The road to an Israeli-Palestinian deal is vanishing

Vered Ben-Saadon says she and her husband felt a sense of biblical mission to cultivate “part of the land of Israel” when they founded their winery here at a settlement about 30 miles north of Jerusalem. And she appears to have no intention of leaving, regardless of what peace negotiators may say.

“The two-state solution is not relevant anymore,” she says, answering questions as she offers visitors glasses of the gewurztraminer and cabernet sauvignon she and her husband have produced at their Tura Winery here. She hopes President Trump will come visit their settlement one day.

The Ben-Saadon family has built a thriving business, with wine production growing from 1,200 bottles a year in 2003 to 100,000 bottles last year. The Tura website says their presence fulfills a prophecy from the Book of Jeremiah: “Yet again shall you plant vineyards on the mountains of Samaria.”

Here in these rocky hills, you sense the collision between competing narratives about the Israeli-Palestinian problem: The Ben-Saadons believe this is Israel; the Arabs in the village just to the east surely think it’s Palestine. You come away with a conviction that the “ultimate deal,” as Trump calls his still-fuzzy vision of a peace agreement, isn’t going to happen. It’s too late, the parties are too dug into their positions, and there simply may not be enough land available for a viable Palestinian state.

The visit with the Ben-Saadons on Monday was the most visceral moment in a tour of the West Bank organized by the Institute for National Security Studies, a think tank holding its annual conference in Tel Aviv this week.

Our guide was Danny Tirza, a retired army colonel who for years was the chief mapmaker for Israeli negotiators, and who plotted the path of the separation wall that divides Israeli and Palestinian areas around Jerusalem. The eight-hour tour offered a brief dose of ground truth about problems that have gone unresolved since Israel captured the West Bank in the 1967 war.

I’d love to be wrong about the prospects for negotiations. Many Israeli speakers at the INSS conference argued that Israel’s survival as a Jewish democratic state requires a two-state solution. But the momentum is moving in the other direction, and the Trump administration’s gauzy talk of a deal has been undermined by its own actions.

The space for compromise seems to be vanishing: After Trump’s decision in December to shelve long-standing U.S. policy and move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat warned: “The two-state solution is over.” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party in December endorsed a nonbinding resolution urging annexation of parts of the West Bank and unlimited construction of settlements.

Settlements may be the hardest problem on negotiators’ agendas, because the issue arouses such intense passions. According to a Haaretz investigation last year, more than 380,000 settlers now live in the West Bank (excluding East Jerusalem), over 40 percent of them outside major blocs. Even a two-state advocate such as Avi Gabbay, the leader of the opposition Labor Party, told me that “evacuation [of settlers] back to Israel is something that Israeli society cannot bear.”

Our tour stopped at Ariel, one of the larger settlements. It has the look of a well-scrubbed suburban town, perched atop a hillside. The settlement boasts a brand new “Mega Or” shopping mall and 45 factories in an adjacent industrial park. There’s even an Ariel University, drawing about 15,000 students.

Mayor Eli Shaviro told us that the permanent population of Ariel is now about 25,000, but he hopes it will grow to 100,000 within the next five to 10 years. “We don’t foresee a negotiated settlement with the Arabs. That’s just the way it is,” he says. His goal for now is “coexistence,” which he says is improved by 3,000 Palestinians working at the industrial park, at wages four to five times what they could make in Palestinian areas.

Earlier, just north of Jerusalem, we had gazed toward the Shuafat Palestinian refugee camp, bounded below by the separation wall. It’s called a “camp,” but it’s actually a cluster of grim-looking apartment buildings whose residents are descendants of Palestinians who fled Israel after the 1948 war. I visited Shuafat in 1982, and I recall it even then as a sad, sullen place whose residents dreamed of homes to which they would never return.

A checkpoint for Palestinians to enter such areas was marked with a forbidding sign installed by the army: “The entrance for Israeli citizens is forbidden. Dangerous to your lives.” I fear the route to peace is obstructed, too.

David Ignatius writes a twice-a-week foreign affairs column and contributes to the PostPartisan blog. Follow @ignatiuspost.

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