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A Strategy for Settlements, Part II: Settlement Interests

In A Strategy for Settlements, Part I, we articulated the need for an intellectual, factual and interest-driven approach to developing a medium to long term strategy for Jewish communities in Shomron and Yehudah. The second in this continuing series focuses on the core priorities of the settlements themselves, and those of their residents.

When speaking about the interest of the settlement movement, we must make a number of necessary distinctions. First, we are not discussing ideology, theology, or the various other motivators which give the movement its inertia. Whether settlement residents moved to the West Bank out of a desire to fulfill a perceived divine commandment to settle the Biblical Land of Israel, a need to obtain affordable housing, or even if they were born in the territory, the personal beliefs and aspirations of hundreds of thousands of people matter less than their general intent and commitment to stay and grow their communities, along with their practical ability to do so.

The second distinction we must make, and which is not necessarily obvious, is that the interests of the settlement movement are not equivalent to those of the State of Israel, though they may often run parallel to one another. I will attempt to elaborate on this subject later on, but for now, in our discussion, we are considering the settlements to constitute a self-contained geopolitical unit.

When we remove the dual blinders of ideology and attachment to the Israeli state – political, administrative, emotional, etc. – an entirely different picture of the settlements emerges – that of a minority community with a cohesive set of very elementary, even universally applicable interests, existing in an environment of interdependence with other communities. And so, what are the core interests of the settlements? Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, they’re very similar to those of other minority communities around the world, and throughout history.

1. Normalization. We could also term this preservation, and perhaps more specifically, self-preservation. However, normalization, a most essential condition for any group of people, encompasses much more than physical safety, which is of course itself a core human concern. For our purposes, normalization speaks of bringing the basic condition of settlements and their residents into conformity with international standards. This extends not only to protecting the lives of settlement residents, which is a given, but to a holistic preservation of their communities as they now exist, complete with a normalizing of the legal, political, social and psychic status of the settlements within the region, and internationally, safeguarding physical property rights, preserving the individual guiding ethos and social structure of the communities, maintaining quality of life, and so on.

2. Security. Maintaining a sufficiently peaceful environment in which to live, work and raise children is another basic interest of the settlements. It should be noted that a lack of security does not spell disaster; large numbers of people around the world live in conditions of chronic insecurity. Nevertheless, it is in the interests of the communities that a national or regional political sovereign, beyond the capacity of the communities themselves, is able to make provisions to ensure basic security, social order, free passage (as in safe travel) and the rule of law.

A more subtle point with regards to security is that, given their basic priorities, the settlement communities have no interest in negatively impacting (i.e. disrupting) the security environment. In other words, the settlements are not a revolutionary force which aims to overthrow legitimate national or regional rule, but a communal grouping which seeks to preserve a given system of authority which respects some very basic, universally applicable community interests. If we take this point further, we’ll note that not only do the settlements have no interest in disrupting security, but that, beyond mere bystanders who will not wish to take sides, the communities may indeed be relied upon and enlisted to improve and maintain security, in coordination with legitimate national or regional authorities.

3. Economic Viability. Again, a basic necessity for any community, within this category falls access to employment, raw materials , labor and consumer markets, and so on. In addition, we must include here the financial capacity of individual communities to pay for such things as vital community projects not subsidized by national or regional authorities, municipal services, etc. One of the necessary foundations to planning a sustainable future for the settlements, in light of an uncertain political environment, must be an economic viability study for each community, with a realistic approach taken towards building-in economic self-sufficiency, to the degree possible.

4. Civil and Political Rights. The final basic interest of the settlements and their residents relates to constitutionally protected rights, or their equivalent, to political representation, freedom of speech, religion, equality before the law and other basic norms of modern representative government. A liberal, in the classic sense, representative government structured along Western norms – including such elements as separation of powers, separation of church and state, etc. – which respects ideological, cultural and religious pluralism, is a core and vital interest of any minority community, and all the more so one in tension with the majority ethnicity, faith and culture. Crucially, within this category can be collapsed other related concerns, such as access to and preservation of holy places, structural respect for minority rights which supersedes popular will, freedom of movement, and so on.

These four – normalization, security, economic viability and civil and political rights – are the cardinal interests of the settlement movement. Whatever ideological or theological goals there may be, these four are the essential to preservation and growth of the communities, along with ensuring the general well-being of their residents. Naturally, we took a mere cursory, bird-eye-view look at these interests here; we can and will expand on them at length in the future.

For the time being, I would like to elaborate on a distinction I asked you to make earlier – that being to disconnect the the interests of the settlements with those of the State of Israel. I hope the reasons for doing so are now more clear than they were before. Jewish settlements, when taken as a distinct geopolitical unit, have a very limited and coherent set of core interests. Whether those interests are met under Israeli sovereignty and administration, or by another sovereign state (or some alternate political entity) may have an emotional or ideological significance, but not necessarily a practical one, all things being equal, which I admit they may not be. So long as the core interests of the settlements are met, living under the political authority of one nation state or another may be a substantial preference, but not a necessity, not a fundamental interest.

We must consider that the interests and priorities of Israel and the settlements may not always overlap, but indeed may (and do) sometimes diverge. Under a given set of circumstances, it may be an Israeli interest to infringe on core settlement interests – such as evacuating and destroying settlement communities, to given an extreme example, but one with historical precedent. We will examine Israeli interests vis a vis the settlements more fully in a future installment of this series.

In summary, when we remove the dual blinds of ideology and attachment to the Israeli state, we are left with a minority community with some very basic, legitimate and, as importantly, highly achievable interests. The settlements must begin to conceptualize themselves as a distinct geopolitical unit, and negotiate with whatever party can best ensure and advance the interests of that unit. These negotiations should be conducted from a position of confidence and strength, with full knowledge of the value of the communities to other parties. That may sound unnecessarily provocative, even arrogant. However, it is my intention in future essays to demonstrate that the fate of the settlements, more specifically their preservation and growth, is intimately relevant, even vital, to the security and stability of Israel, the Palestinians, and their respective partners within the international community.

The next installment in the “A Strategy for Settlements” series will examine core Israeli interests with respect to the settlements. All articles for this series can be found under the Settlement Strategy label. As noted in the past, I welcome your critical feedback and analysis.

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