spread throughout the map, with C areas separating them from one another and leaving Palestinians with mere isolated enclaves that preclude any national self-sustainment. Jeff Halper, a human-rights activist, compares this to the Japanese game of Go, in which “you win by immobilizing your opponent, by gaining control of key points of a matrix so that every time s/he moves s/he encounters an obstacle of some kind.”
Since Israel refuses to undertake any commitment to freeze settlement, it uses the interim phases, whose purpose was to advance toward a two-state solution, to create obstacles that would impede a fair, agreed-upon partition of the territory. In the decade following the Oslo accords from 1993 to 2003, the number of West Bank settlers doubled, from 110,000 to 224,000 (not including East Jerusalem). Since then, the figure has risen to more than 340,000. Together with Israelis residing in Israeli-constructed neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, they now represent more than six hundred thousand people. The number of existing settlements authorized by Israel is 124, to which one should add twelve East Jerusalem neighborhoods and more than a hundred “outposts” built by settlers without formal approval by the state (though with the help of public authorities and branches of the government). Many of those outposts were located carefully to prevent any territorial contiguity in a future Palestinian state. It is in these strategic areas of the mountain strip and across the separation wall that the Jewish West Bank population grew the most during 2011.
At the same time, and more formally, Israeli governments worked to increase the settler population in “block settlements” in order to eventually annex these areas, as was openly declared. Some of these blocks are close to the 1967 borders, and, in informal negotiations (such as the Geneva Initiative), Palestinians agreed in principle to the idea that they would be annexed, as long as the Palestinian state would be compensated with separate territory equivalent in size. However, they strongly rejected Israeli annexation of areas such as the Ariel and Karnei Shomron blocks, necessary for any viable Palestinian state with territorial contiguity.
To exercise control over the land without giving up its Jewish identity, Israel has embraced various policies of “separation.” It has separate legal systems for traditional Israeli territory and for the territory it occupies; it divides those who reside in occupied lands based on ethnic identity; it has retained control over occupied lands but evaded responsibility for the people living there; and it has created a conceptual distinction between its democratic principles and its actual practices in the occupied territories. These separations have allowed Israel to manage the occupation for forty-five years while maintaining its identity and international status. No other state in the twenty-first century has been able to get away with this, but it works for Israel, which has little incentive to change it.
THIS ARTICLE was written shortly after a coalition government controlling ninety-four seats out of 120 was formed in Israel. The coalition agreement between the two largest parties, Likud and Kadima, does not leave room for hope regarding a future breakthrough toward a two-state solution. The sides talked only in general terms about the resumption of the political process and instead emphasized the importance of maintaining Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. For this reason, they added a clarification regarding “the importance of maintaining defensible borders,” a phrase implying that any compromise contemplated by the coalition government centers on gaps between the positions of Likud and Kadima more than on those between Israelis and Palestinians.
At present, only fourteen Knesset members (a little more than 10 percent) constitute the opposition, which supports dividing the land into two states on the basis of the 1967 borders. Eleven of them are Palestinians who are Israeli citizens, and three are members of Meretz representing the Zionist Left. Even if we include the Labor Party, which facilitated the formation of Rabin’s cabinet some two decades ago with a majority of sixty-one seats, this faction’s presence has now been reduced to twenty-two Knesset members. Recent opinion polls indicate that, if the elections were held today, this political bloc would win thirty-two seats, a little more than a quarter of the parliament. Thus, the formation of the new unity government represents the monolithic nature of Israeli society. For decades, the boundaries of Israeli Jewish society, based on the Jews’ relationship with the Palestinians and the question of dividing the land, were the focus of disputes that at times split Israelis into separate groups. But now a consensual answer has emerged. While the hawkish political camp has adopted some rhetoric that used to characterize the dovish bloc, the latter has been forced to accept the political reality of being dominated. Thus does Israel’s grip on the occupied territories tighten, even as the issue wanes on Israelis’ public agenda.