Israel has a settlement problem. Her settlement policy is under attack from every direction. My guess, based on recent leaks from his office, is that the Prime Minister is fully aware of this. The settlement movement, of course, denies that a problem exists.
American Jewish leaders in most cases know the truth but simply avert their eyes, endlessly repeating the mantra that “settlement is not the problem.” And they are right that it is not THE problem, but it certainly is A problem, and a serious one at that.
The issue is not the hostility of Israel’s enemies but the distress of her friends. With the Middle East in upheaval and Israel more dependent than ever on the support of friendly states, she cannot afford a disastrous settlement policy that alienates her allies and endangers her future.
Why is Israel’s settlement policy disastrous? Because as long as she has not defined her borders, any building beyond the 1967 borders is seen as a settlement. Without a declaration from Israel of what she sees her borders to be, the general assumption is that her real intention is retain the territories indefinitely. The result is that even construction in a major settlement block – in a place that everyone knows would remain part of Israel in a negotiated settlement – meets resistance from all quarters. On the other hand, if Israel were to say where she would like her borders to be, and if she would coordinate her position with the United States, building to the west of those borders could be accepted by the Americans and potentially by others.
Declaring borders does not have to mean declaring final borders. Borders should become final only in a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians; adjustments could be made when such an agreement is signed. Until then, Israel would be committing herself to transitional arrangements only. The advantages of such arrangements are many. They demonstrate that Israeli proclamations about a two-state solution are real and not rhetorical; they clarify the status of settlers on both sides of the temporary borders; they combat the growing feeling that Israel is incapable of putting a serious peace plan on the table; and, as noted, they make it possible for Israel to continue building in some parts of Eretz Yisrael, but not all.
Settlers will oppose such a plan on many grounds, including the claim that there is a religious obligation to retain the territories in the biblically-defined Land of Israel. This is mostly a smoke screen for maintaining the status quo. In any case, the borders of the Land of Israel are not defined with any precision in the Torah; there are passages that suggest that such borders take in virtually the entire Middle East, and there are passages that suggest Israel should be a tiny country not much bigger than Rhode Island. Basing Israel’s settlement policy on “Biblical borders” is an absurdity.
I am not suggesting that Israel should withdraw unilaterally from settlements on the other side of her declared borders. Only when the Palestinians demonstrate that they are ready for peace should such concessions be considered. But it obviously makes no sense to do additional building in areas that you will eventually evacuate. And stating where you want your borders to be is not a unilateral concession; indeed, it is not a concession at all. It is an act of commonsense that will win Israel support at a time when she desperately needs it, will reverse the tide of growing anti-Israel feeling on the campuses and elsewhere, and will put the ball in the Palestinians’ court—challenging them to return to the negotiating table and to get serious about peace.