In the past five years, the population of Jewish settlements in the West Bank has grown by about 20 percent, and pro-settler politicians have become major players in Israel’s government.
Here in the West Bank, which Palestinians claim as a basis of their future state, settlers have built museums, a full-fledged university, archaeological parks, shopping malls, heritage sites and wine bars. The impossible-to-miss message: These settlements are here to stay.
On Monday, Secretary of State John F. Kerry acknowledged the challenge of old and new realities as he opened preliminary talks in Washington with Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat over a 90-minute Ramadan fast-breaking dinner that included Atlantic grouper and saffron faro risotto.
“It’s no secret that this is a difficult process. If it were easy, it would have happened a long time ago,” said Kerry, adding that the negotiators would seek “reasonable compromises on tough, complicated, emotional and symbolic issues.”
Many of the core issues to be addressed have remained unchanged for decades: how to arrange for Israel’s security needs; whether, where and how to divide Jerusalem to create a Palestinian capital; what to do about Palestinian refugees and their desire to return home; and where to draw the borders for a future state of Palestine.
But the growth of the settlements presents a particularly thorny challenge. About 340,000 to 360,000 people live in Jewish settlements in the West Bank, according to Israeli government data. An additional 300,000 Jews live in East Jerusalem, which Palestinians claim as their future capital.
Although there are still rugged encampments of tents and trailers on isolated hilltops, manned by youths with extreme views, many of the settlements in the West Bank have taken on the air of middle-class permanence: comfortable villas of white stone and red-tile roofs, landscaped with olive trees and date palms. They are the kind of gated communities that look more Southern California than Holy Land.
“Settlement life is a great life,” said Veronica Gareleck, who moved with her husband and family to the Ofra settlement. She tends to guests who want to sample some Psagot chardonnay at the Binyamin Regional Council’s visitor center — a 15-minute drive and only one checkpoint north of Jerusalem.
Gareleck said residents do worry that a peace deal could change their way of life. When Israel unilaterally pulled out of the Gaza Strip in 2005, about 9,000 settlers were uprooted.
“But we hope we can do peace,” she said, “without moving.”
U.S. diplomats assume that some of the largest Jewish settlements in the West Bank, located near the pre-1967 lines, will remain under Israeli control in any peace deal and may be exchanged in land swaps with the Palestinians.