Fictions on the Ground
I am old enough to remember when Israeli kibbutzim looked like settlements (“a small village or collection of houses” or “the act of peopling or colonizing a new country,” Oxford English Dictionary).
In the early 1960s, I spent time on Kibbutz Hakuk, a small community founded by the Palmah unit of the Haganah, the pre-state Jewish militia. Begun in 1945, Hakuk was just 18 years old when I first saw it, and was still raw at the edges. The few dozen families living there had built themselves a dining hall, farm sheds, homes and a “baby house” where the children were cared for during the workday. But where the residential buildings ended there were nothing but rock-covered hillsides and half-cleared fields.
The community’s members still dressed in blue work shirts, khaki shorts and triangular hats, consciously cultivating a pioneering image and ethos already at odds with the hectic urban atmosphere of Tel Aviv. Ours, they seemed to say to bright-eyed visitors and volunteers, is the real Israel; come and help us clear the boulders and grow bananas — and tell your friends in Europe and America to do likewise.
Hakuk is still there. But today it relies on a plastics factory and the tourists who flock to the nearby Sea of Galilee. The original farm, built around a fort, has been turned into a tourist attraction. To speak of this kibbutz as a settlement would be bizarre.
However, Israel needs “settlements.” They are intrinsic to the image it has long sought to convey to overseas admirers and fund-raisers: a struggling little country securing its rightful place in a hostile environment by the hard moral work of land clearance, irrigation, agrarian self-sufficiency, industrious productivity, legitimate self-defense and the building of Jewish communities. But this neo-collectivist frontier narrative rings false in modern, high-tech Israel. And so the settler myth has been transposed somewhere else — to the Palestinian lands seized in war in 1967 and occupied illegally ever since.
It is thus not by chance that the international press is encouraged to speak and write of Jewish “settlers” and “settlements” in the West Bank. But this image is profoundly misleading. The largest of these controversial communities in geographic terms is Maale Adumim. It has a population in excess of 35,000, demographically comparable to Montclair, N.J., or Winchester, England. What is most striking, however, about Maale Adumim is its territorial extent. This “settlement” comprises more than 30 square miles — making it one and a half times the size of Manhattan and nearly half as big as the borough and city of Manchester, England. Some “settlement.”
There are about 120 official Israeli settlements in the occupied territories of the West Bank. In addition, there are “unofficial” settlements whose number is estimated variously from 80 to 100. Under international law, there is no difference between these two categories; both are contraventions of Article 47 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which explicitly prohibits the annexation of land consequent to the use of force, a principle re-stated in Article 2(4) of the United Nations Charter.
Thus the distinction so often made in Israeli pronouncements between “authorized” and “unauthorized” settlements is specious — all are illegal, whether or not they have been officially approved and whether or not their expansion has been “frozen” or continues apace. (It is a matter of note that Israel’s new foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, belongs to the West Bank settlement of Nokdim, established in 1982 and illegally expanded since.)
The blatant cynicism of the present Israeli government should not blind us to the responsibility of its more respectable-looking predecessors. The settler population has grown consistently at a rate of 5 percent annually over the past two decades, three times the rate of increase of the Israeli population as a whole. Together with the Jewish population of East Jerusalem (itself illegally annexed to Israel), the settlers today number more than half a million people: just over 10 percent of the Jewish population of so-called Greater Israel. This is one reason why settlers count for so much in Israeli elections, where proportional representation gives undue political leverage to even the smallest constituency.
But the settlers are no mere marginal interest group. To appreciate their significance, spread as they are over a dispersed archipelago of urban installations protected from Arab intrusion by 600 checkpoints and barriers, consider the following: taken together, East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Golan Heights constitute a homogenous demographic bloc nearly the size of the District of Columbia. It exceeds the population of Tel Aviv itself by almost one third. Some “settlement.”
If Israel is drunk on settlements, the United States has long been its enabler. Were Israel not the leading beneficiary of American foreign aid — averaging $2.8 billion a year from 2003 to 2007, and scheduled to reach $3.1 billion by 2013 — houses in West Bank settlements would not be so cheap: often less than half the price of equivalent homes in Israel proper.
