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Reported by the Harvard Law School News Office
Just days before the Israeli government submitted to the Knesset — Israel’s 120-member parliament — draft legislation to authorize the evacuation of Jewish settlers from the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the Harvard Law School Program on Negotiation held a two-day conference titled, “Past, Present, and Future of the Jewish West Bank and Gaza Settlements: The Internal Israeli Conflict.”
Cosponsored by the Saltman Center for Conflict Resolution of the University of Nevada – Las Vegas and the United States Institute of Peace, this interdisciplinary conference’s six panels explored the religious, ideological, psychological, political, legal and international dimensions of the conflict. Those making presentations included former and current Israeli and American government officials, experts on resettlement policies and compensation mechanisms, and many leading scholars drawn from a variety of disciplines.
In his introduction to the conference, Professor Robert Mnookin suggested that progress toward a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict required a deeper understanding of the conflicts “behind the table,” both among Israeli Jews and among Palestinians. Under Mnookin’s leadership, the Program on Negotiation has been working on internal conflict resolution among Israelis over the settlements for nearly two years — long before Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon announced his initiative to withdraw Jewish settlers from Gaza and four West Bank settlements.
Mnookin shared with the audience a detailed overview of the settler population pointing that only 25 percent of them are religious Zionists who are ideologically committed to the political project of the settlements. About 50 percent, Mnookin said, are motivated by more pragmatic considerations, mostly the economic and welfare incentives offered to Israelis who move to the settlements. The remaining 25 percent of the settlers are ultra-orthodox (many of whom are not Zionists) who were also motivated primarily by housing and community needs.
The first day of the conference saw strong contrasts between presenters and panels. While the first panel explored a nuanced view of the religious and ideological motivations of the settlers; the second panel reflected some hard lessons drawn from the cases of the French experience in Algeria, and the English in Ireland. Professor Ian Lustick of the University of Pennsylvania argued that only if the political leadership in Israel firmly commits to vacating the settlements will progress be possible. Despite these different perspectives, both panels predicted that Israel will face a serious crisis as it reaches a decision about the future of the settlement. Professor Moshe Halbertal of the Hebrew University in Israel and a former member of the Society of Fellows at Harvard, proposed to deal with this challenge by reframing notions of sanctity — currently used by the settlers to block relocation — and by offering reassurances to the settlers and others to limit the role of identity in the debate.
At a panel dedicated to human rights aspects, scholars presented the audience with fresh perspectives on the issue. Michael Ignatieff from the Kennedy School of Government, warned against painting the settlers a “guilty minority,” which might lead to human rights abuses committed against them. He further argued that international law became part of the problem rather than the solution in this case. Yishai Blank of Tel Aviv University Law School pointed that Israeli local government legislation offers the settler leaders a power basis. He further suggested that creating the right incentive structure to these leaders might help in mitigating the tensions around relocation.
In a panel dedicated to the psychological aspects of the issue, Professor Max Bazerman of Harvard Business School and Professor Lee Ross of Stanford University shared empirical insights about systematic biases that might affect the debate over settlement relocation and compensation. Dan Shapiro of the Program on Negotiation provided a psychological base for the call to a more empathetic debate in Israel over the future of the settlements.
Panels on the second day explored both the broader picture — possible international involvement in solving the issue — and the particular, in a panel dedicated to compensation mechanisms and the current Israeli proposal. Michael Cernea, a former World Bank official, shared some of the international experience in relocation populations. Cernea warned that focusing just on compensation, as the Israeli draft legislation does, is a too narrow and will create future problems.