The Israeli settlements, on the West Bank and in Gaza, were an historic error the cost of which Israel is now paying. Many people in both public and private life feared this to be so when the Likud government began its aggressive settlement policy in the 1970s, and time has proven them right. Israel acknowledged the error in Gaza when it unilaterally evacuated and abandoned the settlements there in 2005. Many people believe the unilateral process of that withdrawal was also an error.
Like many other acts by Israel for which it should have reaped rewards – in good will and reciprocity from its Palestinian antagonists, in the recognition by other nations of Israel’s original and ultimate desire to live in peace with its Arab neighbors, and in its willingness to compromise to make peace – in its contention with the Palestinians, Israel gained nothing from the Gaza withdrawal. It gained not progress toward peace, but Hamas as the rulers of Gaza and increased military assault from the Gaza strip. It gained wide condemnation for attempts to end and control the violence from Gaza. It gained unchanging accusations of occupation even when it no longer occupied. It gained from countries that are not surrounded nations deep on all sides by mortal and declared enemies – and that have not survived under existential threat by those enemies for all of their histories – condemnation for not freely opening borders so that yet another enemy territory might thrive to oppose it. And every time the sources of condemnation put pen to paper over Gaza, open mouths wide with complacent moral judgment over Gaza, they forget – they conveniently forget – that Egypt, too, borders Gaza and enforces on it, with little attention, a blockade more severe than Israel’s. No one mentions this. No one questions it. No one asks Egypt why it does what it does, what threat it sees in Gaza. No one rouses the world to condemn the dictatorial Egypt.
Why were the settlements an error? Because they violated a calculus without foundation, and a measure without consistency or exactitude, of what is equitable in the aftermath and resolution of conflict. For a variety of reasons the 1967 boundaries between Israel and the Palestinians became set in world consciousness as a determinative status quo ante, as if they had been a fixed and legal border between two existing states, which the armistice boundaries of 1948 were not. Far from the rote expressions of today, this consciousness was still already widespread when Likud initiated its policy. The policy was criticized by people and nations from its inception. Political supporters of the settlement policy believed they could institute “realities on the ground” that would ultimately supersede objections. For the most part, they will have been wrong. The price Israel has paid for this mistake – visible for all with long enough historical vision to see – is the loss, over three decades, of the perceived moral high ground in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the perception of the justness of Israel’s position.
The loss of this moral high ground in the world’s eyes – the judgment upon Israel – is a mistake greater by far than that of the settlements. Still, beyond the deepest causes of this historical change, which are anti-Semitism in multiple guises and the unremitting enmity toward Israel of the Arab and Muslim worlds, the immediate cause is the settlements.
Why is the response to the settlements an even greater error than the settlements themselves? Forgotten in the uncritical historicizing of the Palestinian dispossession that resulted from the partition, and then immediately the 1948 war that followed from Palestinian rejection of the partition – Palestinian rejection of an Israeli state – is that Jews were dispossessed too. In addition to the expulsions or flight of Jews from their own historical homes in the Levant and North Africa, Jews had long lived in towns and cities of the West Bank. Before the partition, Jews held legal title to property on the West Bank, just as Palestinians held title to property in present day Israel. Yet it is of a Palestinian “right of return” we hear, not a Jewish. This is an Arab narrative that has prevailed. This narrative has prevailed, in part, because Israel, rather than offer a narrative of its own, used the advantage of its position simply to return to where it believed Jews had a right to be. Indeed, there are Jews who speak of continuing to inhabit the West Bank – as Jews, not as Israelis – after a Palestinian state is created.
The same rights Palestinians have to property in Israel, Jews have to property on the West Bank. The Palestinians, in negotiations with Israel, have never yet forsworn their claim to a right of return. Why, then, unilaterally, should Israel give up its claims?
But historical ignorance, characteristic of many who opine on the conflict, leaves many unaware of the equal claims. Historical ignorance and outright bias lead many to refer to the 1967 boundaries as borders and to claim that U.N. Resolution 242 requires an Israeli return to the ’67 “borders,” while, in fact, the precise meaning of 242 is moot until the end of time. However, in all the pretense of a fully functional international legal system with universal and universally recognized jurisdiction, why, in the historical regression to a status quo ante, stop at 1967? The ’67 boundaries for Israel were the consequence of its 1948 victory in war. They had not been earlier established by U.N. or any other international legal resolution as permanent borders. Why not revert to the partition lines? That would certainly please anti-Zionists. Ah, but recall, the Palestinians rejected those lines too, which is how six decades of conflict ensued.
I raise the issue of the partition lines to highlight the inconsistency and hypocrisy in so much discussion of the conflict and in the judgments upon Israel. Sometimes we resort to law, sometimes we quietly accept the realities of conflict and power and of victory and defeat, sometimes we operate from an amorphous sense of equity. That sense of equity long ago established in international consciousness something close to the 1967 boundaries as the shape of an ultimate resolution. This was clear to most people in the 1970s, and this is why the settlements were a mistake. However, it is this entire context, and the yet unmentioned context here of Palestinian behavior over six decades, that makes the reaction to the settlements an even greater mistake, and the currently evolving Obama administration policy a compounding of that mistake.
I will not review here the basic matter of the six decade Palestinian refusal. It should be apparent to all with unclouded eyes. I will reiterate what I wrote last week about Palestinian Jew hatred, Palestinian Authority and Hamas media incitement to hatred, and the educational indoctrination to hatred and conflict in the Palestinian schools. Why does the world focus so on settlements and speak only the occasional, muted, pro forma words – and seek no action – against the cultural institutionalization of this hatred? Every criticism one might ever read of inequality for Arab citizens of Israel is made mockery of by the fanatical hatemongering of Palestinian society toward Jews. Who can cite a single brokered peace agreement accepted by the Palestinians over the past decade? Who can cite one peace proposal developed by the Palestinians and offered to Israel? The record, of course, for Israel, is the very reverse.
