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Why do American Jews oppose an Israeli consensus on settlements?

Reaction to Trump’s latest decision once again proves that liberal Jewish groups see Israel in the context of American politics, not Middle Eastern reality.

J Street president Jeremy Ben-Ami addressing the 2019 J Street National Conference. Source: J Street via Flickr.
J Street president Jeremy Ben-Ami addressing the 2019 J Street National Conference. Source: J Street via Flickr.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

When Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced this week that the United States no longer considers Israeli settlements in the West Bank to be in violation of international law, most Israelis were clearly pleased. But a good portion of American Jews weren’t. This tells us more about American Jewish priorities and indifference to what Israelis think than it does about what’s good for the Jewish state or arguments about international law.

As was the case with the Trump administration’s moves on Jerusalem, the Golan Heights, the Iran nuclear deal and accountability for the Palestinian Authority’s support of terrorism, all the major Israeli political parties greeted the announcement with support. Both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his leading rival, Blue and White Party leader Benny Gantz, agreed that America was right to scrap its old insistence that Jews had no right to live outside the 1949 armistice lines.

That latter point is crucial to understanding a basic fact about Israeli political reality. Gantz, who remains locked in a standoff with Netanyahu and his allies over the composition of the next Israeli government, actually received a heads up about Pompeo’s impending statement before it was issued.

U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman called Gantz and informed him of the decision. Had Gantz expressed opposition or had he asked that the Americans delay their announcement, a State Department source told the press that the administration would have complied with the request. To the contrary, after Pompeo spoke, Gantz approved of his move, saying explicitly that the fate of the “settlements and the residents of Judea and Samaria should be determined by agreements that meet security requirements and that can promote a peace that will serve both sides while reflecting the reality on the ground.”

That’s because the claim that they are illegal is at odds with the goal of a negotiated settlement. Labeling these Jewish communities in that manner renders negotiations over the territories effectively moot. The Palestinians have never seriously negotiated with Israel about a peace deal on the West Bank. As long as the world considers the territories to be stolen property that must be returned to the Arabs—rather than disputed land whose fate must be arrived at by give and take by both sides—there’s nothing to negotiate.

Gantz’s stand on the peace process left little daylight between them on security or diplomacy during the recent election campaigns. This reflects a consensus that stretches from the moderate left to the right about the lack of a peace partner. Like Netanyahu, Gantz understands that Israel must maintain control of the Jordan River Valley and most of the settlements even in the theoretical event that the Palestinians eventually choose to make peace as opposed to continue holding onto their century-old war on Zionism. He is no more interested in uprooting settlements without obtaining real peace—as former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon did in Gaza in 2005—than Netanyahu.

The Geneva Convention against occupying powers moving its population into captured land doesn’t apply to Israelis in the West Bank because these territories have no legal owner. Israel seized these lands in a defensive war from Jordan, an illegal occupier. The 1922 League of Nations Mandate for Palestine specifically guaranteed the right of Jewish settlement throughout the country.

The U.N. ruling on settlements did not nullify Jewish rights there that are rooted in faith, history and international law. If those rights are to be surrendered, it can only be done in return for Palestinian concessions—not as the result of interpretations of international law that are influenced more by anti-Semitic prejudice than legal logic.

What the United States has done is merely to put the Palestinians on notice that if they want an end to the status quo, then they will have to talk to the Israelis. They cannot sit back and wait for the international community to hand them Israeli concessions on a silver platter. That’s why even if you think settlements are unwise or that many of them should be evacuated if it made peace possible, the notion that they are illegal is a pernicious myth.

Yet rather than join with Gantz, some leading American Jewish groups, such as the Union of Reform Judaism, criticized the decision or remained conspicuously neutral. So, too, did many Democrats, including those who claim to be friends of Israel.


Many liberal Jews truly believe that Israel’s presence in the territories will lead to Israel becoming an “apartheid state” or a binational country without a Jewish majority. This is untrue since the continued anomalous status of the territories is due to Palestinian rejectionism. Israelis also have no intention of allowing the creation of a Palestinian state that would, like the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, constitute a threat to Israel’s existence.

But there’s more to this than American Jewish misconceptions about Palestinian intentions, which Israelis rejected in the aftermath of the collapse of the Oslo process.

As loyal Democrats, liberal Jews simply oppose everything Trump does, whether or not it’s right or good for Israel. That’s why they opposed the move of the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, even though they would have cheered had Barack Obama done it.

Much like the U.S. acknowledgment of reality on Jerusalem, Trump’s discarding of a policy based on a falsehood won’t set the world on fire. But in a political universe in which Democrats regard everything the president does as inherently illegitimate, it comes as little surprise that their presidential candidates and Jewish supporters want no part of a Trump diplomatic revolution that the foreign-policy establishment rejects. That’s true even if means defending longstanding failed policies based in falsehoods, such as the claim that the settlements are illegal.

Liberal Jewish groups may say that they are upholding the peace process against Trump’s destructive impulses. But this is partisanship, not principle. It’s high time groups that purport to represent the consensus of American Jewry started listening to the consensus of Israelis.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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