Humans use language to set out the parameters and boundaries of our ideas, shape the ideas of those who come next, and to transmit emotions and memories to each other. It is how we structure our interactions and behavior, and, at the group level, our policies. To understand the priorities of people or the dominant issues of a given time, then, we can look to the discourse most prominent at that moment.
The dominant discourse changes over time, usually in response to changed conditions or the actions of specific individuals. A glance at the history of Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking demonstrates this well. Until the 1960s, there was almost no sense that Palestinians themselves were independent actors in this process, or that an independent Palestinian state was on the agenda. After Likud came to power in 1977, “autonomy” was the policy idea everyone—including the Americans—focused on. The 1993 Oslo Accords changed the discourse forever, and normalized both the PLO and a Palestinian state in the West Bank-Gaza. Benjamin Netanyahu’s 2009 Bar-Ilan speech formalized even the right’s acceptance of two states.
On settlements, specifically, concerns over their building have been around for a long time. George H.W. Bush’s very public fight with Yitzhak Shamir was about precisely that. But his son’s letter to Ariel Sharon in 2002 promising that “new realities on the ground” (i.e., major settlement blocs) would now be incorporated into the solution meant that Washington officially didn’t see settlements as a problem that would undermine peace efforts.
Martin Indyk’s speech last night at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy represents another turning point. In explaining why the most recent round of talks between Israelis and Palestinians broke down, he focused most of his attention on Israeli settlements. He did put some of the blame for the breakdown on Mahmoud Abbas, and he also blamed broader governing elements in both parties.
But most of the culpability fell on the government that allowed for continued—indeed, unrestrained—settlement activity. In addition to laying out just how much settlement planning and building took place, he was very explicit about the consequences for the breakdown of peace talks. More importantly, he argued that settlements would mean the end of Israel as a Jewish state:
The settlement movement on the other hand may well drive Israel into an irreversible binational reality. If you care about Israel’s future, as I know so many of you do and as I do, you should understand that rampant settlement activity – especially in the midst of negotiations – doesn’t just undermine Palestinian trust in the purpose of the negotiations; it can undermine Israel’s Jewish future. If this continues, it could mortally wound the idea of Israel as a Jewish state – and that would be a tragedy of historic proportions. (My emphasis.)
Though he didn’t use the word “apartheid” or warn of potential delegitimization of Israel in the world, as John Kerry has, both ideas were lurking just behind Indyk’s assessment. And though President Obama himself has warned about these things, that Indyk—accused by many of being too close to the Israelis—used them publicly, to put much of the blame on Israel, in a forum considered very sympathetic to the Israeli position, has helped change the discourse on Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking forevermore.
Warnings about and concern over settlement activity for the future of both Palestine and Israel will now be part of American peacemaking efforts. Leftwing activists and organizations have long been making this same argument, and have laid the groundwork for a rethinking on settlements among the grassroots. The White House’s shift toward their position has strengthened this understanding at a broader level.
Settlements are now on the public agenda in a way they have never been before. Of course, this will only matter if Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking begins again, and I won’t make any predictions on that…