U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman set off alarm bells two weeks ago by telling The New York Times that “under certain circumstances, I think Israel has the right to retain some, but unlikely all, of the West Bank.” U.S. Special Negotiator Jason Greenblatt has now backed up Friedman.
It’s not clear why this comment should raise eyebrows, since U.S. policy and all previous rounds of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations have been based on this very possibility, indeed likelihood.
Perhaps some unfriendly types were upset because Friedman speaks not only of settlement realities that must be considered when calculating the possibilities for Israeli-Palestinian accommodation but also of Israeli/Jewish rights to live in the historic heartland of Israel. That is certainly a change of tone, and hopefully of U.S. policy, too.
In fact, I would welcome an even clearer articulation of American policy in this regard, perhaps as part of the Trump peace initiative: explicit recognition that Jews have an inalienable right stemming from Jewish history and tradition to live in Judea and Samaria. Enough of the nonsense that Jews in Judea are illegal colonialists!
In any case, the main reason that some went wild over Friedman’s remarks is the fact that for much of the reflexively anti-Israeli diplomatic community, settlements in Judea and Samaria, ridiculously, have become the ultimate bugaboo; a criminal enterprise responsible for all evils in the world.
Certainly if you study the Middle East from United Nations publications you discover that most global troubles can be quickly traced back to Israeli settlements.
If it wasn’t for the settlements, you see, the Palestinians undoubtedly would recognize Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state. Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas would formally forgo the so-called “right” of return for Palestinian refugees. Hamas and Fatah would bury the hatchet. The boycott, divestment and sanctions movement would stop seeking to demonize and delegitimize Israel.
If it wasn’t for the settlements, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani would announce an end to Iranian nuclear enrichment activities and the dismantlement of all related nuclear facilities. The Iranians also would stop shipping missiles to Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah and withdraw the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps from Syria.
If only the settlements were torn down, the barbaric civil war in Syria would end, and Syrian President Bashar Assad would allow millions of Syrian Sunni refugees to return and live happily ever after. The Egyptian economy would stabilize. The disintegration of Libya and Yemen would be halted. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan would recant his anti-Semitism and reconcile with Israel.
Russia would withdraw all its forces from Ukraine and Crimea. U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders would embrace traditional Jewish religious practice and tens of thousands of young American Jewish progressives would as well.
If not for the supposedly out-of-control settlements, Avi Gabbay, the outgoing Labor party chairman, would be prime minister, and the ultra-Orthodox would be lining up to serve in the Israel Defense Force’s Sayeret Matkal commando unit.
There is no question in my mind that the settlements are to blame for the traffic jams in Tel Aviv, the poverty in development towns across Israel, the high crime rate, and more. I also think that settlements are to blame for Israel’s failure to win the Eurovision contest in Tel Aviv this year, and for the fact that Israel never has won any Olympic gold medals in ice hockey.
Speaking seriously, I’m sure readers recognize this litany of settlement wrongs as satirical nonsense.
However, I write this column only half in jest. Unfortunately, even some Israelis outlandishly have called settlements a criminal enterprise. Former Attorney General Michael Ben-Yair termed settlements “the most evil and immoral act since World War II”—worse, he said, than Pol Pot’s regime in Cambodia, Stalin’s crimes against his people, and the genocide in Darfur.
This is errant and irresponsible nonsense. Israel’s control of the West Bank is neither criminal nor genocidal. Settlements may be a real bone of contention between Israel and the Palestinians, but they are not the root cause of continuing conflict here or anywhere else.
Israeli settlements in Judea and Samaria neither explain Palestinian unwillingness to make peace with Israel nor justify radical Islam’s jihad on Jerusalem. Similarly, rolling back settlements would not bring peace with the Palestinians—it certainly didn’t in Gaza—nor calm the convulsing Arab Middle East. Lambs would not lie down with lions.
In this context, it is worth reiterating some basic facts. Settlements haven’t scuttled any previous negotiating effort; Palestinian obduracy and extremism have.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing governments from 2009 until today have applied a restrictive approach to settlement building; much more restrictive than the previous governments of Ehud Olmert, Ariel Sharon and Ehud Barak (over the years 1999 to 2009). Netanyahu even froze settlement construction altogether for 10 months—the only Israeli leader ever to do so—yet the Palestinians spurned talks with Israel for most of that period, with no reciprocal concessions.
Furthermore, most Israeli housing starts over the past decade have been in cities within settlement “blocs” that Israel intends keep under all circumstances (and “everybody knows” this): Gush Etzion, Ariel-Elkana-Karnei Shomron, Ma’ale Adumim, Beitar Ilit and Modi’in Ilit (Kiryat Sefer). In fact, almost all government-initiated building has been in the latter two ultra-Orthodox cities, which are stably situated in Israel’s future.
In other words, there is no Israeli land grab underway and nothing that would scuttle the establishment of an autonomous and prosperous Palestinian entity—if only there was a peaceful Palestinian leadership ready for genuine compromise with Israel.
There always will be a complicated mesh of West Bank populations, Arab and Jewish. Any Israeli-Palestinian arrangement in Judea and Samaria is going to involve blocs and bypasses, overpasses and underpasses, and shared spaces.
But no Jewish or Arab towns need to be moved or throttled. And none should be delegitimized. There are multiple, creative ways of creating livable contiguity and transportation contiguity (instead of territorial contiguity), for Israelis and Palestinians alike.
In the meantime, a sober assessment of the situation inevitably leads to the conclusion that renewed negotiations between Israeli and Palestinian leadership are far off into future, especially with Abbas refusing to engage on the Trump initiative.
So when U.S. Ambassador Friedman talks about “certain circumstances” that would lead Israel to “retain some” of the West Bank, he likely means circumstances where the Palestinians persist in refusing to negotiate, thus maintaining the status quo.
And then, sooner or later, Israel will unilaterally extend its rule of law to include Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria, solidifying the de facto territorial compromise that already is in place—perhaps with American blessing.
Keep the settlement issue in proportion. Settlements are not the bane of local or world peace nor necessarily an obstacle to peace. Everybody should stop using them as a thinly veiled smokescreen for a great deal of anti-Israel sentiment.
This column first appeared in Israel Hayom.
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