Settling on semantics

To this day the term “Israeli settler” conjures up images in the American heartland of long-bearded ideologues with kippot the size of cereal bowls hell-bent on settling the West Bank because of a desire to sleep where Abraham once walked.

Lost in the transmission of the settlement story over the last 35 years is the fact that this population is a minority – granted, a vocal and influential one – among some quarter million Israelis who have gone to live beyond the Green Line.

When people in Iowa, for instance, hear the words “Israeli settlement,” it is doubtful they make a distinction between Eilon Moreh, a fiercely ideological settlement deep in the West Bank, and Ma’aleh Adumim, a suburban community 10 minutes from Jerusalem reached via a wide, ventilated tunnel under Mount Scopus.

No distinction is made because the stereotype of the Gush Emunim settler, flowing tzitzit tangled in the trigger of his Uzi, has indelibly etched itself into the world’s conscience – much, one might add, to the detriment of the overall settlement enterprise.

Which is why when there are reports that the Defense Ministry has approved 600 housing units in Ma’aleh Adumim, it is a sure bet the US State Department spokesman will be asked about it the next day.

It is also a sure bet that the State Department spokesman will condemn the housing permits. Not harshly, but within the confines of US public policy, which holds that the administration is not going to get into the fine print of distinguishing one settlement from another.

At his Tuesday briefing, State Department Spokesman Richard Boucher was asked if the US makes any distinctions between a settlement like Ma’aleh Adumim, which the reporter knowledgeably said is a “major city” that “abuts” Jerusalem, and “some outpost on a mountainside.”

“The administration has not taken a position on a particular settlement or particular piece of land or particular area or group of people,” Boucher said. “Those are final status issues that need to be negotiated. I think we’ve made that clear.”

Then he went on to repeat the State Department’s standard line that Israel committed itself to the road map and to “end settlement activity, freeze all settlement activity, including natural growth of settlements, and that’s the commitment we want to see the Israeli government work towards.” In other words, for official America a settlement is a settlement is a settlement – at least in the Sate Department’s press room.

Go beyond the briefing room, however, and those who deal with the issue in the administration know very well that there is a vast difference between a settlement of 30,000 people on the strategic eastern approaches to Jerusalem, and “an outpost on a mountainside.” The administration knows the difference because most Israelis, and certainly most Israeli politicians, know the difference.

Even Yossi Sarid, no settlement cheerleader, said during a visit there as environment minister in 1994 that the settlement will remain in place in a final agreement and that development in Ma’aleh Adumim “does not break my heart.” The Palestinians also understand the difference, which is why in the various final status maps drawn up and discussed since the Oslo Accords, Ma’aleh Adumim always appears on the Israeli side of the border.

When US President George W. Bush wrote his famous letter to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in April saying that in light of “new realities” on the ground it is unrealistic to expect Israel to return to the 1949 armistice lines, and that these new realities will have to be taken into account when drawing up final borders, one such “new reality” the framers of that letter definitely had in mind was Ma’aleh Adumim.

But Boucher can’t make the distinction, because formal US policy does not allow for those distinctions to be made at this point. But the distinctions are there. It is safe to say that had the Defense Ministry permits been issued for Eilon Moreh, and not for Ma’aleh Adumim, they would have generated more serious knuckle-rapping in Washington.

All this explains why Ma’aleh Adumim was not exactly abuzz this week with concern over the US objections to the construction of 600 more units, or even over the debate whether the settlement will be included inside the security fence.

Demography, as Bush’s letter indicates, does matter, and 30,000 people is a “new reality” that is difficult to ignore, or to change. There is a quantitative difference between a settlement of 30,000 people 10 minutes from Jerusalem, and a settlement of a few hundred people on the outskirts of Nablus or Khan Yunis. Everyone realizes this – the settlers, the government, the Americans, even the Palestinians. It’s just that the Palestinians and Americans can’t say it – at least not yet.


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