American Jewry and the settlements

It is not feasible for the US Jewish leadership to continue to ignore settlement expansion in territory that inevitably will become part of a future Palestinian state.

The isolated Jewish settlement of Har Bracha, near Nablus in the West bank (photo credit: REUTERS)
The isolated Jewish settlement of Har Bracha, near Nablus in the West bank
(photo credit: REUTERS)
FOR WELL over a decade, the vast majority of the organized American Jewish community has backed a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
All along, we’ve managed to evade the elephant in the room: How can we square our support for a two-state solution with our conspicuous silence on the Israeli policy of expanding settlements in the West Bank? More to the point, should the organized community finally weigh in on the settlement issue? Whenever the Israeli government announces a new plan to build homes across the pre-1967 border, it’s only a matter of time before I hear from a member of the local J Street chapter, a Presbyterian pastor or some other voice on the left expressing sheer bewilderment at the Jewish establishment’s refusal to criticize Israel. “How can you justify keeping silent?” is the typical refrain.
Actually, it’s not that difficult to justify, given the complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. When given the opportunity to engage the “blame-it-on-the-occupation” crowd, I always respond with the same three fundamental arguments.
First, I point out that contrary to their claim that the root cause of the conflict is the settlements, the conflict, in fact, precedes the settlement enterprise. Not a single Jewish settlement existed between 1949 and 1967, during which period the West Bank was occupied by Jordan, and the Palestinians and their Arab neighbors were sworn to Israel’s destruction. Sadly, to this day, Palestinian rejection of Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state (not to mention their absurd denial of the historical Jewish connection to the land) remains the primary – albeit not the only – obstacle to peace.
Then, of course, there’s the Gaza precedent. In 2005, Israel unilaterally evacuated 21 settlements and forcibly evicted the 8,500 Jewish residents of the Strip. Far from advancing the case for “land for peace,” the Gaza disengagement led to the creation of a Hamas-run terrorist mini-state from which over 12,000 rockets and mortars have been fired at Israel’s civilian population. Should Israel risk another withdrawal that could result in the West Bank becoming a launch pad for attacks against Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Ben-Gurion Airport? And yet, despite this danger, two prime ministers – Ehud Barak in 2000 and Ehud Olmert in 2008 – agreed to give up almost the entirety of the West Bank, along with the Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem. Although each of the proposed peace plans demonstrated an Israeli willingness to dismantle many of the settlements, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat rejected Barak’s offer and his successor Mahmoud Abbas turned down Olmert.
Thus, a cogent argument can be made in defense of the American Jewish establishment’s reluctance to intervene on the settlement issue. Moreover, one can support the notion of two states for two peoples while recognizing that under the present circumstances, a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank not only wouldn’t end the conflict, it would seriously undermine Israel’s security.
There is, however, one glaring aspect of Israel’s settlement policy that can’t be explained away. Even with no peace process on the horizon, it makes absolutely no sense for Israel to expand its foothold in areas that are extremely unlikely to be retained under any permanent accord with the Palestinians. Nor is it feasible for the Jewish leadership in the US to continue, in effect, to ignore settlement expansion in territory that inevitably will become part of a future Palestinian state.
I understand fully the argument that since American Jews don’t live in Israel or serve in the Israel Defense Forces, we shouldn’t presume to know what’s in Israel’s best interests. Agreed – we don’t. But we do know what’s in the best interests of the American Jewish community, and this, after all, becomes a question of integrity.
If our (let alone Israel’s) support for a two-state solution is to carry any credibility, especially with those on the left who are critical of Israeli settlement policy but opposed to the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, then we need to reconsider our current neutral stance. A reasonable yet nuanced position would be one that conveys our disagreement with settlement expansion outside the “consensus” settlement blocs that make up the roughly five percent of West Bank land expected to remain permanently under Israeli sovereignty.
To be sure, it’s for the Israeli people to decide the fate of the settlements. But it’s up to us in the organized American Jewish community to ensure that our support for a two-state solution doesn’t ring hollow.
Robert Horenstein is Community Relations Director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland, Oregon