Settlements are the issue

While clearing away the rubble from Dennis Prager’s latest attack on “liberals,” which he likes to think is not ad hominem (unless, of course, one understands the term literally), we have to acknowledge that he may have a point.  One can debate whether Israeli settlements in the occupied territories are “the major impediment to peace in the Middle East.”  After all, there are weighty factors other than settlements that complicate prospects for a negotiated settlement, including Israeli political opinion, Palestinian public opinion, the attitude of neighboring Arab states, and the lack of resolve of the international community to offer carrots and sticks at the appropriate moments.

And yet, to those who brandish the claim that settlements are not the sole or primary obstacle to peace, one can only say, in the words of our sages: Tafasta merube, lo tafasta—you grasped a lot, but you didn’t grasp anything.  For settlements are the major impediment to Israel’s future as a Jewish state.  If you care about this future, you have to stop blaming others and start looking at the harsh reality.  This is not a liberal or conservative question.  This is a matter of survival.  Ignore it, and you are hastening the demise of that which you profess to love and cherish.

There is no time to lose.  Meron Benvenisti, the keen observer and former deputy mayor of Jerusalem, has been arguing for decades that the process is irreversible.  He suggests that it is no longer possible to uproot the intricate patchwork of settlements housing nearly 300,000 settlers that snakes through the West Bank (which is not to count the nearly 200,000 in the suburban communities ringing Jerusalem).  Not only is settlement a multi-billion dollar investment.  Pulling out of the occupied territories would require an exertion of political will that no Israeli government since 1967 has demonstrated.  Experience does indeed show that it is far easier for the Israeli government to build another housing unit in Ariel than to tear one down in Gush Katif.

This tendency follows the logic of what is often called “natural growth.”  Why should a family not be allowed to build an additional room or even apartment for its children?  Even if one accepts the claim that settlements are a violation of the Fourth Geneva Conventions, as I do, it is not easy to turn a deaf ear altogether to the call for new housing starts, especially when thinking of the children or grandchildren of settlers who had no say in the decision to live in the territories.

But “natural growth” is not the benign and unobjectionable process that the expression implies.  All growth in today’s world is regulated, contingent on the kind of sensitivity to the surrounding environment and one’s neighbors that the settlers blithely and often violently eschew.  In the context of Israeli settlements, natural growth is but a mask for expropriation and dispossession of the Palestinian population.

Even more dangerously, the minute one begins to argue on the grounds of natural growth or, for that matter, Jewish rights to Judea and Samaria, the battle is lost.  If settlements remain where they are, then the region between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea will become one political entity.  And within a matter of decades, if not years, the majority of the residents of that area will be Palestinian.  How can Israel then describe itself as democratic if it doesn’t allow all the residents of the land over which it claims control the right to vote?  If it grants the franchise at that point, Israel will have engaged in a fifty-year building project the net result of which is to vote itself out of existence.  The alternatives to this scenario are even more dire—either the denial of the franchise to Palestinians or their expulsion in the name of preserving the Jewish character of the state of Israel.

Faced with this array of options, it seems strange to trumpet the claim that settlements are not the major impediment to peace.  This dangerously misses the point.  To salvage a ship that is already sinking requires clear-headed, rapid, and dramatic steps.  Israel is now faced with a difficult, but unmistakable choice: either subordinate the interests of individual settlers or sacrifice the survival of the larger society.  There is no reason to believe that the Israeli government will make the right decision.  In any case, the moment for course correction may have already passed.  But at least we should not join Dennis Prager in the kind of willful and triumphant blindness that has brought Israel to the brink of collective suicide.

David N. Myers teaches Jewish history and chairs the History Department at UCLA.