Nonetheless, as I wrote last week, the Obama administration has accepted the “Israel-is-the-problem” narrative about the long failure to achieve peace. It appears to have accepted the notion (even as the standard encomia for Israel would state otherwise) of some emergent moral callousness in Israeli society that has been the demise of a widespread and effective Israeli “peace” movement. It appears not to have perceived what is manifestly, historically clear: the decline amongst Israeli “peace” forces was the consequence of two rejected peace agreements by the Palestinian Authority, and the full knowledge among Israelis that what they received in return for a decade long peace process and their own willingness to accept those two agreements, with much sacrifice entailed, was the barbarity of the second Intifada. What they received in return for constructing the barrier that ended the horrific suicide bombings of the Intifada were moral calumnies about apartheid and concentration camps.
Even so, in the fall of 2008, once more an Israeli prime minister offered the Palestinian president what no Palestinian has ever offered Israel – a peace proposal. In this proposal, as in the earlier two, at Camp David and Taba, the Israeli Prime proposed the creation of a Palestinian state on terms that would have meant almost a complete Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and the establishment of the Palestinian capitol in Jerusalem. The Palestinian president rejected the proposal by simply not responding to it. Israel is even now willing to engage in direct, unconditional negotiations. The Palestinians refuse both. Yet the Obama administration formulates a policy to get tough with Israel.
There has been much recent speculation about the geostrategic thinking behind the emerging Obama administration stance. The grander strategy may be to settle the conflict to better contain Iran. In the shorter term, Obama may be seeking to destabilize Netanyahu’s governing coalition in the hope of bringing in more moderate Kadima leader Lipi Zivni. Keep in mind, though, that the still more left Labor Party is already in the coalition, and there is no indication that either Ehud Barak, who negotiated the Camp David and Taba agreements, or Labor icon, President Shimon Peres are at odds with the longstanding Jerusalem construction policy or the government’s position on negotiations. In any case, recent American behaviors to look tough with Israel and to angle into position in these strategies are very tenuous maneuvers toward very speculative outcomes. And in the meantime, at an unparalleled time of ill will and low sympathy for Israel, American positioning is now feeding the rampant misperceptions, even, as was too little recalled these past two weeks, the Netanyahu government had already agreed to a ten-month freeze in West Bank settlement growth.
It is difficult not to conclude that rather than Israel taking its U.S. ally for granted, it is the U.S. joining too much of the European continent in judging Israel by a double standard. Here is the Economist openly acknowledging what has long been known by Israel and its friends, that
criticism of Israel’s human-rights record has less to do with anti-Semitism than it does with the opposite. Western countries hold Israel to a different standard than they do Congo because they see in Israel a rich, Western-like, European-descended country. We in Europe and America judge Israel harshly not because Israelis are the Other, but because they’re unusually like us. Does Israel really want to be judged by the same standard we use to judge Omar al-Bashir? Now that would be anti-Semitism.
This attitude is a disgrace, simultaneously expressive of centuries-old colonial condescension toward non-European cultures, and perversely inverting anti-Semitism by discovering in the shine of admiration a new manner in which to treat Jews differently: they are almost like us, so we will judge them more harshly than their less admirable enemies. It has the stink of a rotting European corpse that should have been buried sometime between VE Day and the late afternoon that the last European flag was lowered over the last colony.
At the same time, the Sunday Times (UK) offers the latest elucidation of the festering prejudice against Israel at Human Rights Watch and UN Watch the same of the United Nations Human Rights Council. I gave some indication in Israel: Escaping the Image and Language Trap of the extent of the Palestinian culture of hate. There is, too, the odious BDS movement against Israel. And it is in this atmosphere that the Obama administration chose to “get tough” with Israel over the fiction of its resistance to negotiations and peace.
It is difficult not to conclude that the Obama foreign policy team, already confronting difficulties with the Muslim world, is reluctant to provoke more unsupportable accusations against it – by focusing a proper light on the Palestinian culture of hate and refusal – so, instead, offers up its democratic ally in an effort to curry favor with the Arab and Muslim worlds in its varied strategies. They think, they say, through all manner of leaks, they will win cooperation toward achieving a peace. They think this in contradiction of all evidence from the last ten years, the last twenty, the last sixty.
The settlements were a mistake, because they gave Israel’s enemies an opportunity to cast it in the wrong, rather than the people who for twenty-four years after the Six Day War refused to even speak of exchanging peace for land. But the settlements are there. The settlements should be dismantled, but not unilaterally. Nothing is gained unilaterally: that is established. They are bargaining chips, just as is every Palestinian demand on which the PA refuses to budge on its own. Bargaining chips – and Israel has demonstrated three times now that it is willing to put this one in the pot – are played in the game, not as a precondition for entering it. Preconditions are ruses for delaying the game, only another form of bargaining outside the game while offering nothing in return. No one plays poker like that.
Contrary to the Western tendency to believe that all conflict is the consequence of misunderstanding and the human frailty of miscommunication – that no side in conflict is ever, simply, wrong (unless it’s Israel) – the Palestinians have no genuine record of desiring an agreement to live in peace beside an Israeli state, and they continue to promote Israeli and Jew hatred and the hope that they can outlast Israel, even in the depths of their own suffering, and see its end. It has already been suggested in multiple places that what the developing Obama policy may counterproductively engender is greater Palestinian and Arab resistance – even more violence – as the Palestinians and their allies begin to believe the tide has turned in their favor.
What we may be witnessing is another historic error.