Friday, September 12, 2014

Israel’s Controversial Settlements in the West Bank

During the last Israel/Hamas war, Israel was supported by Jews and other friends of Israel from around the world.  While the anti-Israel mobs had a hateful message against Israel’s right to defend itself, often in open support of Hamas, the message of the pro-Israel crowds was simple and non-violent: Israel wants peace.  This message was clear and powerful, and it had the support of every Western government, even if many had concerns about the number of civilian casualties in Gaza.  Most importantly, it was a message that unified all those who support Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state.

Since the Six-Day War of 1967, Israel has occupied the West Bank, and within a year, it slowly started building settlements there.  These settlements send a message that diverts from the simple and powerful message that “Israel wants peace”.  They send the message that Israel also wants more land.  No government in the world, not even the openly pro-Israel government of Stephen Harper in Canada, supports Israel’s settlements policy in the West Bank.  This policy pits Israel against everyone else, and it splits the pro-Israel camp as well, creating animosity and mistrust between its proponents and its opponents.

As a supporter of Palestinian self-determination, I reject Israel’s settlements policy in the West Bank because it makes the project of a Palestinian state next to Israel more difficult to achieve.  However as a friend of Israel, I have to ask why Israel would stop building settlements in Judea and Samaria (the Jewish traditional name for the West Bank) when it is Israel’s right to build them and when Arabs have refused since 1948 and still refuse today to create a Palestinian state (see my previous blog Palestine Delayed).  Palestinians can end the settlements policy any time they wish simply by agreeing to reasonable peace terms with Israel.  Unfortunately Palestinian leaders, far from taking this sensible step, have in fact used the settlements as a reason not to discuss peace with Israel, a highly foolish and self-defeating position, but a position fully consistent with Palestinian leaders’ tendency to ignore their people’s best interests.

To Israel’s credit, there is a vocal and strong movement within Israel that opposes the settlements.  Among them Peace Now, founded in 1978 by 348 reserve officers and soldiers from Israeli army combat units, is an organization that is proudly Zionist but that eloquently advocates against the settlements (although it has lost some credibility within Israel since its earlier days).  Such organizations present the view that a two-state solution is the right solution for Israel, that Palestinians deserve the right to self-determination, and that Israel should not take actions that stand in the way of achieving these objectives.  What’s more, such organizations illustrate an important contrast between Israel and its Arab neighbours – Israel, which has always waged wars only in self-defence has a healthy number of outspoken peace groups while Arab states who truly need peace activists do not tolerate any.  This contrast has long sustained my admiration and support for Israel.

We live in a time of increasing antisemitism.  Antisemitism levels in Europe have reached heights comparable to the 1930’s.  The fuel being used most often to feed antisemitism is anti-Zionism.  By any rational measure, anti-Zionism has become synonymous to antisemitism.  The issue of settlements helps anti-Zionists because it allows them to make the superficial and erroneous claim that Israel is an imperialist power.  Freezing the settlements would give a boost to Israel’s image in the world, and reversing them would go even further in that direction.  This is what happened when Israel abandoned its settlements in Gaza.  Israelis also remember however that this boost in Israel’s image was only temporary, and that when Israel started defending itself against terrorist attacks from Gaza, the new-found support evaporated.  Antisemitism, like racism, is irrational and would not be significantly affected by goodwill gestures from Israel.

Israel is not invincible, and it should not behave as if it were.  Israel was almost lost in the 1973 Yom Kippur war due to overconfidence.  Is Israel displaying the same dangerous overconfidence in its settlements policy?  Cautious people like myself would like Israel to avoid this risk, while many others, including perhaps the majority of Israelis, consider this to be a minor risk compared to the many others facing Israel.  As in 1948, Israel is still surrounded by despotic regimes that to various degrees do not hesitate to use antisemitism to further their own goals, and the Palestinian culture of hate is stronger than ever and renders Palestinians completely incapable of living at peace with Israel (see also How Palestinian Hate Prevents Peace).  Proponents of the settlements also argue that Israel is stronger today that it has ever been, and it can therefore afford to ignore some criticisms.

While freezing or reversing the settlements would be the generous thing to do to Palestinians (most of whom are genuinely victims of circumstances beyond their control or comprehension), and while it would boost Israel’s image, at least momentarily, Israelis do not want to give them up without anything substantial in return.  Considering how little goodwill has come from Arabs towards Israel, I cannot blame them.  The West Bank is actually Judea and Samaria, part of Eretz Israel, the Biblical name of the traditional “Land of Israel”, and many of the settlers are simply returning to homes that they or their ancestors had to leave due to anti-Jewish violence during the war of independence or earlier conflicts.  The Israeli settlements are perfectly legal since the land is not legally recognized as owned by any nation (The legal case for Judea and Samaria) and since Jews have as much right to that land (particularly unused land) as non-Jews do.

Israel cannot be expected to always act against its own best interests simply to hold the higher moral ground.  In its wars with terrorist groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, due to the terrorists’ policy of using civilians as human shields, Israel always warns before attacking, thereby losing the element of surprise and letting terrorists go free in order to minimize civilian casualties.  Israel also abandons bombing missions if there appears to be civilians at the target site, again letting terrorists go free.  The world seems to have become accustomed to Israel being selfless and highly moral even though its enemies’ only objective is the destruction of Israel and the Jews.  On the issue of settlements, however, Israel is doing what it considers best for its citizens – it is allowing them to build homes on their ancestral lands, even though this policy appears to somewhat complicate the Palestinians’ project of statehood.  This is not the high moral ground, but it is a behaviour that would be accepted from any other government on earth under similar circumstances.

Despite Israel’s controversial settlements policy in the West Bank, it is clear that the message that “Israel wants peace” is as true today as it was on the founding of the modern state of Israel in May 1948.  While many pro-Israel advocates would like the issue of settlements to go away in order to simplify their defence of Israel, Israel must still be supported now more than ever.  Enemies of Israel (which are also the enemies of Jews) have become very adept at using this issue to demonize Israel, but friends of Israel, while still needing to debate this policy, must not let it divide them.  We must not forget that this issue would not even exist had it not been for Arab antisemitism, and it will only be fully resolved when Israel’s Arab neighbours finally accept its right to exist as a Jewish state.  This is the only way forward.  This is what Palestinian supporters need to aim for.