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by William N. Dale

The author, a retired senior U. S. Foreign Service officer, has followed the Middle Eastern situation closely for decades. During his distinguished diplomatic career, he served successively in Turkey and Israel for a total of eight years.—Ed.

“If the chief negotiating nations cannot find a means of handling the settlement and refugee issues before the commencement of a peace conference, a dispute of major proportions could arise. . . .”

The course of the war between Israel and the Palestinians, sometimes referred to, without open irony, as the Peace Process, often proceeds in cycles. Particularly heavy fighting may give rise to calls for a peace conference during which fighting sometimes subsides. Following the Israeli attacks on Palestinian towns in April which, in turn, followed suicide attacks on Israelis, Secretary of State Colin Powell proposed a major conference for this summer of 2002. In addition to the United States, he named the United Nations, the European Union, and Russia as sponsors of such a conference. Initially, the Israelis and Palestinians made favorable noises and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel on his own went so far as to suggest a conference composed of Israel, the Palestinians, the “moderate” Arabs, and the United States. Although enthusiasm for the large scale enterprise suggested by Secretary Powell has moderated, we are definitely entering a conference stage in the dispute and some kind of meeting is likely to take place this summer.

As far as the United States is concerned, President Bush has often stated that his ultimate goal is creation of a Palestinian state existing in peace beside a secure Israel. However, the chances that such a favorable result will occur any time soon are meager. The elimination of many Jewish settlements would be required to provide the land necessary to create a viable Palestinian state and Prime Minister Sharon has always been a stalwart supporter of the movement to establish these settlements and of converting the West Bank into a part of Israel. When he was minister of agriculture and chairman of the Ministerial Committee on Settlement in 1977, he led the governmental campaign to increase the number of settlements and spoke in favor of transferring the Palestinian population of the West Bank to Jordan.

As defense minister in Menachem Begin’s second government in the early 1980s, Sharon had to oversee the evacuation of settlements in the Northern Sinai in connection with the peace treaty with Egypt, but he declared these to be the last such evacuations and advanced the proposal promoted by Golda Meier that Jordan was the true Palestinian homeland. Historian Amos Perlmutter wrote in a Foreign Affairs article in the fall of 1982: “Begin and Sharon share the same dream: Sharon is the dream’s hatchet man. That dream is to annihilate the PLO, douse any vestiges of Palestinian nationalism, crush PLO allies and collaborators in the West Bank and eventually force the Palestinians there into Jordan and cripple, if not end, the Palestinian nationalist movement.”1 Sharon may also have intended his 1982 invasion of Lebanon to weaken the Palestinians. As foreign minister in Netanyahu’s conservative government in the 1990s, Sharon, the superhawk, called on settlers already in the occupied areas to take possession of as much Arab owned land as possible.

During the course of the second Intifadah, Ariel Sharon, now prime minister, has stated that he expects the creation of a Palestinian state sometime in the future, but that it will not happen for a decade or more if, as seems likely, violence continues. The prime minister has not disclosed his ideas concerning the borders of such a state, but he told a group of settler women on January 16 of this year that “I don’t see myself evacuating any settlement, not in the short term, in the context of interim agreements, and not in the long term, in the context of a permanent agreement.” In any agreement, he declared, Israel would keep” broad security areas, all the settlements and the water aquifers, like the mountain aquifer. . .”2 Sharon’s views regarding a Palestinian state do not portray a viable entity which either the Palestinians or the international community could accept and his devotion to the settlements does not seem to have weakened over the past thirty-five years.

Moreover, he is not alone. Many right wing Israelis, settlers, and their ardent supporters in this country agree with him.

Another intractable problem arose in 2000 during the late stages of the discussions between former prime minister Ehud Barak, President Clinton and Chairman Yasser Arafat. The old issue of the disposition of the Palestinian refugees surfaced again. Arafat raised it by calling for a right for the refugees to return to Israel. There are about 3.7 million of them and their descendants in refugee camps in Israeli occupied territory and in the countries surrounding Israel. These refugees wait year after year for the ever-dwindling chance of returning to their old homes in Israel. Even an Israeli government determined to reach a peace agreement could not find the room to take in a large number of refugees, much less guarantee the return of their old homes, now destroyed or occupied by Israelis. Yet, the refugees left their homes involuntarily and do deserve recompense. If sufficient good will existed on both sides, the governments could probably work out a compromise involving the return to Israel of a small number of Palestinians with close family ties there and the provision of money and new homes in other countries to the majority. This is an area in which the United States would have to exert great pressure on Arab countries to convince Chairman Arafat to give up his unrealistic position.

The failure to find a solution to the refugee problem is becoming an increasing impediment to successful negotiations. The suicide bombings that make negotiations so difficult are performed in many cases by inhabitants of the refugee camps; they reflect the hopelessness of their condition. With nothing whatever to look forward to, death may not seem so undesirable an option. President Bush calls for the cessation of these bombings but the Palestinians would find much more reason to heed his words if he could offer them a settlement freeze at the same time.

The principal negotiating nations would have to identify a way of handling the issues of refugees and settlements before they could hope to hold a successful negotiation on the many questions involved in making a peace. The application of considerable pressure on both the Israelis and the Palestinians will be absolutely necessary if any peace conference is to conclude this doleful drama. Only the United States can provide that pressure, which must include sticks as well as carrots.

