Israel’s recent decision to appropriate 1000 acres of land in Gush Etzion in the West Bank for settlement expansion has set off a storm of protest. The decision has reignited yet again the 45-year debate on whether such expansion is morally proper, Jewishly right, and politically wise. But after 45 years we know the answer: It is none of these things and does nothing to advance the security interests of the Jewish State. Following are some of the reasons why:
1. Not a single friend or ally in the West – or in the world – came forward to support Israel’s decision. Yet again, the State of Israel stands utterly alone on its settlement policy. America, its key strategic partner, was furious, and the European Union, its major trading partner, was livid. In the long term, and probably in the short term, there is always a price to be paid for disregarding the wishes of those upon whom you depend for your economic and security needs—and your very existence.
2. In America, conservative and rightwing political leaders did not voice support for the settlement decision. Some Israelis harbor the illusion that it is only the Obama administration that is hostile to settlement but that a Republican administration would take a different view. As we saw from the silence of Republican leaders, and as we know from the statements of the last three Republican presidents, it would not.
3. Despite a hostile press and often angry public opinion, Israel’s government and Prime Minister did a good job of maintaining Western support for Israel’s recent war against Hamas. In the Arab world as well, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and some of the Gulf states offered quiet support to the Israeli campaign against Hamas. This good will would have been a valuable asset in the upcoming political struggles that will take place in the UN and elsewhere over Gaza’s fate. Much of that good will and sympathy for Israel have now been squandered by Israel’s actions in Gush Etzion.
4. Israel has pressing security needs that should be given priority at this time and that will suffer as a result of settlement building. The growing strength of HIzbullah on Israel’s northern border is a far greater military threat than the one posed by Hamas. (See the detailed analysis in Yediot Ahronot by Yossi Yehoshua on September 5.) And, of course, the threat that Iran will acquire nuclear weapons poses an immediate danger to Israel’s well-being. These dangers – profound, existential, and long-term—cannot be confronted by Israel alone but require broad coalitions of supportive allies. But as a result of her fixation on settlements, Israel’s ability to assemble such coalitions is significantly diminished.
5. Apologists for the government’s actions continue to make the absurd claim that settlement building need not be a problem because settlements can always be evacuated. In its statement, the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs noted that Israel has withdrawn settlements from Sinai and Gaza, thereby suggesting that it could evacuate settlements in Gush Etzion as well. This is theoretically true but impossible on practical grounds. To implement a two-state solution along the lines of what Israel has previously discussed with American governments would require a withdrawal ten times larger than all of the withdrawals carried out in the past, each of which was profoundly traumatic for the people of Israel. Furthermore, the previous withdrawals did not involve pulling out of “ideological settlements”—that is, settlements in the West Bank that, in the eyes of some, cannot be removed without violating Jewish law. (Those who believe this misread Jewish tradition.) In light of all of these factors, and given the exceedingly high political cost of what Israel is currently doing, not to mention the economic cost, does it really make sense to build settlements now with the explanation that, well, Israel can always pull them down at a later time?
6. Israel’s own leaders cannot offer a coherent explanation for why a major settlement initiative has been launched at this time. Among members of the security cabinet, some support the decision and some oppose it; the Prime Minister has been mostly silent. Surely risks of this magnitude to the State of Israel and the Jewish people should not be taken absent a compelling rationale.
The State of Israel is the most precious possession of the Jewish people. During the recent war, Jews everywhere rallied to Israel’s side. And while the war was won, quiet times do not lie ahead. Israel faces instability and extremism on all sides. We are reminded, at this moment in our history, that the State of Israel and the Jewish people need strong leadership, clear direction, and a substantial measure of unity.
The way to get these things is to focus on the real dangers that we face as Jews and to set aside the mad obsession with settlement building that turns the world against us, alienates the friends that we do have, divides Jew from Jew, and distracts us from the major tasks of building a secure homeland for the Jewish people. Settlement expansion needs to stop.