This week US President George W. Bush embarks on a tour of some of the US" Middle East allies, including his first visit while in office to Israel. The trip has been presaged by a lot of media guesswork about what exactly Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will discuss, and one of the likely topics will apparently be the so-called "illegal outposts."
The New York Times last Saturday reported remarks made by Bush in an interview with Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot about the need for Israel to dismantle these outposts and the apparent "awkward" nature of the issue for both US and Israeli governments. However, the issue of outposts -- framed as Bush forcing a reticent Israeli administration to compromise for the sake of peace -- risks clouding far more crucial issues that go to the heart of the conflict.
"Settler outposts" refer to sites scattered around the West Bank where Zionist Jews have established often as little as a tent or a caravan, as part of the wider effort to colonize "Judea and Samaria." They are "illegal" in the sense that they have been established without the official authorization of the Israeli state (although it has been alleged sometimes with the collusion of individual officials).
The language of illegality with regards to the outposts serves as a deliberate distraction from the main colony blocs, many of which began life as mere "outposts." The contrast in scale with these large-scale settlements, illegal under international law, is something that even The New York Times, in the aforementioned article, alludes to:
"... the population of the outposts Israel considers illegal is tiny compared with the 65,000 or so Israelis living in the settlements beyond the barrier, let alone the 465,000 Israelis living beyond the country"s 1967 boundaries in settlements and in East Jerusalem."
Bush, however, takes a very different approach to the main settlement blocs, as he makes clear in the Yediot Aharonot interview:
"But the unauthorized settlements, which is different from authorized settlements, is an issue we"ve been very clear on. But I"ve also made statements on the settlements, as well. As I said, realities on the ground will help define the border -- the eventual border of what the Palestinian state will look like."
This is not a new development; it was in April 2004 when President Bush wrote to then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon saying:
"In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli populations centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949, and all previous efforts to negotiate a two-state solution have reached the same conclusion."
Despite the public theatre of wrist-slapping and re-commitment to promises never meant to be kept, Olmert is well aware that Bush is "on side" when it comes to Israeli plans for the Palestinian "state." In an interview with The Jerusalem Post last week and quoted by Agence France-Presse, Olmert described the extent of the White House"s support for Israeli unilateral annexation in the occupied territories:
""I don"t recall another president who systematically and consistently showed the same level of commitment to Israel as George W. Bush," adding that "with him, I know for certain that he backs our red lines"... He reiterated that Israel had no intention of giving up some of the large settlement blocks in the occupied Palestinian territory, notably the Maale Adumim settlement east of Jerusalem -- one of West Bank"s largest. "Maale Adumim is an indivisible part of Jerusalem and the State of Israel. I don"t think when they"re talking about settlements they are talking about Maale Adumim.""
Settlers are often portrayed in the Western media as extremists within Israeli society, and the outpost "pioneers" -- those who heeded Ariel Sharon"s call a decade ago to "move, run and grab as many hilltops as they can" -- an even more maverick fringe. Yet core ideological characteristics of the settlers are also central to the identity and policies of the Israeli state itself; the settlers of city and caravan are a natural expression of Zionism, rather than an aberration.
While the ultra-religious settlers are more frequently spotlighted as ascribing to slogans such as "Only the Bible is the roadmap of the Jewish people," Israel"s very own Declaration of Independence itself celebrates "the right of the Jewish people to national rebirth in its own country" and affirms "the historic connection between the Jewish people and Eretz-Israel."
Closely connected to the idea of the Bible as land deeds is a second characteristic of both settlers and the Israeli state: a disregard for and denial of applicability of international law in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) and a refusal to accept the Palestinians" recognized right to self-determination. Again, typically settlers are presented as the kind of extremists who reject any kind of concession to either the "Other" or to the demands of international law. In a recent piece in The Los Angeles Times, the mayor of the Gush Etzion bloc, Shaul Goldstein, looks down at the land owned by a Palestinian family from Bethlehem and assures the reporter: ""If the state wants to give it to me, for my settlement, they will give it to me. All the land belongs to Israel. We can build wherever we want"". Interestingly, while Goldstein rejects the idea of an illegal Israeli occupation -- since the land is Israel -- he also tolerates the limited presence of Palestinian "neighbors," and "says they must be accommodated in what he calls the land of Israel."
