Settlements, BDS, and the White House incumbent
Hebrew University Political Science professor Ira Sharkansky evaluates the latest happenings in Israel.
Sunday Aug 25, 2013
An internet friend writes that settlements are at the heart of Israel’s sins, and its problems with world public opinion.
My friend has been careful to distinguish the different places labeled settlements, but he also falls into the practice of lumping them all into one problem. In this, he accepts their damning by the Obama White House, which magnifies Israel’s problems by justifying the vocabulary of its enemies.
Calling everything over the 1949 armistice lines “settlements” confuses both history and morality. It puts more than half a million people in one category as threats to world peace, while in fact the vast majority of those people (I should say “us” because I am one of them) are living in places which should pass any decent conception of morality.
About half of the half million Jews who are labeled “settlers” by hostile others live in neighborhoods of Jerusalem, within the borders created immediately after the 1967 war in order to protect Israel’s capital from the aggression endured from the so-called cease fire of 1948 and into the 6-day war when Arab snipers fired routinely at Jewish civilians. The municipal expansion and much of the construction in those new neighborhoods also occurred in the context of the Khartoum Resolution, in which Arab governments and Palestinians trumpeted their policy of “no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with it.”
Khartoum remained the policy until it began to break down with the Camp David accords of 1978, which earned Egypt condemnations from a number of other Arab countries. The end of Khartoum could be marked by the Israel-Palestinian Oslo accords of 1993. By then, however, numerous settlements were well underway in Gaza and the West Bank outside the 1967 boundaries of Jerusalem.
Oslo did not bring the peace that many hoped. No less momentous an event was the Palestinian rejection of further accords that Prime Minister Ehud Barak alongside President Bill Clinton offered in 2000, and the onset of the intafada which cost the lives of 1100 Israelis, the vast majority of whom were civilians.
Another landmark was the 2005 withdrawal of all Jewish settlements from Gaza, followed by several rounds of rocket fire, by now numbering in the thousands of individual missiles that were aimed at Israeli civilians.
In response to the violence of the intifada, Israel began construction of the security barrier, most of which is close to the 1949 armistice lines in the West Bank, but which reaches out to include sizable communities built after 1967. Some 90 percent of what the White House calls “settlers” live on the Israeli side of the security barrier.
There is also an issue, outside of the Palestinian narrative seemingly accepted by many including the Obama White House, that the most appropriate designation of the West Bank is not “occupied land” but “disputed land.”
The post-1967 Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem range from Ramat Eshkol, built soon after 1967 and now a short bus ride from the city center, to Har Homa and Ramat Shlomo. Both Har Homa and Ramat Shlomo are within the post-1967 municipal boundaries, but are among the newest of the Jewish neighborhoods. New constructions approved in both have caused diplomatic tussles with the Obama White House. French Hill, Gilo, Ramot, East Talpiot, Neve Yaacov, and Pisgat Ze’ev also appear on the list of what offends the President, despite having gotten underway in the late 1960s or early 1970s, and being home to most of the quarter million Jews living in Jerusalem homes deemed unacceptable.
All but some 50,000 Jews considered to be settlers are living either within Jerusalem or within the security barrier that was begun in response to the intifada that raged from 2000 to about 2005. What are called the major settlement blocs of Maale Adumim, Ariel, Givat Zeev, Beitar Ilit, Modiin Ilit, and Gush Eztion (the latter settled by Jews prior to the 1948 war but abandoned as a result of the fighting) are widely thought to be permanently Israeli, or at least on Israel’s list of what would not be conceded under any imaginable pressure.
On account of Arab aggression prior to 1967 that justified the expansion of Jerusalem, the Khartoum Resolution and the intifadas that justified the creation of the security barrier, all of the above neighborhoods and towns pass the moral tests of being constructed as a result of Arab aggression.
Beit El is one of the smaller settlements that are more problematic. It is east of the security barrier, and east even of the Palestinian administrative capital of Ramallah. It is a community of about 6,000 religious Jews (Orthodox) whose construction began in the late 1970s. Along with several similar places, it enjoys political support from the sizable community of Orthodox Jews now concentrated in the political party Jewish Home (the successor of the National Religious Party), currently with 12 seats in the Knesset and several ministers in the government.
Most problematic are a few thousand mostly young, intensely religious and occasionally fanatic and violent Jews living in trailers close to large Arab settlements. Defending them against the chronic prospect of attacks by Arabs is a drain on Israeli security forces. and defending nearby Arabs from attacks on their persons and property by the Jews is no less of a drain on those same Israeli security forces.
If any communities are outside the pale of good sense and morality, it is these. A number of them have been declared illegal by Israeli courts and subject to forcible removals. Some of these have been reestablished with a new cluster of trailers and re-entry on the agenda of Israeli courts having to hand down additional orders for their removal.
It is not easy to evaluate the Obama presidency, either from domestic or international perspectives.
My own primary concern is on the international side, insofar as I am resident in one of the distant places that feels the impact of the White House conception of America’s overseas interests. My life may be more secure, but it is also troubled by how the United States expresses its interests.
I am also well aware that the vast majority of Americans vote on domestic issues. I’ll leave to them the ultimate evaluation of such accomplishments as the Obama health bill, all 2200 or so pages, whose implementation to date appears to predict a future unlikely to be smooth.
The negatives of Obama’s foreign policies have been recited many times. Prominent is the naivete of signing on to the GW Bush aspiration to democratize the Muslim Middle East. On the positive side are his draw downs of US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan (despite having initially increased those sent to Afghanistan), and his reluctance to get into the Syrian civil war, still an open issue at this writing.
More clearly negative are the President’s contributions to the demonization of Israel by his frequent comments about “settlements.” Time and again he has said that settlements are not constructive with respect to peace, and thereby contributes to the symbol that is most prominent in the anti-Israel campaigns on campuses and elsewhere, throughout North America and Western Europe, including the Palestinian-led BDS movement (boycott, disinvest, sanction).
In doing this, Barack Obama contributes to the stereotyping that he justifiably condemns in other fields. If there is anything that deserves the label of nonconstructive to the peace process, it is the generalized White House campaign against settlements, without bothering to make the distinction of George W. Bush about changes made since 1967 that will have to be accepted for the sake of peace.
At the least, Obama’s stereotyping reinforces the stubborness of the Palestinians, and increases the likelihood that their leaders will turn down, once again, the maximum that Israeli leaders are willing to offer. At the worse, Obama is contributing to the delegitimacy of Israel among American and European leftists that may leave the country in a corner where it faces the option of striking out with its armed force against continued Muslim aggression, even at the cost of wider conflicts that may cause problems for Americans as well as Europeans.
If stereotyping is improper in dealing with issues of race, then it is also improper in dealing with what the President calls Israeli settlements. It is offensive and dangerous to lump Ramat Eshkol, French Hill, Ramat Shlomo and numerous other places built in direct response to Arab aggression. Beit El and other distant settlements are fairer as targets for discussion.
Occasionally violent outposts deserve condemnation as impediments to peace, but they are considered as such by Israeli courts, and acted against by Israeli police.
Decent Americans did not vote against the Democratic nominee for President in 2008 and 2012 on account of lawless activities in African-American neighborhoods of inner cities. In the same spirit, the White House incumbent should not speak out as he does against “Israeli settlements.”