With Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy, the peace process and the viability of the only workable formula for peace—a two-state solution—on life support following the reelection of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on a platform of opposing the creation of a Palestinian state, the world cannot simply throw up its hands and walk away. The temptation may be overwhelming, but the irresponsibility of "benign neglect" of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will become painfully evident sooner rather than later. History shows that the issue does not remain quiet for long—it has an impeccable track record of erupting without warning in an extremely dangerous and destabilizing manner.
Among the numerous measures that ought to be employed by the international community to salvage the prospects for an eventual peace—without which the parties in the region are doomed to interminable conflict which will simply get more violent and intractable over time—one of the most obvious and indispensable is a thoroughgoing international economic boycott of Israel's illegal settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories. The settlements are a direct violation of black letter international law, most notably Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention. They are prohibited because they are a human rights violation against people living under occupation, who have a right not to be forcibly colonized by a foreign military power. This principle was not controversial in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, when the Convention was drafted and approved.
Moreover, the settlements are by far the most damaging of all of the destabilizing elements that threaten short-term calm and long-term peace. They, alone, fundamentally alter the strategic landscape and basic reality that define relations between the occupying power, Israel, and the occupied Palestinian people. With every new settlement home, the Jewish Israeli constituency with a vested interest against making the compromises necessary for peace is enlarged and strengthened. From a Palestinian point of view, Israel's aggressive settlement activity makes a mockery of negotiations by systematically prejudicing the future of key areas that are, or theoretically should be, the subject of peace talks, and would be indispensable parts of a future Palestinian state.
One obvious example of the kind of settlement activity that, even with a few structures, radically changes the political map in the occupied territories was announced on 30 March when Israel said it intends to build 143 new settlement housing units in an area it calls "Har Homa." Building in this area has been strategically planned in order to create a ring of continuous Jewish Israeli settlements around the periphery of Israel's definition of the municipal borders of Jerusalem, cutting the city off from the rest of the West Bank. The purpose is clear: to consolidate and perpetuate Israeli control over Jerusalem and undermine the prospects of a meaningful compromise on Jerusalem, which is an essential element of any peace agreement.
American opposition has frequently restrained Israel from completing plans in such sensitive areas, but it has also sometimes failed. And when that happens, there are no consequences. Under the current circumstances, it's easy to imagine that Netanyahu and his colleagues decided to go ahead with this and other highly damaging settlement projects without being very concerned about the reaction of the Obama administration. A recent report by the European Union found that in addition to this kind of highly-provocative settlement activity, home demolitions, the evictions of Palestinian families, and other repressive Israeli actions have created a highly-volatile atmosphere in Jerusalem. The report says that Jerusalem has now reached a "boiling point of 'polarization and violence' not seen since the end of the second Intifada in 2005."
In addition, a new report by Human Rights Watch, “Ripe for Abuse: Palestinian Child Labor in Israeli Agricultural Settlements in the West Bank,” outlines the exploitation of Palestinian child labor by Israeli settlements. It claims that Palestinian children are subjected to low wages and dangerous working conditions that violate international standards. The practices documented in the report would be illegal in Israel itself, but these child labor laws and other protections are not enforced against Israeli settlements.
A great deal of the agricultural produce grown in Israeli settlements, with or without the exploitation of Palestinian child labor, is slated for exportation, much of it to Europe. European states, though, are slowly but steadily moving towards a prohibition against the importation of Israeli settlement goods. Sixteen of the 28 European Union foreign ministers, including those of Britain and France, have recently signed a letter to EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini asking her to coordinate policies insisting on the clear labeling of settlement goods.
The ministers said the measure was necessary "in relation to the preservation of the two-state solution" since "continued expansion of Israeli illegal settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, and other territories occupied by Israel since 1967, threatens the prospect of a just and final peace agreement." Israel's continued settlement activity is also reportedly threatening its long-standing efforts to join the EU Horizon 2020 research and innovation program.
The United States does not appear to oppose these European moves, but, unfortunately, shows no signs of following suit for now. On the contrary, the current interpretation of the US-Israel Free Trade Agreement in effect provides preferential treatment for Israeli settlement goods. But a settlement boycott—and not just a refusal to buy settlement-produced goods but a prohibition on investing or financially underwriting settlement activity and industries—are really the least that any state or society that sincerely believes in the need for an eventual two-state solution can and should do.
A settlement boycott isn't going to transform the strategic landscape between Israel and the Palestinians. Even a full-scale boycott of Israel, reminiscent of that which was imposed on apartheid-era South Africa, wouldn't do that (and it is almost certainly not achievable, particularly in the United States). But it would send a crucial signal to Israel that, because of its commitment to peace, the international community does not accept Israel's settlements as legitimate. And because the settlements are illegitimate, their products are also illegitimate. As such, the respectable countries of the world decline to buy illegitimate products. It should be a small part of a whole string of actions designed to shore up the two-state solution and making sure Israelis understand there is a real cost to unacceptable policies such as aggressive settlement expansion.
It's really not asking for much. And if we actually care about peace, it really is the very least we can do. But, under the present circumstances, it may not be achievable in the United States without considerable groundwork. This is why the European states need to be strongly encouraged to continue to develop these policies and blaze the trail for others to follow.
Hussein Ibish is a columnist at NOW and The National (UAE). He is also a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. He tweets @Ibishblog