Guest Columnist: Settlement whiplash

In the hopes of injecting some bilateral humility into the discourse, I share two conversations that took place not long ago.

By
March 19, 2010 17:03
A housing complex in Ramat Sholmo.

Ramat Sholmo 311. (photo credit: Associated Press)

 
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It was only a matter of time until settlement construction – the issue that the Obama administration has chosen to situate at the very core of its Mideast policy, as if settlements have anything at all to do with decades of Palestinian recalcitrance – reared its proverbial head once again. But now that the issue is back, it’s time for some honesty on both sides of the political divide: The wisdom or folly of settlement construction is substantially less obvious than most observers are willing to acknowledge.

Barack Obama, Joseph Biden and Hillary Clinton are all justifiably incensed by the embarrassment caused to Biden by the sheer buffoonery of Israel’s elected officials. But their ire says nothing about the substance of the issue, which is once again being addressed with a stridency born of the fact that everyone believes that there is absolutely no merit to the position of the other.

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LIVING IN Jerusalem, you don’t have to be prime minister to have periodic bouts of settlement whiplash. Life in the Jewish capital is sometimes comprised of conversations so surprising that you wonder whether to believe your ears. In the hopes of injecting even a drop of bilateral humility into the discourse, I share two conversations that took place not long ago – before most people had heard of Ramat Shlomo, but after it was already clear that settlements were a cause célèbre once again.

I was sitting at one of those ubiquitous cafés on Rehov Emek Refaim, chatting with a lay leader from New York. Biblical claims to the land no longer matter, he was telling me. Nor do picayune legalistic arguments about why this family or that has the right to inhabit this building or that. All of that, he insisted, is now irrelevant.

“You’re losing us,” he explained. “Lots of deeply committed American Jews have just had it with Israel. They want to care, but they can’t. Ninety percent of America’s Jews are Reform and Conservative Jews, but the Jewish state spits on them, and then expects us to pretend that it’s rain. You never elect a prime minister with the guts to stand up to those thugs called chief rabbis. You really expect us to be loyal third-class citizens?”

And he took a deep breath. “But then, you make us not only angry, but ashamed. Doesn’t anyone here give any consideration at all to how Israel’s policies play in our community? How are we supposed to defend policies that push the Palestinians off of more land and out of more neighborhoods, when the world’s decided that that’s simply abhorrent? And have you got a strategy? Do you want a two-state solution? Because if you do, you’d better start leaving them some land on which to create one. And if you don’t want a two-state solution, what do you plan to do with those millions of Arabs in Gaza and the West Bank? Kick them out? Make them non-citizens forever, and then prove that Jimmy Carter was right about the apartheid accusation all along? Are you still going to expect us to watch your backs then? Really, do you guys ever actually think?”

I pushed back, but only a bit, and very gently, because I wanted him to know that I had, indeed, heard him. I disagreed with many of his factual claims, but his angst was genuine, and he was far too articulate to be easily ignored.

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But it was soon time to go, for I had to pick up our car from its annual service. A short while later, I found myself in the waiting room, the car not quite ready though I’d been assured it would be. Sharing the space with me was a blond gentleman in a tweed suit and a tie, speaking English with a thick European accent. We had time to kill, so I figured I might as well talk to him. He was from Scandinavia, it turned out, but was now working for the European Union in “Palestine.”

Oy. This, I could tell, was just going to be one of those days. From the frying pan into the fire. I asked him about his counterparts in the Palestinian government. Some good people, he said, but a lot of corruption. They have a long way to go before they’re ready for statehood, he added.

That surprised me. So I pushed. “So, are we eventually going to have peace here?”

“Well,” he said, “‘eventually’ is a long time. But probably not in my lifetime, or yours.”

“So,” I asked, figuring that little could be worse than that conversation at the café, “what should Israel do in the meantime?”

“Just what you are already doing,” he said.

“Meaning what?”

“Meaning, that you keep building your country, and keep building the settlements.”

I wasn’t sure I’d heard correctly. “Build the settlements?”

“Absolutely.”

“Why’s that?”

“Look,” he said. “Some day, they’re going to be ready for serious talks. They’re going to make a huge concession, and recognize your right to exist. But they’re going to expect a similarly grand concession from you. Your concession can’t be recognizing their right to a state, because you’ve already done that. And you can’t compromise on the return of refugees, because then you have no Jewish state. So you need something massive that you can give up on – and that’s going to be the settlements. You’ll have to evacuate and destroy most of them in the end, but if you do that now, then what will you offer at the table? The settlements are your key to making peace eventually.”

AT THAT moment, we were both told that our cars were ready. We shook hands, and went our respective ways. I should have asked for his card, I thought as I was driving home, because I should have introduced him to my American Jewish philanthropist friend. And my American Jewish friend should really speak not to me, but with the people who actually shape Israeli policy.

Which got me wondering: Could those people begin to hear each other? Can we? Not now, probably. But eventually? Perhaps. The problem, though, is that eventually can be a really long time.

The writer is senior vice president of the Shalem Center in Jerusalem. His most recent book, Saving Israel: How the Jewish People Can Win a War That May Never End (Wiley), recently received a 2009 National Jewish Book Award. He blogs at http://danielgordis.org.

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