Many of the people who move to these houses don’t even think of themselves as settlers. Newly arrived from Russia and elsewhere, they simply take up the offer of subsidized accommodation, move into the occupied areas and become — like peasants in southern Italy freshly supplied with roads and electricity — the grateful clients of their political patrons. Like American settlers heading west, Israeli colonists in the West Bank are the beneficiaries of their very own Homestead Act, and they will be equally difficult to uproot.
Despite all the diplomatic talk of disbanding the settlements as a condition for peace, no one seriously believes that these communities — with their half a million residents, their urban installations, their privileged access to fertile land and water — will ever be removed. The Israeli authorities, whether left, right or center, have no intention of removing them, and neither Palestinians nor informed Americans harbor illusions on this score.
To be sure, it suits almost everyone to pretend otherwise — to point to the 2003 “road map” and speak of a final accord based on the 1967 frontiers. But such feigned obliviousness is the small change of political hypocrisy, the lubricant of diplomatic exchange that facilitates communication and compromise.
There are occasions, however, when political hypocrisy is its own nemesis, and this is one of them. Because the settlements will never go, and yet almost everyone likes to pretend otherwise, we have resolutely ignored the implications of what Israelis have long been proud to call “the facts on the ground.”
Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, knows this better than most. On June 14 he gave a much-anticipated speech in which he artfully blew smoke in the eyes of his American interlocutors. While offering to acknowledge the hypothetical existence of an eventual Palestinian state — on the explicit understanding that it exercise no control over its airspace and have no means of defending itself against aggression — he reiterated the only Israeli position that really matters: we won’t build illegal settlements but we reserve the right to expand “legal” ones according to their natural rate of growth. (It is not by chance that he chose to deliver this speech at Bar-Ilan University, the heartland of rabbinical intransigence where Yigal Amir learned to hate Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin before heading off to assassinate him in 1995.)
THE reassurances Mr. Netanyahu offered the settlers and their political constituency were as well received as ever, despite being couched in honeyed clichés directed at nervous American listeners. And the American news media, predictably, took the bait — uniformly emphasizing Mr. Netanyahu’s “support” for a Palestinian state and playing down everything else.
However, the real question now is whether President Obama will respond in a similar vein. He surely wants to. Nothing could better please the American president and his advisors than to be able to assert that, in the wake of his Cairo speech, even Mr. Netanyahu had shifted ground and was open to compromise. Thus Washington avoids a confrontation, for now, with its closest ally. But the uncomfortable reality is that the prime minister restated the unvarnished truth: His government has no intention of recognizing international law or opinion with respect to Israel’s land-grab in “Judea and Samaria.”
Thus President Obama faces a choice. He can play along with the Israelis, pretending to believe their promises of good intentions and the significance of the distinctions they offer him. Such a pretense would buy him time and favor with Congress. But the Israelis would be playing him for a fool, and he would be seen as one in the Mideast and beyond.
Alternatively, the president could break with two decades of American compliance, acknowledge publicly that the emperor is indeed naked, dismiss Mr. Netanyahu for the cynic he is and remind Israelis that all their settlements are hostage to American goodwill. He could also remind Israelis that the illegal communities have nothing to do with Israel’s defense, much less its founding ideals of agrarian self-sufficiency and Jewish autonomy. They are nothing but a colonial takeover that the United States has no business subsidizing.
But if I am right, and there is no realistic prospect of removing Israel’s settlements, then for the American government to agree that the mere nonexpansion of “authorized” settlements is a genuine step toward peace would be the worst possible outcome of the present diplomatic dance. No one else in the world believes this fairy tale; why should we? Israel’s political elite would breathe an unmerited sigh of relief, having once again pulled the wool over the eyes of its paymaster. The United States would be humiliated in the eyes of its friends, not to speak of its foes. If America cannot stand up for its own interests in the region, at least let it not be played yet again for a patsy.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: June 22, 2009
An earlier version of this op-ed incorrectly stated that Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in 2005. He was assassinated in 1995.