Wednesday, December 28, 2016

The settlements question - Israel's national security conundrum

As most of your are aware Israel's national security consists of one conundrum after another. The most vexing of these is the issue of settlements.

As Israel's population grows, it needs more housing. There is no more land in Israel, the only place where new housing can be constructed is the occupied territories. Housing cuts right to the core of the Israeli national identity - Israel is the Jewish homeland. If there isn't enough housing then the Israel's USP is kind of lost. For its part the Israeli government has stated that it isn't seizing land as much as recovering it - because the land was originally Jewish but taken over by non-Jews after forcing the Jews out a thousand years ago.

The world at large supports the idea of an Jewish homeland,but does not entirely legitimize the way Israel seizes territories and puts Jewish settlements in them.

Even within Israel, public opinion is divided on the issue of settlements, although most people agree that some solution has to be found to the housing issue.

The matter is complicated by the fact that neither Israelis nor other external observers actually know whether the settlements help make Israel more secure.

The unstated risk in this settlement debate is that while the settlements do help fulfill the promise of a Jewish homeland by providing housing, they actually deeply compromise the security of Israel by creating the appearance of a land grab. This appearance alienates people who want to support Israel and it creates opportunities for various anti-Israeli groups to coalesce.

The debate inside Israel is very touchy and barring a few opportunistic political groups - most people try to steer clear of the issue if they can. If the issue is forced to the forefront, it typically results in a situation where fissures open up between the Israeli law enforcement and the settlers and this is seen as being extremely corrosive to Israeli national security. The effect is even more pronounced when the Prime Minister is politically indebted to powerful settler lobbies like YESHA.

From the perspective of the international community, Israeli settlements and their local political impact are less of a concern than maintaining the ties to a region rich in energy resources. Most international players would like it if Israel could just play nice with its neighbors and by and large international actors try to sidestep the whole issue of settlements and engage Israel in a variety of trade deals as they proceed to tip-toe around and shake hands with the oil rich Arab kingdoms.

As the settlers do not recognize Israeli law and its limits, they push ahead with settlements whenever and wherever possible. The Israeli government then has to oscillate between tearing down settlements and retroactively legalizing them. This makes it a very nasty and risky game for real estate developers who are in the business of opening these opportunities to outside investors. Matters are also complicated by the fact that certain groups of people control a substantial chunk of the private property in Israel and there is public pressure to get these groups to behave less like a cartel. So even if the Israeli government is actually just enforcing the law, settlers make it seem that the government is actually acting on behalf of a land mafia. It is very complicated.

Things come to a head when some Israeli politician makes a promise to the settlers that in exchange for votes in today's Knesset election, s/he will work the system to get them the legalization they desperately seek. Once that kind of deal is in place, the entire Israeli political system becomes extremely sensitive to the smallest international perturbation.

It is at times like this that we see stuff like the UN Vote saga play out.

The sudden appearance of this dynamic also sheds light on key events preceding the November election. I think we get a unique window into the role of Sheldon Adelson, Bibi Netanyahu and Jared Kushner in the election. A lot of the posturing around the Iran deal also seems comprehensible now.


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