The Settlement Enterprise Is a Disaster for Israel

by Maskil on July 23, 2009

There, I’ve said it.

Until now, I’ve avoided any in-depth discussion regarding “The Settlements” in Judea and Samaria (the “West Bank”; the widest river bank in the world!), because it’s taken me until recently to firm up my position regarding the whole Settlement Enterprise.  This recent Israel National News (Arutz Sheva) article (Jews to Reclaim Land in Jordan?) kind of tipped me over the edge, although strictly speaking it’s entirely unrelated.

So let me start with my conclusion.  The settlements are a bad idea; bad morally, bad for Israel and the Jewish people. Just plain bad.  (Not so good for the other inhabitants of the West Bank either.)

I’m saying this as someone who has always believed that the Jewish people has an unquestionable claim to Palestine (west of the Jordan).  That the Mandate and related documents give us the right to settle anywhere in that territory.  And finally, that winning those same territories in a defensive war entitled Israel to annex or hold any part or all of them.

Why do I think the settlements are bad for Israel then?  I want to focus on just two or three aspects; covering the entire argument would require a much longer piece (or a book).

Israel’s Case Based on Justice

Before anyone began to (or needed to) talk about our right to a national home in Palestine, there was a sentiment that emerged from time to time to the effect that allowing the Jews to “have” Palestine would reverse an historic 2,000 year-old injustice;  the almost total destruction of Jewish life in Palestine by the Romans.

I believe that this sentiment, this thread, this idea of righting an historic injustice is what carried the Zionist idea through to the rise of Hitler.  Nations, classes, leaders, prominent individuals – certainly not all, or always – supported Zionism because justice was on its side.  This sense of fair play was replaced by other (mostly) less noble emotions after the destruction of European Jewry during the Holocaust.

Justice was what allowed a significant part of at least the Western World to support Zionism and Israel.  It was also what allowed the majority of Jews worldwide to similarly support an idea not all were comfortable with;  the negation of the Diaspora.  This belief in the justice of Israel’s cause lasted until after the Six Day War (after which it became almost unnecessary), and has been eroding steadily since then.

Whether this erosion is justified or not is debatable; the erosion itself is not.  And a large part of that erosion is attributable to the settlement enterprise, and the manner in which it has been conducted.

Due almost entirely to the settlements, Israel’s cause is increasingly being seen as one of greed rather than need.

The perception that justice is no longer on Israel’s side has, of course, been exploited by Israel’s enemies, but all the Hasbara in the world can only correct the misperceptions, not the underlying realities.

Israel as a Child of International Law

Israel – perhaps more than any other nation-state in history – is a child of international agreement, diplomacy and law; a truly fascinating story of the then civilised world agreeing to the creation of an eventual Jewish commonwealth in an Ottoman backwater.  (The fact that this trust was systematically betrayed by the Mandatory Power, culminating in the doors of the Jewish National Home being barred to the doomed Jews of Europe is something that will live forever in infamy.)

History lesson aside.  Even though a child of international law, international law alone was not and is not sufficient.  Equal credit must go to the pioneers, and all the generations before us, who laid the foundations for what Israel is today.  Often with their bare hands, and often at great cost, a cost which sometimes included their lives.  At the end of the day, however, all that effort and sacrifice would have been in vain without what Herzl referred to as a “Charter”.  (As with so many other things, Herzl was right on this one.)

Israel has several of these charters, one the most significant of which is the 1947 United Nations General Assembly partition resolution (a non-binding resolution, as we often prefer to forget).  By accepting that resolution, we in effect gave up our charter to Judea and Samaria.  Until that charter is renewed, the settlement enterprise needs to be given notice and put on hold.

As a child of international law, Israel needs to be a model citizen of the international community, not a rogue state or an international pariah or outlaw state.  It can never be that while the settlers are allowed to define its standing in the world, or hold its defence and foreign policies hostage.  (One of the consequences of being a child of international law is that the haters have now begun referring to the historic mistake of Israel’s creation.  That hateful notion should not get in the way of Israel returning to law abiding status.)

The Country Is Shrinking

Greater Israel is effectively smaller than Little Israel before the Six Day War.  How so?

  • From 1967 until very recently, efforts to settle the rest of the country (particularly the Galilee and Negev) were abandoned in favour of settling YESHA (Judea and Samaria and Gaza).
  • With perhaps 500,000 Israeli Jews now living over the Green Line, Israel’s Jewish majority within Little Israel has been eroded to the same extent.
  • With the boundary between Israel and the territories having been effectively erased for more than 40 years, both legal (e.g. family reunification) and illegal Arab immigration into Israel has taken place steadily, further aggravating the demographic problem.  (We may have thought Israel was colonising Palestine, but in effect Palestine was colonising Israel.)
  • The growing threat of settler lawlessness and violence has been feeding and in turn been fed by similar trends in the Haredi and Israeli/Palestinian Arab sectors.  As successive governments shrink from the necessary confrontation, Israel’s sovereignty no longer extends to every inhabitant and dunam of Israel, even within the Green Line (still less within the cease-fire lines).

Instead of causing it to grow, the Settlement Enterprise has caused Israel to shrink.

The Land Of Israel:  A Slippery Concept

Underlying the historic and legal claim to a Greater Israel is the notion of Eretz Israel or the Land of Israel, AKA the Promised Land.

The problem with the theological concept of Eretz Israel is that it a very fluid, almost slippery notion.  It’s easy to define the core, less so the periphery.  It ends up being a matter of “Every place that the sole of your foot shall tread upon” being regarded as part of Eretz Israel, which can eventually lead to the just short of clinically insane notion of somehow recovering “Jewish lands” in Jordan (Trans-Jordan), an area where Jewish settlement ended before it could even begin (in the 1920s).

This theoretical, Talmudic notion of the Land of Israel has been allowed to intrude into the real world of international diplomacy, law and politics.  And borders.  (Recall the almost rational debates about whether Gaza is or isn’t part of Eretz Israel at the time of the 2005 withdrawal.)  In the hands of the settlement enterprise it puts Israel in the company of Islamist fundamentalists and China in Tibet.

The Dog and His Reflection

Its fragile control over Greater Israel has led Israel to become like the dog and his reflection in Aesop’s fable.  We are in danger of dropping the bone of Little Israel while snapping at the reflection in the water – Judea, Samaria and the settlement enterprise.

With regret then, the settlement enterprise is a disaster for Israel.

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