This same kind of rejectionism and denial of Palestine"s right to exist is not the exclusive preserve of the settlers; it is echoed at the heart of the Israeli political establishment. Speaking to the UN in September 2005, Ariel Sharon made similar remarks to those of Goldstein:
"The right of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel does not mean disregarding the rights of others in the land. The Palestinians will always be our neighbors. We respect them, and have no aspirations to rule over them. They are also entitled to freedom and to a national, sovereign existence in a state of their own."
Thus, "according to Sharon ... the Jewish people have a "right ... to the Land of Israel;" in other words, theirs is the right of ownership and possession -- in practice and in principle. All others, or more exactly, the Palestinians, have "rights in the land"... [They] do not, it appears, have any right to the land of Palestine itself."
In case even Sharon"s views are dismissed as those of an unrepentant right-winger, there is also the example of current Defense Minister Ehud Barak, ex-Prime Minister of a Labor-led government and apparent "hawkish dove." In 1999, a year before the second intifada and well before construction commenced on the separation wall, Barak spoke at length about his vision for the OPT:
""Only physical separation from the Palestinians will give us both personal and national security, but in no way will we withdraw to the 1967 border," he explained. "Bet El and Ofra will be ours forever ... There is no meaning to our identity and to all that we are here without the connection to Shilo and to Tekoa, to Bet El and to Efrat ...""
Moreover, his opposition to outposts was not "because we do not have such a right." In fact, Israelis "have a complete right to settle there. We didn"t steal anything from anyone. We have deep ties with these places." Interestingly, in February of the same year, Barak specified some of Israel"s "red lines:" "Alfe Menache, the Etzion Bloc, Ariel, Nirit, the corridor, the Jordan Valley settlements, and many more places are part of the State of Israel, now and in the permanent agreement."
As part of its ruling against the wall in July 2004, the International Court of Justice made a point of putting on record what international law says about the OPT, concluding: "All these territories (including East Jerusalem) remain occupied territories and Israel has continued to have the status of occupying Power."
Finally, interwoven with the idea of a Jewish "return" and a denial of relevant international law is a deep anti-Arab racism. This year is the fortieth anniversary of the founding of the Hebron settlement Kiryat Arba, a religious colony that is notorious for graffiti like "Death to the Arabs" or "Arabs to the gas chambers."  Then there are the likes of Moshe Feiglin, a prominent settler activist who gained 23 percent in the Likud leadership primary last August and lives in a West Bank settlement. In a piece in The New Yorker, Feiglin gave his own perspective on the chances for peace:
""You can"t teach a monkey to speak and you can"t teach an Arab to be democratic. You"re dealing with a culture of thieves and robbers. Muhammad, their prophet, was a robber and a killer and a liar. The Arab destroys everything he touches.""
Extremist religious settlers may be less refined in expressing their views, but anti-Palestinian racism has been common amongst the Zionist political and military establishment, from the first pre-state leadership to sitting Knesset members today. MK Effi Eitam is a decorated war hero and sits on the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committees. In an interview with the Israeli daily Haaretz he described expelling all the Palestinians of the occupied territories and those living inside Israel as a "politically enticing" solution. "Israeli Arabs," according to Eitam, are an "elusive threat" like that of a "cancer." Eitam can find common cause with Avigdor Lieberman, Minister of Strategic Affairs and Deputy Prime Minister, who said in May 2004 of the Palestinians inside Israel that "they have no place here. They can take their bundles and get lost."
Outspoken remarks like these are often hypocritically condemned by the same politicians and generals who will openly worry about the "demographic threat." Reports like the one compiled by Professor Arnon Soffer into the dangers posed by the rising Palestinian population are discussed at length at the very highest level, despite the fact that the underlying presumption is that Palestinians are a "threat" for simply being Palestinian.
Interviewed in Haaretz in 2003, leftist activist and journalist Haim Hanegbi recalled the moment he realized that for all the rhetoric, Israeli settlements were constantly growing:
"I realized that Israel can"t abandon its expansionist character; it is shackled, by arms and legs, to its institutionalized ideology, structure, actions and theft.
With Bush"s visit to Israel, and the controversy over the outposts, we are set for more posturing politics and veiling of apartheid. It is vital to make the link between the outposts, the settlement blocs, and the identity of Israel itself, in order that proposed solutions to the conflict go to its very core, rather than play around on the edges.
Ben White is a freelance journalist specializing in Palestine/Israel. His website is at www.benwhite.org.uk and he can be contacted directly at [email protected]