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Settling The Settlements

There's a bit of a fracas today just below Michael Crowley's astute Plank, "Obama v. Netanyahu," about whether or not I had ever criticized the settlements.  Well, the truth is that I have, actually from early on when they were creations facilitated by peace icons like Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin.  Just to test me, take a look at my writings from Hebron during the summer of 2005.

Having said this, let me make clear that in the 42 years since the Six Day War, the Palestinians haven't shown any serious readiness to make peace with Israel that would encourage Jerusalem to make any more one-sided concessions in advance that experience proves will just be pocketed and not be reciprocated at all. In the exchange of demands between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, the Netanyahu government has asked that the P.A. recognize the State of Israel and also that it is the state of the Jewish people.  One would think that there would be nothing simpler than this.  It was the basic presumption of the League of Nations mandate to the British in Palestine, starting in 1921-1922. And most significantly from the point of view of international history, the United Nations General Assembly sanctioned and provided for a "Jewish state" in Palestine and an "Arab state" in Palestine already in late 1947. I will make my not-at-all-pedantic little point again: The imagined Arab state was not denoted as Palestinian because no one in their right mind at the U.N. saw a Palestinian people on the horizon. The local Arabs were mostly satraps of the surrounding Arab countries. They defined themselves within tribes and clans, extended families and gangs of ruffians  There was no national vision with which to see the lost opportunity. 

They now apparently do really want a state and they even call themselves Palestinians, which is a promising start. Mazal tov. When the Zionists aspired to statehood they built national institutions, and they were building those national institutions ever since World War I, at least. Not so the Palestinians who have supped for almost 60 years at the penurious gruel fed to them by UNRWA, which is the U.N.'s instrument for keeping them dependent.  And their case for a state was made by waves of successive organizations whose identity was tied to distinctive forms of terrorism.

Still, Israel has committed itself to withdrawing from the 92% of the land it captured in 1967, plus compensation in Israeli territory abutting an envisioned Palestinian state. No, no, said the Palestinians. We'll take nothing less than 100% of the very territory Jordan had ruled after annexing it in 1949. It was Yassir Arafat, after all, who walked out of Bill Clinton's Camp David talks in 2000 and not Ehud Barak who actually gave and gave and gave.

Now, the Obama administration is engaged in another try at the peace process, egged on presumably by the preposterous idea that, if Bibi only utters the magic phrase "two-state solution" and halts construction even for natural growth in every single one of the settlements, America's troubles in the world of Islam will not only ease but be transformed. Not surprisingly, Hilary Clinton, our martinet secretary of state, has enthusiastically rushed to formulate these instructions to Israel in the harshest possible terms.            

This has been a long detour to coming back to my view of settlements.

From my point of view, there are settlements and then there are settlements. I'll get to the differences soon.

But the idea of stopping all construction in all settlements means that once again the Israelis will be ceding something in advance and for nothing in return. This is a destructive negotiating tactic and will encourage the same kind of intransigence -you give me, I take- that has marked the Palestinians in all of the talks. After all, the West Bank is one of the prime subjects of the parleying.  Telling the Israelis that they can't build another house in this settlement and in  that one, too (in all of the settlements, in fact) means that no one can marry and no one can have children and no one can add a room to the house. This is not diplomacy; it is the smothering of ordinary life. Since there is an ongoing demographic race in Jerusalem, which is also one of the subjects at any future conference, why doesn't the administration also demand from the Jews and the Arabs that they cease pro-creating?

In fact, the 2003 "road map" made distinctions among settlements, envisioning that most would be vacated by Israel but that the largest would remain sovereign Israeli territory. The very largest happen to cling to Jerusalem. I wouldn't withdraw from them in a million years. Not even the crankiest peacenik in Israel would pull out from Ma'aleh Adumim, virtually cheek by jowl to Jerusalem and with more than 35,000 inhabitants. There are other smaller towns close to Jerusalem that will not be given up.  This is a matter of the security of the city, its breathing room and, yes, its centrality in Jewish history and in contemporary Jewish life. There is a price to be paid by the Palestinians by their suicidal politics over the decades.

In fact, Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert withdrew from four West Bank settlements. But that was before the Gaza settlements and the entirety of the Strip which Israel vacated became a war front with missiles and rockets regularly fired into Israel. Jerusalem had prepared for a much wider retreat from Judea and Samaria so that Palestine could emerge as territorially intact. If Netanyahu is reluctant now to utter the "two-state solution" mantra it is because the mistakes of his three predecessors -Ehud Barak, Sharon and Olmert- have taught him that Israel should not give by declaration in advance what is properly the subject of a treaty and of its enumerated and believable guarantees.   

And if I were Netanyahu, I would expect also to be able to increase defensive settlements in the Jordan Valley rift as a protection against Palestinian terror flowing east to west and west to east between the kingdom and the new Palestine. The regions populated by Palestinian Arabs would still be coterminous and coherent.  And if he has to give a little more of the Negev to the Palestinian state, so be it.  As the Israelis have demonstrated, the desert also produces...If you will it is no dream.

A peace process should not be an invitation to mayhem.  I am afraid that the Obama administration has embarked on a perilous journey.  It should stop trying to orchestrate what Israel does in the (vain) hope that the Palestinian Authority will come around and say something realistic. 

P.S.: The Yale University Press has recently published a book, One State, