In the Arena


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The illustrious patriots over at the Commentary blog have, predictably, taken me to task for defending Peter Beinart’s fine book about the crisis in Israel. They have done so in a predictably specious way. So I’d like to make my position, and theirs, perfectly clear: the argument against West Bank settlements is not merely a demographic one–that non-voting Arabs will overwhelm Israel’s democracy over time. Indeed, that’s not as important as several other arguments:

1. The settlements are illegal. They are a unilateral incursion on Palestinian lands. Yes, world opinion isn’t exactly a fair yardstick when gauging Israel’s actions–the world was opposed to Israel’s justified military reaction to the rockets hammering the homeland from Gaza in 2008–but that doesn’t mean the world is always wrong. In this case, Israel’s sad embrace of illegality is an international embarrassment, and makes a mockery of the Jewish traditions of reasoned justice and fairness. It drives away countries that might otherwise  side with Israel against Islamic extremism.

2. The settlements are immoral. Drive from Ramallah north to Nablus on the West Bank through the gorgeous Judean hills–there are Israeli settlements on practically every hilltop. These represent a daily reminder of Israeli pilferage, a thumb in the eye–and in the case of Ariel, a massive settlement deep in Palestinian territory, a fist in the eye–of every Palestinian. For most Palestinians, they are the moral equivalent of a permanent terrorist attack, a violent appropriation of the land. The sordid treatment of Palestinians by Israelis–randomly by settlers, and officially at checkpoints (which, to be sure, are far less plentiful now)–are a constant, brutal provocation. These settlements represent a deep moral insensitivity on the part of Israel to the basic rights of those who live on these lands.

3. The settlements have brutalized Israel. Beinart–who is more religious than I am, and has stronger family ties to Israel–laments this brutalization in quite moving fashion in the book. I disagree with some of the more extreme aspects of Peter’s position. I’m opposed to any boycott of Israeli products, even those produced by the settlers. But the idea that Israel can have a long-term future without making peace with its neighbors is a fantasy. Netanyahu’s ill-concealed belief that he can get away with Palestinian Bantustans will work no better on the West Bank than it did in South Africa.

I hold no brief for the Palestinians. They have been extraordinarily stupid, and corrupt, and infuriating in their attempts to deal with this situation over the past 40 years (corrupt, at least, until Salam Fayyad’s excellent governance reformed the West Bank). But that does not make Israel faultless in this vexing matter, especially during those years when the Likud party was in charge. The neoconservatives who would defend Israel’s virginity are making fools of themselves. There is no plausible argument, other than Israeli imperialism, in favor of these settlements.