WASHINGTON — Washington. -- It has recently been reported that the number of Jewish settlers in the West Bank has passed the 100,000 mark. Thousands of new residential units are under construction. Secretary of State James A. Baker considers there to be no greater obstacle to peace in the Middle East than the settlements. There is a serious concern in Israel that there will be a linkage between the halting of settlement activity and the $10 billion loan guarantees that Israel desperately needs to house the Soviet Jewish immigration.
Just how much of an obstacle is the settlement activity to the peace process? For Israelis who support territorial compromise, myself included, the establishment of settlements in Arab populated areas serves no long-term purpose. Yet the obstacle that the settlements pose to the peace process is vastly exaggerated.
In the short term, no single factor more motivates the Arabs, primarily the Palestinians on the West Bank, to start a peace process soon than the daily sight of new and expanded settlements. Mr. Baker's statement that ''Nothing has made my job of trying to find Arab and Palestinian parties for Israel more difficult than being greeted by a new settlement every time I arrive'' cannot be taken seriously. One thing the Arabs can expect out of an autonomy agreement is the termination of the establishment of new settlements in the areas covered by the autonomy. The sooner the autonomy agreement is concluded the better, therefore, from their point of view. Hence, in the short run, insofar as the starting of a peace process is concerned, the settlement activity is a sheer plus.
How much of an obstacle are the settlements for the conclusion of an autonomy agreement, and later on of a peace agreement? For the Likud, which has no intention to proceed beyond autonomy, new settlements are intended to forestall territorial compromise. This estimation of the effect of the establishment of new settlements on the outcome of peace negotiations is, however, mistaken.
For there to be a significant peace process beyond the autonomy level, it must be conducted by a Labor government; the Likud will not give up the West Bank anyway. For a Labor government, new settlements won't constitute too big an obstacle, for the following reasons.
Out of the present 100,000 settlers on the West Bank, about a quarter are hard-core ideologues. They could not be induced to leave. The other three quarters, however, and any new settlers that will join them in the foreseeable future, are Israelis lured to the West Bank not by political commitments but by the affordability of comfortable housing, considerably cheaper than in Israel proper. They would have no incentive to continue to live in a West Bank turned over to the Palestinians in some fashion.
Given the commitment of Israeli governments to the settlers, the Israeli government will have to compensate those settlers who would wish to go back to Israel proper after a peace agreement for the actual value of their housing. If the government will offer them more, say 30 percent or even 50 percent, they will leave voluntarily and without protest.
Quick calculation shows that the figures are not forbidding. The present 75,000 non-ideologue settlers on the West Bank, with an average family size of about 5, comprise 15,000 families, with an average dwelling worth about $100,000. They will therefore have to be compensated to the tune of $1.5 billion. With an extra 50 percent at most needed to buy voluntary compliance, the total comes to about $2.25 billion dollars. This is not a large figure for resolving the core of the Arab-Israeli conflict. (The peace agreement with Egypt cost a couple billion dollars for the transference of Israeli airfields).
New settlers in the next couple of years are not going to be ideologically motivated; this resource of the Israeli right has been virtually exhausted. With an expected rate of about 10,000 new settlers a year, the figure for their voluntary evacuation would add another $250 million a year to the price of peace. Again, tolerable figures.
The overall picture, however, is in fact rosier than that. One must remember that one of the thorniest problems to be faced by a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians would be the fate of the Palestinian refugees. They would have to be compensated, one way or another, and Israel is in no financial position to compensate them. The general assumption for years has been that, if Saudi Arabia is part of the peace process, it could foot the bill to put an end to the grievances of the past. In the West Bank alone there are about 400,000 Palestinian refugees. Half the average comfortable dwelling size per family enjoyed by the Israeli settlers on the West Bank would be a major improvement in their standard of living.