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Mideast Word Battle: Settlements Versus Neighborhoods


This story asks, how much is in a name? Israel's prime minister appeared on MORNING EDITION last week. And among other things, we discussed Israeli home construction on the West Bank. Part of our discussion with Benjamin Netanyahu revolved around what to call things, such as a planned, new settlement.


INSKEEP: What makes that particular settlement worth the trouble?

PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: These are not settlements. These are neighborhoods in Jerusalem.

INSKEEP: Not settlements but neighborhoods, Netanyahu said. The housing was to be on the side of Jerusalem that Israel captured in a war in 1967.


INSKEEP: But we're talking here about 2,500 homes in East Jerusalem.

NETANYAHU: They're not in East Jerusalem. They're in South Jerusalem, actually.

INSKEEP: We are talking about east of the 1967 line, are we not?

NETANYAHU: Sure, of course...

INSKEEP: It matters a lot to Israelis and Palestinians alike just what things are called. The differences in language suggest differences in ways of seeing the issue on the ground. So we're going to get one perspective on the political wording in the Mideast from Ari Shavit. He's a columnist for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. He's a historian, author of "My Promised Land." Welcome back.

ARI SHAVIT: Great to be back.

INSKEEP: Just some basics here, why would someone call them neighborhoods instead of settlements? What's the difference?

SHAVIT: You have to understand that for most Israelis - in the sense Netanyahu's not alone. The neighborhoods built in Jerusalem, although in the parts of Jerusalem that were occupied after '67, are part of Jerusalem. And therefore, probably 90 percent of Israelis see them as having a different status than the settlements in the deep West Bank, so to speak.

INSKEEP: And I suppose, just as a matter of language, settlements sounds like aggressively reaching out and settling on new territory. Neighborhood just sounds like a neighborhood. It's a friendly sounding thing.

SHAVIT: Yes. This is a very deep conflict. The verbal war is an integral part of the political warfare. And therefore, the terms they use are part of a political battle. The Palestinians use terms that actually describe all of this holy land as theirs. Some Israelis on the right use terms that describe the entire land as theirs.

INSKEEP: You said the Palestinians use terms that describe the entire region as theirs. Do you mean to say that they don't refer to Israel? They might refer to Palestine and occupied Palestine.

SHAVIT: Absolutely. We've seen a move forward in the last decade, when more and more Palestinians were willing to accept the legitimacy of Israel in a vague way. Sadly, because of the stagnation, we now see both parties going back in time. And while so many Israelis still want the two-state solution, our government and some members of the right wing are going back and are actually removing their support of the two-state solution. This same process exactly is happening on the Palestinian side, where people now are more and more talking about the one-state solution.

INSKEEP: Now, let's mention another term that we heard from Prime Minister Netanyahu.


INSKEEP: But we're talking here about 2,500 homes in East Jerusalem.

NETANYAHU: They're not in East Jerusalem. They're in South Jerusalem, actually.

INSKEEP: Netanyahu insisted that the settlements in question were in South Jerusalem. Why would he make that distinction?

SHAVIT: In a technical way, Mr. Netanyahu's right. The neighborhood we are talking about is in the southern areas of Jerusalem. But, of course, you're not mistaken either because what you meant is that this is in the part of the Jerusalem that were conquered by Israel during the '67 war. So what he says is accurate, but it misses the context. The context is that if you want peace, you have to realize there is another people. You have to realize that both people need to really see each other, not to be blind to each other's existence, and look for a fair, realistic way of dividing the land in a way that will not risk Israel's security and future. The kind of petty debate over terms and terminology creates the wrong atmosphere, which makes it so difficult to move forward.

INSKEEP: Ari Shavit, thank you very much.

SHAVIT: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Ari Shavit is a columnist for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.