Israel remains more popular among American Jews, even among younger Jews – and with most Americans – than the hysterical hand-wringing suggests. Unfortunately, Ivy- League, ivory tower, left-leaning, New York Times-reading Jewish intellectuals are souring on Israel. Typically, these elites claim to represent more people than they do, although, unfortunately, they are in sync with the president of the United States.
Barack Obama and his egghead followers talk constantly about “The Settlements.” Reducing the complex Israeli-Palestinian conflict to any one dimension does violence to the truth. Reducing the conflict to the settlements is an act of historical vandalism, defaming the memory of nearly 30,000 Israelis, very few of whom died in settlement-related violence – most of whom died because of the continuing Arab refusal to accept Israel’s existence.
Obsessing about the settlements blames Israel while absolving the Palestinians of responsibility. It is a form of liberal racism, condescendingly treating the Palestinians as if they are not accountable for their deeds and words. It ignores the fact that the delegitimization of Israel today does not stop at the settlements but attacks the essence of the Zionist project. It glides over the fact that Israel withdrew from 25 settlements in Gaza and Samaria in 2005, then endured thousands of rocket attacks and a Gaza takeover by Hamas, whose charter targets the entire Jewish state – and the Jewish people. It overlooks the fact that when Yasser Arafat led his people away from the Oslo negotiations back toward terror in 2000, Palestinians blew up Jerusalem buses, Tel Aviv felafel stands and Haifa cafes, treating all of Israel as a “settlement.”
Emphasizing the settlements pretends the conflict began in 1967, even though the PLO started in 1964, six Arab armies attacked the new state in May 1948 and the Arabs rejected the UN partition compromise in November 1947.
Emphasizing the settlements circumvents negotiation, caving in to Palestinian land claims, mindlessly embracing their one-sided narrative. Advocates of the two-state compromise must return the multi-dimensionality to this messy problem. Normally, one would expect intellectuals – and an intellectual president like Obama – to spearhead this effort, preferring sophistication to sloganeering, multilateral reconciling to one-sided finger-pointing, truth in all its messiness to propaganda.
Those of us who know the complex history must reframe talk about the settlements by acknowledging different kinds of settlements. Palestinian propagandists describe all buildings beyond the Green Line, the artificiallydrawn 1949 armistice line, as illegal intrusions on Palestinian land. But borders have been fluid, populations have been mobile, in this neighborhood. A house renovated in Jerusalem’s Jewish Quarter – overrun by the Jordanians in 1948 – differs from new huts on a hilltop overlooking a Palestinian village. The “settlement” of Kfar Etzion, first established in 1927, also destroyed by the Jordanians in 1948, remembered longingly by its survivors and their children for 19 years, many of whom returned after 1967, differs from a settlement established after the Six Day War.
We also know that traditionally, when countries fight, the winner keeps the territory. I challenge my historian colleagues, asking them to name one example when a country won a defensive war then voluntarily returned the territory it conquered, if it had a prior claim to the land. The only answer is Israel, returning the Sinai to Egypt in 1979, relinquishing control under Oslo in 1994 and leaving Gaza in 2005.
ISRAELIS MUST teach the world to stop talking about the settlements – which includes not talking about building freezes in the settlements – they are not an organic unit. Over the years, four different types of settlements arose:
• Once-settled settlements, restoring communities like the Jewish Quarter or Kfar Etzion.
• Security settlements, following the Allon Plan among other strategies, building outposts along the Jordanian border and at critical military junctures.
• Suburban settlements, within commuting distance of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, absorbing some of the demographic pressure choking the middle of the country.
• Salvation settlements, initiated by Gush Emunim and other diehards, to restore a Jewish presence in biblical lands.
To facilitate compromise, the world must acknowledge at least four distinct Israeli residential initiatives in the disputed territories:
• Jerusalem – which is not a settlement but is and was the capital of the Jewish people. Even if its boundaries are renegotiated, it remains a special case.
• Organic suburban settlements – part of the outer ring of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, which most analysts agree would remain Israeli in a land swap.
• Outlying settlements – geographically more removed from centers of Israeli life, their presence would disrupt the contiguity of a Palestinian state, because almost all assume that a Palestinian state must be Jew-free even as Arabs will continue to live in Israel.
• Outlaw settlements – the few unauthorized settlements which should be dismantled immediately, asserting the rule of law, independent of any diplomatic dynamics.
YES, IT is difficult to reframe international discourse. But while it
might take a paragraph to explain settlement subtleties, Israel must
take a much tougher stand against delegitimization, which requires one
line to explain: Fighting delegitimization is fighting for peace. Just
as the Palestinians, and many Israeli and international NGOs, complain
each time a Jew breaks ground outside the Green Line, Israel, the US and
the entire pro-peace infrastructure must complain every time a
Palestinian delegitimizes Israel, denies its right to exist or attacks
the Jews. There must be zero tolerance for such language, which only
In labeling settlements accurately, I do not necessarily advocate
holding all of them permanently. But we need a coalition of conscience
to stand for the truth in all its complexity, to fight demonization from
all sides and to work for peace, improvising a solution based on mutual
accommodation rather than stubbornly and artificially freezing
boundaries in one random historical moment or another.The writer is professor of history at
McGill University and a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute
in Jerusalem. He is the author of
Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today and The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction.