At the moment, the inflammatory issue of the extension of Israeli sovereignty over settlements in biblical Judea and Samaria is on hold. With both U.S. President Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu engaged in struggles over their political futures, they have little time for distractions. But this may be a good time to assess the widely touted importance of sovereignty.
The underlying issue is the right of Jews to inhabit their biblical homeland. Undeniably, it is for the government of Israel, not settlers, to determine the boundaries of the Jewish state. But there is a competing claim: Jews cannot be considered “occupiers” of their own homeland. Their historical and religious claims are underscored by international agreements stretching back to the Balfour Declaration (1917), calling for “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.”
The boundaries of “Palestine” were defined following World War I. The League of Nations Mandate granted Jews the right of “close settlement” throughout “Palestine,” geographically defined as the land east and west of the Jordan River. But Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill gifted the land east of the river to Hashemite Sheik Abdullah, who established the Kingdom of Jordan.
After the Six-Day War in 1967, U.N. Resolution 242 provided that following “a just and lasting peace” between Israel and its Arab neighbors Israel would be required to withdraw its military forces from “territories”—not from “the territories” or “all the territories” west of the Jordan River. The right of the Jewish people to “close settlement” west of the River (including biblical Judea and Samaria) has never been rescinded. But the core question—how much of their biblical homeland will be theirs—remains unanswered.
A decade ago, Israeli historian Gadi Taub authored The Settlers, a brief but challenging analysis of “the struggle over the meaning of Zionism.” It is outdated in some respects: No longer are rabbis the undisputed leaders of the settlement movement (despised by Taub), which has transitioned from its pioneering religious phase (with Rabbi Moshe Levinger in Hebron leading the way) to secular suburbia.
But the core issue remains. Do settlements undermine Palestinian statehood, or are Palestinians, who have rejected every offer of statehood, responsible for their own statelessness? Are settlements expressive of Jewish memory (and, for some settlers, religious passion), or have they come to satisfy the yearning of Israelis for affordable housing with an easy commute to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem—or both?
For the founding generation of post-Six-Day War settlers, there was no doubt that the return to Hebron, after the destruction of its centuries-old community during the Arab riots of 1929, and to Gush Etzion, which suffered a similar fate in the struggle for independence two decades later, was justifiable for Jewish historical and religious reasons. Hebron, burial site of the Jewish patriarchs and matriarchs where King David reigned before relocating his throne to Jerusalem, was a Jewish holy city rivaled only by Jerusalem. Gush Etzion was a 20th century, predominantly secular, Zionist settlement. But their Jewish communities were linked by fidelity to the biblical mandate to settle the Land of Israel.
When Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin was asked by The New York Times, which long opposed Jewish statehood anywhere lest it compromise the loyalty of American Jews (including Times’ publishers) to the United States, whether he intended to annex the West Bank, he sharply responded: “You annex foreign territories, not your own country.”
Settlements are now home to 450,000 Israelis and continued demographic growth is likely. Taub’s conviction that settlement “is the issue over which Israel’s moral foundations and its identity … are contested,” and his insistence that settlements mark the negation of Zionism have lost any claim to reality. His hostility to post-1967 “Zionism of Land” ignores history. Zionism without land would be nothing more than a fantasy. The return of Jews to Judea and Samaria is no less legitimate than their residence in Tel Aviv.
If, in the end, Zionism of Land is flawed, as Taub believes, then there is no justification for a Jewish state, which, like any state, requires land for survival. If settlements are “the issue over which Israel’s moral foundations and its identity … are contested,” as Taub claims, those foundations and identity are strengthened by continued settlement growth.
Palestinians certainly should have their national home in Palestine—east of the Jordan River. (When Taub’s book was published in 2010, nearly half of Jordan’s population was Palestinian.) Under the current Trump Mideast peace plan, now increasingly unlikely to be implemented given his fading prospect for re-election, Palestinians living west of the Jordan River would remain in place (as citizens of Jordan if its government was willing) while Israeli sovereignty would extend to Jewish settlements. The extension of sovereignty is nothing more than the recognition of reality.
It is highly unlikely that Israel—whether or not Benjamin Netanyahu remains prime minister—would relinquish its claim to Judea and Samaria. There are too many Jewish residents, too deeply embedded, for any possibility of their removal. Israel’s unyielding attachment to its ancient Jewish homeland is the affirmation, not the negation, of Zionism.
Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of “Print to Fit: The New York Times, Zionism and Israel 1896-2016,” which was recently selected for Mosaic by Ruth Wisse and Martin Kramer as a “Best Book” for 2019.