Jewish settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories have been an issue of major contention since they first began to appear after the 1967 Six-Day War, in which Israel took control of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, areas inhabited predominantly by Palestinians. Currently, over half-a-million Israelis live in settlements within the occupied territories. While Palestine is not officially recognized as a sovereign state, the settlements are prohibited by international law, a fact that Israel refuses to recognize.
Attempts to broker peace between Israel and Palestine have been marked by repeated failure over the years. One of the more significant reasons for this has been Israel’s insistence on settlement expansion. One step toward compromise came with the 2005 plan to remove all settlements from the Gaza Strip. Yet, while appearing significant on the surface, the roughly 8,000 Jewish settlers in Gaza comprised only a fraction of the almost 300,000 in the West Bank. Needless to say, the agreement did little to satisfy the Palestinians.
Israeli policy toward dismantling settlements has ebbed and flowed as leaders have come and gone over the years. Pressure from the government and society has hindered progress as the majority of Israelis see such withdrawal as not only a sign of weakness, but a concession of the land they believe to be theirs by divine appointment. Some Israeli leaders have paid a high price for attempting compromise; for example, in 1995 Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated for his role in the Oslo Peace Accords.
Furthermore, few Israeli prime ministers have enjoyed the support of a stable majority in the Knesset, Israel’s Legislature. Rarely has there been a time when the government could act without major dissention and internal conflict, making negotiation with Palestine all the more difficult.
This trend, however, appears to be changing. Elected in 2009, Netanyahu currently boasts a Knesset coalition as strong as any in recent years, combining his Likud party with other right-wing and centrist parties. He also has around 50 percent public approval, not insignificant for an Israeli leader. So it might seem that now is the time to attempt a peace negotiation with the Palestinians, and in fact Netanyahu has expressed his intent to do so.
All the more confusing then, is his decision to order the building of the new homes in the West Bank’s Beit El settlement. However, Netanyahu appears to be responding to a recent court decision rejecting a bill that would have made legal any Jewish settlement sitting on private Palestinian land. Presumably in an attempt to maintain his support at home, Netanyahu is appeasing pro-settlement activists by providing new homes to those individuals being removed from the five outposts declared illegal by the court.
This act is not inconsistent with Netanyahu’s strong pro-Israel philosophy, stemming from his younger years. However, the decision appears inconsistent with his desire to pursue peace with Palestine, something he has indicated as recently as this week. Meanwhile, the move has been condemned by the United States, as well as Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, who insists further settlement expansion will greatly hinder any chances of reaching a peace deal.