A Jewish child plays in the Ulpana neighborhood in 2010. 'Naturally, there are civil disputes over land ownership. All should be resolved by courts of law. Last year in Migron and Ulpana, we had serious doubts about the judge's verdict, but still we abided by the court decision.' Photograph: Uriel Sinai/Getty Images
Catherine Ashton, the EU's high representative for foreign affairs, is a vocal critic of the Israeli communities in Judea and Samaria. Referring to them as "settlements", she claimed last week that they "threaten to make a two-state solution impossible" and called on Israel "to immediately end all settlement activities beyond the green line, including East Jerusalem". Obviously, Ashton has never visited a "settlement", like almost all of her colleagues in the international diplomatic high echelons. Nevertheless they consider themselves experts on the matter.
One notable exception is the former US president Jimmy Carter, who visited Gush Etzion in 2009. Carter is well known for his harsh criticism of Israel, considered by many as sheer hostility towards the Jewish state. So shocked was he by the reality on the ground, he stated: "This particular settlement is not one that I envision ever being abandoned, or changed over into a Palestinian territory." The contrast between Carter's statement and Ashton's reminded me of a recent statement by Israel's finance minister, Yair Lapid: "I used to have so many opinions before I learned the facts."
In 2009 I was invited to meet Tony Blair, the special envoy of the quartet (the UN, US, Russia and the EU) for the Middle East. At the end of our conversation I invited him to visit the communities whose future we had just discussed. He declined, saying: "I can see them from my helicopter." "From the helicopter," I replied, "you can't see the faces, look into the eyes and understand their aspirations." Blair, like many of his peers, continues to fly over our heads.
More than 360,000 Israelis live in almost 200 communities across Judea and Samaria, with 200,000 more in East Jerusalem. That's more than half a million people. Our endeavour stands on solid moral ground.
This week marks 46 years since the agonising days of June 1967, when the Arab world physically tried to annihilate Israel. We defeated them and liberated the strategic hills that overlook 70% of Israel's population. If partition of this contested land was ever the just solution to the conflict, it ceased the moment one side refused. It was not a mere rejection: they launched repeated assaults to take it all by force. Returning Israel to its indefensible nine-mile waistline would once again place us in mortal danger, while rewarding the aggressor.
Our communities stand on solid moral ground. Built on vacant land, no settlement stands on the ruins of any Arab village. Naturally, there are civil disputes over land ownership. Some are real, others mere provocations. All should be resolved by courts of law. Last year in Migron and Ulpana, we had serious doubts about the judge's verdict, but still we abided by the court decision. In Judea and Samaria there is ample room for many Jews, many Palestinians and peaceful coexistence.
Our communities stand on solid moral ground because the right of Jews to live in Shiloh, Hebron or Beth El is inalienable. These sites are the cradles of Jewish civilisation, the birthplace of Hebraic culture. Negating the right of Jews to live in these historic parts of the Jewish homeland would be morally wrong.
Our communities stand on solid moral ground, because they are not – and never were – an impediment to peace. Statements such as Baroness Ashton's are misinformed, erroneous and the real obstruction. Ashton and her colleagues are most welcome to visit our communities to see for themselves how distant reality is from their perception.
Even those who still believe that the creation of a Palestinian state is the solution must admit thatthe rejections of Israeli offers by Yasser Arafat in 2000 and by Mahmoud Abbas in 2008 are what prevented an agreement, not the settlements.
After 20 years of failed attempts to reach a two-state solution, isn't it time we admit our failures and move on? The time has come to invest in new, innovative paths to peace that unite people through acts of mutual respect. The first step is to stop the demonisation of our communities and acknowledge that settlements aren't the problem – but rather an integral part of any future solution.
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