As far as settlements are concerned, the Israelis established their first one on the land they conquered in the Six Day War on July 15, 1967, just over a month after the war ended. It is called Kibbutz Meron Hagolan on the Golan Heights. Soon there were six settlements on the Golan. The Department of State protested the Israeli action in Washington and the embassy in Tel Aviv received instructions to deliver a similar message. The author of this article had the pleasure of transmitting it to the Israeli government. He informed his foreign ministry contact, Shlomo Argov, that the United States government considered the settlements illegal under international law (article 49 of the Geneva Convention Relating to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War of August 12, 1949, and other documents) and an impediment to reaching a peace agreement. Mr. Argov thanked the embassy representative for passing on his government’s views, but the Israelis went right on constructing or expanding settlements and they are still doing so today. Now, there are 146 of them on the West Bank and Gaza Strip, inhabited by over 213,000 Jewish settlers. The Israeli defenders of the settlements claim that the 4th Geneva Convention forbidding an occupying power from the transfer of “parts of its own civilian population into territories it occupies” does not apply to territory only in the de facto possession of another country and that Jews have a right to settle anywhere in the occupied territories. Some also claim the Old Testament gives Jews an eternal right to the territory, while others cite security reasons. Presidents Johnson, Nixon, Ford, and Carter, along with practically all other nations, maintained that the Israeli case was invalid and that the settlements are illegal according to conventions Israel itself has signed.

However, the U, S. position was not altogether solid. When the embassy in Tel Aviv received the original instruction to protest the settlements, Ambassador Walworth Barbour examined it with great care. He noted that it came from the State Department and bore no evidence that President Johnson had personally approved it. That was the reason he decided not to deliver it himself to the foreign minister. Also, although succeeding presidents maintained that the settlements were illegal, they did little to persuade Israel to give them up.

Very soon after his inauguration, President Reagan made a crucial change in U. S. policy. In a press interview on February 2, 1981, he declared “As to the West Bank and the settlements there, I disagree with the previous administration as they referred to them as illegal. They’re not illegal—not under UN resolutions that leave the West Bank open to all people, Arab and Israeli alike. . .”3 The opinion of a former under secretary of state, Eugene Rostow, who defended the construction of settlements vehemently, may have influenced President Reagan. The President was at that time attempting to build a close strategic relationship with Israel to help win the Cold War. However, as time went on, he described the settlements as “ill-advised” and “unnecessarily provocative”.4 In his own peace plan proposed in 1982, President Reagan maintained that he would not support the use of any additional land for settlements during a five-year transition period.

No subsequent president has returned to the original claim that the settlements are illegal, although the other nations concerned have held to that position. A possible reason is reluctance to upset the powerful Israeli lobbies by appearing to backtrack from a more pro-Israel stance.

The first President Bush, however, did take concrete steps to deter expansion of the settlements. He withheld ten billion dollars in loan guarantees the Israelis sought in order to accommodate the large number of Jews coming in from Russia until the Israeli government ceased settlement construction. Prime Minister Shamir continued the construction program without a pause and the pro-Israel groups in this country lobbied hard against the president. He relented when Yitzhak Rabin became prime minister and the outlook for negotiations was more promising.

The Clinton Administration softened American opposition to the building of settlements, designating them as merely unhelpful or a complicating factor to negotiations. President Clinton preferred to let the Israelis and Palestinians work out a solution to the settlement issue by themselves, no matter what international law prescribed. When asked by a correspondent whether the United States still opposed settlements, President Clinton’s secretary of state, Warren Christopher, replied, speaking of the Netanyahu government in 1996, “I think we’ll have to adapt our policy to the current situation. That was our policy. There’s been no change in that policy. But I would want to keep open the situation of adapting our policy to the situation as it develops, as this new administration forms its government and begins to develop its own policies.”5 The secretary’s statement seems to mean that this country has given up trying to maintain a principled U. S. position on settlements beyond a mild remonstrance that they are unhelpful.This is a marked weakening of the official position over the thirty-five years since the Six Day War.

Although President W. Bush has not made statements that change the U. S. stance on settlements, his vision of an independent Palestinian state side by side with Israel certainly conflicts with the existence of the 146 settlements on the land that state would occupy, simply because their presence and the connecting roads do not allow the Palestinians enough contiguous territory to form a state.

If the chief negotiating nations cannot find a means of handling the settlement and refugee issues before the commencement of a peace conference, a dispute of major proportions could arise and President Bush’s vision of a Palestinian state would face a bleak future. The pro-Israel lobbies led by AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) are more powerful than ever. Now, the fundamentalist Christians have joined them, giving the friends of Israel strong support in the Republican Party base, as well as their traditional influence among the Democrats. These organizations have sometimes tolerated presidential criticism of Israel, but they will likely react adversely, utilizing their influence in the Congress, if a president attempts to take concrete action that could injure Israel—the kind of action, such as a threat to reduce aid, that might be needed to persuade Israel to begin restricting settlements. In the past, the prospect of such a struggle has sometimes rendered United States administrations paper tigers in dealing with this type of issue in the Middle East—and paper tigers have little chance to negotiate successfully against determined resistance.End.


1. Amos Perlmutter, “Begin’s Rhetoric and Sharon’s Tactics” Foreign Affairs, Fall 1982.
2. Globes, January 16, 2001.
3. “U. S. Government Policy on Israeli Settlements in the Occupied Territories – 1967-1996.”
4. George Lenczowski, American Presidents, Duke University Press, 1990, 256
5. Secretary of State Warren Christopher, “Face the Nation,” June 2, 1996.


Bill Dale

Ambassador Dale, a graduate of Harvard University and the NATO Defense College, resides in Chapel Hill, N. C. He is the president of American Diplomacy Publishers, the journal’s parent organization, and contributes articles and commentary frequently.

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