Summarizing the stalemate in the Israeli- Palestinian talks, a CNN anchor
reported earlier this week that as soon as the settlement building freeze ended,
“Israel sent in bulldozers to renew the building.”
The claim is patently
false, of course, for “Israel” did no such thing. Groups of people, most of them
living in the settlements, did begin building again, as the law permitted them
to. So why did CNN portray the story that way? Most reasonable people understand
that any eventual peace settlement will involve the creation of a Palestinian
state on some significant portion of the West Bank. Some Israelis are in favor,
some are desperately opposed and others are pained by the prospective loss of
that land but have resigned themselves to the fact that there will be no
So why are the Palestinians (in whose footsteps CNN is
following) so focused on settlement building? After all, in the disengagement
from Gaza, citizens were moved, homes and synagogues were bulldozed, entire
towns and small cities were leveled. Regardless of what any of us thinks of what
happened in the summer of 2005, the disengagement did at least prove that when
Israeli governments decide to cede land, the presence of towns or citizens on
that land is not an insurmountable impediment.
Why, therefore, does
Mahmoud Abbas not simply say to himself, “I’ll make a deal, I’ll get a state and
that land will be ours eventually, anyway.
So let the Israelis waste
their time and money on roads and buildings in the West Bank. They’ll bulldoze
them, or I’ll inherit them. Either way, I win.”
ABBAS’S WEAKNESS and his
desire to avoid real compromise are only part of the picture. More important is
the fact that he understands, infinitely better than do many Jews, that the
fundamental impetus at the core of Israeli society is building. More than a
country, the Jewish state is a project – of nation-building, of ingathering, of
Jewish revitalization. Absent those, this enterprise has no point.
is the state of the “watchtower and stockade,” those desperate attempts to build
small outposts that were the beginnings of Jewish resettlement of the Land of
Israel. This is the country of the defiant immigrants who braved their way past
British soldiers patrolling the shores, seeking refuge when no other country
would provide it.
Operation Flying Carpet, which saved the Jews of Yemen,
and Operation Solomon, which whisked the Jews of Ethiopia out of a war zone and
back to their homeland, were all part of this.
These historical moments
sound like romantic evocations of the past, but they are not.
They are a
reminder of what this country still is at its core. As I was in synagogue on
Simhat Torah last week and listened as the verses of Ata Horeita Lada’at
assigned and sung aloud, I was reminded of this once again. The last five or six
verses, each sung by a different person, were a perfect collage of who we are.
There was an elderly sabra. The next person sang with a distinctly French
accent, another was American, one was clearly Russian and one was from somewhere
in North Africa.
I turned to my son, who was also listening to all this,
and said to him, “Did you hear all those different accents? It’s the perfect
reminder that at the end of the day, the ingathering of the exiles, is what this
place is all about.”
In our national narrative, building towns and
rebuilding a people are virtually synonymous.
Israelis are divided as to
the wisdom of building in the settlements, of course. But those who “get it”
understand that specific policies at this moment aside, building and rebuilding
are the very oxygen of this society. End the ethos of rebuilding, and you have
rendered this country devoid of its fundamental purpose.
Jews, the Palestinians understand this perfectly. That is why Abbas has said,
even recently and in no uncertain terms, that he will never recognize Israel as
a Jewish state.
The fact that the Palestinian Charter declares that
Palestine will be a Muslim state doesn’t bother him. For Abbas is motivated not
by shame, but by strategy.
Deny Israel the right to call itself a Jewish
state, and there’s no justification for the Law of Return.
Jewishness of this country, and there’s no morally justifiable basis for not
admitting tens of thousands – or many more – Palestinian refugees from Lebanon,
ultimately making Jews a minority here. Make Israel a Hebrew-speaking but
ethnically neutral country, and you have eviscerated it. There would be no point
to the state, no power to its narratives, no passion left to sustain those of us
committed to (re)building it.
ABBAS’S INSISTENCE on the freeze, even in
places like Gush Etzion, Ariel and other blocs which are clearly not going to be
returned, is not about roads or houses, but is but the first shot across the
bow. The freeze is a metaphor for the legitimacy of the idea of this as the home
of the Jews. The issue, he knows, is not borders, or even security. Most of us
know approximately how those will eventually be settled.
The real issue
is whether the world will acknowledge, almost a century after the Balfour
Declaration, that the Jews, like other peoples, have a right to a homeland.
Sadly, on that issue, there is much less international consensus than there used
to be. We are in much worse shape than we were a decade or two ago. And given
the direction in which matters are moving, time is not on our
Abbas, the Palestinians and even CNN get all of this. The question
that matters, however, is whether we do – and what we will do to ensure that
Jews, and others across the world who might sympathize with us, come to
understand what is truly at stake.The writer is senior vice president of
the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, and the author of
Saving Israel: How the Jewish
People Can Win a War that May Never End (Wiley), which won a 2009 National
Jewish Book Award. He blogs at http://danielgordis.org.