Criticism of Israel's construction of settlements in the West Bank will continue to grow, says political scientist Maren Koß. Plans for further expansion are likely to stymie any chance of reaching a two-state solution.
DW: How do you see the Israeli government's decision to announce plans to expand its settlements less than a week after the formation of a new Palestinian unity government?
Maren Koß: The Israeli government announced the plans to build new settlements in direct response to the formation of the Palestinian unity government. They justified it by saying that they view this government as terrorists, because Hamas is involved - although the government is also made up of so-called technocratic ministers who aren't members of Hamas. It should also be pointed out that there's clearly no consensus within the Israeli government about the settlements. Justice Minister Tzipi Livni has voiced his concerns, and described the announcement as "another diplomatic mistake." And of course the construction of new settlements will harm the chances of further peace talks, because the settlement is a provocation against the Palestinians.
What are the motivations behind these new settlements, in your view?
The announcement of the construction of new settlements can certainly be understood as a direct response to the new Palestinian unity government. But it also has to do with other, more strategic political and religious motives. The settlements have divided up the West Bank, and because of that it will always be difficult to achieve a two-state solution. What's more, the religious Jews now have more and more influence, both in the Israeli government and in the society. National-religious parties, such as the Jewish Home which advocates strongly for the expansion of settlements, are represented in the current Israeli government. Of course the ultra-Orthodox Jews also support the construction of settlements, but they aren't currently represented in government.
So the signs indicate the government is moving towards further expansion of settlements?
The question is: To what extent is the government prepared to make concessions to the Palestinians? Especially now that the Jewish Home is pushing for settlement expansion. The party's chairman, Naftali Bennett, is calling for the annexation of parts of the West Bank. The current housing minister is a former leader of a settler party, and is strongly committed to build more settlements. So it's doubtful whether the resolution to freeze settlements during negotiations with the Palestinians would ever succeed without a change in the Israeli government.
Given the plans for new settlements, how strong are the chances for a two-state solution?
A two-state solution would be very difficult to achieve at the moment, mainly because of the way the West Bank has been carved up. The West Bank is divided into different zones that come under the jurisdiction of either Palestinians, Israelis, or Palestinians and Israelis together. Area C, which is under Israeli control, takes up the most space in the West Bank. But Israel also intervenes and carries out raids in the other zones that are controlled by the Palestinian Authority. So from this perspective you can almost see it as one single territory. It's clear to me that it would be extremely difficult to reach a two-state solution in the near future.
If it does somehow happen to work out, it's unlikely that all the settlements in the West Bank will be dismantled. It's conceivable that smaller settlements outside the major blocks will be evacuated. Some settlers have also welcomed this possibility. About one third of the inhabitants of the settlement "Ariel" say they would leave the area - provided they receive appropriate financial compensation from the government. But around 40 percent of those who live outside the major settlements say they won't leave their homes voluntarily. It's clear that the settlers aren't represented by a single view, and have many different interests.
How is the Israeli government currently perceived abroad?
The pressure on Israel is definitely rising. And that's been happening for several years, not just since the peace process began. The Americans, as well as the Germans, have become increasingly vocal in their criticism of the settlement policy. In the past that hadn't been the case on the German side. And Israel is coming under increasing pressure now that the Palestinian unity government has been established. The EU and the US don't want repeat the same mistakes of 2006, when Hamas won elections in the Gaza Strip and all relations were broken off. Today it's being said that the new Palestinian government is a technocratic government, which doesn't represent Hamas.
The EU and the US want channels for talks and further negotiation to remain open, so that funds can continue to flow to the Palestinian government. Israel has heavily criticized this position. The European boycotts of products from Israeli settlements are further evidence of the pressure mounting on Israel. Moreover, tariff concessions negotiated by Israel and the EU don't apply to products from the settlements. The boycotts harm the Israeli economy because many settlers live off profits from their products. So there's also pressure from inside the country for the Israeli government to take action.
Has the European Union also put pressure on Israel with its research program "Horizon 2020"?
Israel is the only non-European country to participate in the EU research program “Horizon 2020”. But the EU has stipulated that no funds are allowed to go to Israeli research institutions located in the settlements. Israeli scientists have put a lot of pressure on the Netanyahu government to reach an agreement with the EU so that they can participate in the program. Being left out would obviously have negative ramifications for the Israeli research community. But now a deal has been signed.
Maren Koß is a political scientist and scholar of Islamic studies. She is a research fellow at the GIGA Institute of Middle East Studies in Hamburg.