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Why the Israeli 'consensus' on settlements is not so simple

Israelis often refer to a 'consensus' that several major settlement blocs should be incorporated into Israel as part of a two-state solution. But some Israelis can't even find them on a map.

By Correspondent / September 13, 2010

Laborers work on a construction site in the West Bank Jewish settlement of Ariel August 31.

Nir Elias/Reuters

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Tel Aviv

Responding to calls from President Obama to extend an Israeli settlement freeze in the West Bank, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hinted this weekend for the first time that he's open to new limits on building after the Sept. 26 expiration.

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"On the one hand, we won't build all of the tens of thousands of housing units that are waiting in the planning pipeline,'' he told Tony Blair, the envoy of the international "Quartet'' of peace process sponsors. "But on the other hand we won't freeze the lives of the residents of Judea and Samaria and we won't freeze construction," he said, referring to the West Bank by its biblical names.

The comment, however, annoyed both Palestinians and settlers, highlighting how seemingly intractable the issue of settlement building has become.

IN PICTURES: Israeli settlements

Israel's dovish Peace Now released a report saying that there are at least 2,000 housing units ready to be built when the settlement freeze expires Sept. 26. Palestinians, who see such building as undermining peace talks, have threatened to pull out of talks if the freeze is not extended. But leaders of the settlers' council threatened on Monday to bring down Mr. Netanyahu's government if he extends any limits on building.

One solution: Agree on a mutual border ASAP

In order to defuse the settlement dispute, some in Israel and the US have suggested that the sides immediately agree on a mutual border that would allow Israel to annex some larger "blocs'' of settlements while swapping other territory in return.

Such an agreement would delineate where future development is permissible and where it's off-limits. The Palestinians would get an idea of the contours of their future state, and the settlers would no longer live in limbo about their future. It would also build momentum for more difficult issues like control over Jerusalem and the the status of Palestinian refugees.

"Borders are potentially the issue that most lends itself to early agreement,'' says Yossi Alpher, coeditor of the online Israeli-Palestinian website bitterlemons.org. He noted, however, that there are "notable question marks" around the border through Jerusalem and a settlement that juts deep into the West Bank.

Indeed, even if the Palestinians were to agree on the swap, deciding which settlements to keep and which to evacuate could expose divisions among an oft-invoked Israeli "consensus'' about which areas to keep.

Israel has said that it doesn't want to discuss borders until an agreement on security is reached. Some who oppose prioritizing an agreement on borders see the settlements as bargaining chips that shouldn't be forfeited early.

Main blocs in Israeli 'consensus'

Ever since Israelis and Palestinians began discussing a peace agreement in the 1990s, negotiators toyed with the idea of redrawing the border to include swaths of densely populated Israeli settlements just over the current border. It is believed that about three-quarters of the more than 300,000 Israelis living in the West Bank live on a relatively small percentage of the territory adjacent to Israel proper.

BRIEFING: Israeli settlements: Where, when, and why they're built

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