There’s more than a little irony that the actors, playwrights and directors declared a boycott of the new cultural center in Ariel four days before Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu flew to Washington to participate in a festive kickoff to peace talks. Limor Livnat, making a rare public appearance as culture minister, bemoaned the boycott for tearing apart the nation just as her boss was on his way to do exactly that by entering into talks whose goal is to create a Palestinian state where Ariel happens to be.

True, there are better than even prospects that this round of negotiations will go no further than the previous ones. And, if they do lead to an agreement, Ariel stands a reasonably good chance of being absorbed into Israel as part of a land swap. The town isn’t even particularly objectionable as settlements go: It isn’t an unauthorized settlement and its residents don’t spend their off hours pulling up Palestinian olive trees. If Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas can work out their differences, maybe one day Mayor Ron Nahman will host Salam Fayyad for a joint performance of Israeli and Palestinian choirs in the Ariel auditorium.

The settlers are Israeli citizens, and the government has done everything it can to make it seem as if the settlements are no different than Holon or Kiryat Ono. Indeed, settlers are not just equal citizens, they are more equal. If they choose, Ariel’s residents can pass quickly through the checkpoints and enjoy an evening at Habimah or Cameri in Tel Aviv, just like the rest of us. But how many towns of fewer than 20,000 people inside the Green Line can have the evening out in a NIS 40 million arts center? CONTRARY TO the assertions by Livnat and Netanyahu, Ariel and the rest of the West Bank settlements are not a part of Israel. After 43 years, there is still a Green Line. And, if that isn’t clear enough a signal, the history of the last two decades is a history of gradual separation.

It began with the Oslo process, when Israel acknowledged Palestinian rights to the West Bank and Gaza. It gained momentum with the withdrawal from Gaza, with Netanyahu’s backing for a two-state solution and with the freeze on construction in the settlements.

The unusual aspect of the artists’ boycott is that the initiative came from the bottom up rather than the top down. It wasn’t the prime minister, the cabinet or some international agreement that was treating settlers as people living outside the borders. It was private citizens protesting. But the settlers should have recognized a long time ago that while official Israel was cutting them adrift, so was the Israeli street.

When the mass demonstrations against Oslo took place 17 years ago, it was settlers alone who rallied. Even then, it was evident that ordinary Israelis – the ones who hadn’t been tempted by cheap housing and other subsidies and an easy commute to Tel Aviv that places like Ariel offered – had no love for the settler enterprise. If they didn’t actively boycott the settlements, they were quite prepared to sacrifice them if the Palestinians would only sign on to an agreement. The Palestinians didn’t, of course, but neither did the disappointment create any new affection for Beit El or Kiryat Arba.

It’s in our deepest interest that the separation from the settlements continue in anticipation of the inevitable divorce ahead.

Netanyahu is correct when he warns that we face a growing campaign worldwide aimed at challenging Israel’s fundamental right to exist as a Jewish state. He is equally correct that that the weapons of boycotts, sanctions and divestment being wielded by the boycott movement are no different than those taken up by Israeli artists last month. But the issue isn’t whether the world has any right to boycott Israel or those opposed to settlements have any right to boycott Ariel’s cultural center. Boycotting is a perfectly reasonable tactic. The question is whether either Israel or Ariel is a fair target.

When our enemies portray us as an outlaw state deserving international approbation, they point to the killing in Cast Lead or at the Free Gaza flotilla. But whatever you think of Israel’s behavior, Cast Lead and the flotilla raid aren’t Israel. It doesn’t have a shoot-to-kill policy against people trying to breach the siege of Gaza. Nor does it set out to massacre civilians, even if a lot of them were killed in Cast Lead. The flotilla is a situation that got out of hand; the civilian deaths in Cast Lead were the inevitable fallout of fighting a modern war.

However, as long as the settlers insist – and the rest of the country passively agrees – that they are an integral part of the country, we have a problem on our hands. The settlements and everything they represent – the refusal to make peace (or at least to offer anything to the Palestinians that would lead to an agreement), the routine skirting of the law and the double standards it requires to build and expand them – taints all of Israel. They are a function of deliberate policy to take land at the expense of a Palestinian population with no intention of giving it back. Israel can’t defend its acts as the exigencies of war or the unconscionable act of an undisciplined soldier. The consequences of settlement building are an inseparable part of what they are.

The government erected the settlements and has no practical choice but to support them for now. But for the ordinary Israelis who oppose them, like the actors and other artists did last week, it’s high time to draw the line.

The writer is a financial commentator.

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