Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Israel's Settlements Are Not the Problem

An awesome essay at the July/August Foreign Affairs, by Elliott Abrams, "The Settlement Obsession: Both Israel and the United States Miss the Obstacles to Peace." It's a review essay, in fact. Abrams covers Occupation of the Territories: Israeli Soldiers' Testimonies 2000-2010, a collection of interviews from Breaking the Silence, available online. And also Gadi Taub's, The Settlers: And the Struggle over the Meaning of Zionism, at

I read Abrams' review in hard copy on the road out to Pechanga, and I'd envisioned writing some big analysis with lots of block quotes, etc. But I'm not in the mood now. Mostly, it's a piece of scholarship and it requires shifting back into a more neutral, analytical frame of mind while reading. It's tempting to look at any analysis of the Middle East through current events, such as the Gaza flotilla. But Abrams avoids that, which is impressive, since Occupation of the Territories is about Jew-bashing propaganda more than close empirical and historical analysis. Indeed, Abrams notes:
Some of the testimonies are deeply affecting, and there is no doubt that occupation duty brings out the worst in some soldiers: violence, bullying, vandalism, and theft. Official accounts of the U.S. occupation of Germany after World War II, for example, make clear that there is no such thing as an immaculate occupation. But in this book, Breaking the Silence appears less interested in the current impact of the settlements and the backdrop to the IDF's actions in the West Bank than in advancing particular ideological and political points. For one thing, why produce a volume in 2010 that has so many testimonies about Gaza, from which all Israeli forces withdrew in the summer of 2005? Why include so many interviews from 2000-2002, the years when the second intifada was at its height, rather than interviews from more recent years? In the section on the methods the IDF uses to prevent terrorism, for example, there are 67 interviews, but only five are from 2008 or later; similarly, a section on how the IDF carries out a "policy of control, dispossession, and annexation of territory" contains 44 interviews, of which just six are from 2007 or later.

A logical inference from this data would be that the IDF's conduct is improving, but Breaking the Silence does not discuss this possibility. Nor does it discuss what the IDF was attempting between 2000 and 2002, namely, trying to stop terrorist acts that were maiming and killing thousands of Israelis. There is just one sentence about terrorism in this entire volume, acknowledging that "it is true that the Israeli security apparatus has had to deal with concrete threats in the past decade, including terrorist attacks on Israeli citizens."
That sounds like blogging rather than research, but Abrams gives the work a fair shake.

As for The Settlers, Abrams' review of that book forms the bulk of the essay, and there's a key thesis that emerges: The future of Israel will play out over the issues of religion and secularism. The Jewish state as originally established was based on sovereign territory as a secure safe haven for any Jew anywhere in the world. Israel was to be a secular democracy with a Jewish majority. It wasn't until 1967, and the beginning of the occupation, whereby the most dramatic assertions of religious Zionism emerged. This might sound strange for those most informed by the blogosphere, but the Taub book sounds like a magisterial accomplishment. I learned a lot just from Abrams' overview. The entire work is no doubt a keeper. In any case, some of Abrams' conclusions indicate that religious Zionism --- which is only a small part of settler activity in the West Bank --- is unsustainable over the long term. Here's an interesting quote, which again, goes against what partisans normally argue:
The conflict between secular Zionism and the settler movement did not appear overnight following Israel's conquests in the 1967 war, for there was an argument that bridged the gap: security. The Israeli right viewed the settlements as critical for Israel's future. The old borders were not defensible, Israel could be attacked again from the east, and settlements on the ridges of Judea and Samaria were part of the state's new system of defense. So the religious settlers and Israeli hawks made common cause, and year after year, settlers by the tens of thousands moved to the West Bank.

For the religious settlers, this was an exciting period, filled with spiritual and also political and psychological satisfaction. Whereas the Orthodox had largely sat out the hard work of building Zionist institutions and founding the state, Taub says, "the act of settlement was a chance to reenact the days of pioneering glory, which religious Zionists felt they had half missed."

The alliance between the religious settlers and secular Israeli hawks held for some years, but before long, the underlying contradiction began to emerge. In 1974, Gush Emunim, or "Bloc of the Faithful," was founded as the main settler organization, and its manifesto spoke of its "obligation toward the Land of Israel." To the actually existing State of Israel, there was apparently no such obligation. Three years later, in 1977, leaders of the Israeli right were forced to confront this uncomfortable fact when Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat came to Jerusalem offering peace in exchange for the Sinai. Menachem Begin, founder of the Herut Party (a predecessor of the right-wing Likud coalition), handed the Sinai back to Egypt in 1982 and in the process evacuated 2,500 Israelis from Yamit, a settlement there. It was apparent, Taub explains, that "in Begin's view the realization of the right of Jews to settle anywhere in the Land of Israel was always subordinate to a higher value: political independence, the sovereignty of the state."

A far more significant moment came in 2005, when Sharon evacuated all Israeli settlers from Gaza and also removed four tiny settlements in the West Bank. The settlers, Taub recounts, found that their adoption of the security argument as a means of reaching out to secular Israelis had backfired badly. For in the end, Sharon and his fellow hawks had come to the conclusion that keeping all the territories was a huge mistake and a danger to the Jewish state itself. As Taub writes:
Even staunch secular hawks in Likud understood that extending Israel's sovereignty to the territories, as opposed to maintaining the temporary status of these regions, would spell an end to Zionism; it would force the state into a double-bind where it would have to choose between a non-Jewish democracy and a Jewish apartheid. . . . Likud under Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Ariel Sharon, despite repeated declarations that Judea, Samaria, and Gaza would remain forever a part of Israel, never considered such a possibility seriously, and so never moved to annex these territories.
For both the Israeli center and the Israeli right, the failure of the Camp David talks in 2000 and the ensuing intifada taught a lesson: a negotiated settlement was unlikely. Combined with the continuing Palestinian insistence on the right of return of millions of Palestinians to Israel, an outcome that would doom Israel as a Jewish state, the seeming impossibility of a negotiated deal led Sharon to favor unilateral withdrawal. That approach, Taub says, "gradually acquired legitimacy. . . . Leaving the territories no longer looked to many like a concession to the Palestinians. It began to look like an urgent Israeli interest." The alliance between the settlers and the hawks against the Israeli left, or "the peace camp," was now at an end; the right joined the left in believing that separation from the West Bank was desirable.
Anyway, I promised I wouldn't go overboard on this blog post. Read the whole thing. You'll need to, in order to understand Abrams' conclusion:
In the face of this cessation of Israeli-Palestinian cooperation and peace negotiations, the issue of settlement activity will rise again in importance in many capitals, especially in Washington. In an odd way, current U.S. officials have now adopted the mirror image of the religious settlers' obsession. The more extreme settlers believe that settling the land is more important than protecting the interests of the State of Israel. At the same time, according to current U.S. policy, getting them off that land -- indeed, stopping them from placing one more brick on it -- is worth badly damaging Washington's relationship with a longtime ally and putting Israel's security and reputation in jeopardy. The settlements, and the end of the settlements, are a great problem for Zionism, but they are not the obstacle to peace in the Middle East. The sooner the United States realizes that, the sounder and more constructive its Middle East policy will become.