In the Arena

What About the Settlements?

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I’ve been reading Peter Beinart’s excellent, loving and wise book about Israel, The Crisis of Zionism, and I’d normally wait until I finish to write about it, but I’ve become so distressed by the thuggish, half-crazed response that the book has received from neocon fringe elements, like this Commentary writer, that I felt I had to pitch in and defend Beinart’s eminently reasonable and profoundly pro-Israel work before the book is irrevocably stained by the lies being promulgated against it. (Indeed, I suspect that it’s Beinart’s sanity and obvious love of Israel that is driving the neocon nutters up the wall).

Beinart’s argument is simple:

Israel’s democracy is threatened by its continuing occupation of Palestinian lands. The millions of Palestinians living on the West Bank and Gaza can’t vote, and will never be able to, lest the Jewishness of the Jewish state be obliterated. A two-state solution is therefore necessary. And a two-state solution won’t be possible until (a) the expansion of Jewish settlements is stopped, (b) many of the settlers are relocated within the 1967 borders of Israel and (c) there are mutually agreed upon land swaps that change those borders to include a majority of the others. (As I’ve written before, the Washington Institute’s David Makovsky has come up with plausible land swaps that would allow the vast majority of settlements to become part of Israel in return for contiguous unoccupied lands along the green line ceded to the Palestinians.)

So what’s wrong with that? Beinart’s is, essentially, the same position as every American President since Nixon. It was, furthermore, the position of the three Israeli Prime Ministers who preceded Benyamin Netanyahu. And finally, it is the position of the overwhelming majority of former leaders of the Mossad, Shin Bet and Israel Defense Forces. Given that near-unanimity, you’d think right-wing American Jewry would tread softly here. But no, as with most bullies who have no reasonable case, they stomp about decrying Beinart and the more moderate Jewish lobbying group, J Street, and, well, people like me.

Beinart’s case isn’t perfect, from my point of view. He favors a boycott of products emanating from the Israeli settlements. I don’t, on the grounds that it would give aid and comfort to those who favor more general anti-Israel boycotts, which I vehemently oppose. But it is, yet again, amazing how the neocons refuse to engage on the merits of Beinart’s arguments which, as Andrew Sullivan has memorably written, comes down to one question: What about the settlements?

On the rare occasions that the neocons deign to engage this issue intellectually–and you realize how downright weird that Jews would refuse to engage any issue intellectually–they offer two arguments, one with some reason and the other with none at all. The reasonable argument is that the Palestinians are dead set against a Jewish state and have refused every offer that Israeli prime ministers have made for a two-state solution. This is sort of true: Yasser Arafat was a recalcitrant, and Mahmoud Abbas has been unwilling to negotiate given the divided nature of the Palestinian populace (indeed, when Hamas finally agreed to rejoin the government, Abbas had absolutely no choice but to acquiesce, given Palestinian public opinion–although most polls also show a strong majority of Palestinians favor a two-state solution). Then again, as Beinart points out, the Israeli offers haven’t been exactly reasonable, either. Inherent in this is the sub-argument that a Palestinian state on the West Bank would diminish Israel’s security. That’s sort of true, too–but less true than it used to be when Jordan wasn’t at peace with Israel, Iraq was ruled by Saddam Hussein and Syria wasn’t in chaos.

But the real intellectual disconnect that renders the argument irrelevant is this: Why should Palestinian recalcitrance lead to further settlement-building in Palestinian areas? What is the rationale for Jewish settlements on Arab lands?

That leads to the second argument, less often voiced than the first because it is so loathsome: the West Bank lands–Judea and Samaria–used to be Jewish (a couple of thousand years ago) and are part of greater Israel. Why shouldn’t Jews settle them now? They were won on the battlefield, right? Because the United Nations, in its disposition of the British mandate, divided the former province of Palestine into Jewish and Arab cantonments. To the extent that Israel has a right to exist–a right I vehemently support but much of the world, including a virulent strain of the international left, doesn’t–that right has to be twinned with Palestine’s right to exist. The only plausible chance for peace–the only plausible chance for an Israel that is Jewish and democratic–is a two-state settlement that includes a viable Palestine, as opposed to the current Swiss-cheese of settlements and boundary walls unilaterally imposed by Israel.

I suppose that it is an indication of the current desperation of many neocons (and also, perhaps, a subconscious macho attempt to redress the grievances suffered on the schoolyards of New York, Boston, Philly and LA) that any effort to disagree with the Netanyahu government is branded as anti-Israel and, more than occasionally, anti-semitic. The sheer fury directed at Beinart is barbaric, a Jewish McCarthyism, a rejection of Judaism’s most profound traditions.

I suppose that because of the uninflected support for Israel given by America’s Rapture-credulous evangelical Christians, the neocons believe they have a political majority and that there will be no consequences to their intemperance and bullying. But there are always consequences to such behavior. In this case, the consequences won’t happen here. They will happen in a no-longer-democratic Israel, brutalized and corrupted by occupation. As Beinart eloquently writes, that is the inevitable fate of a Jewish state that refuses to face demographic realities and live up to its liberal heritage.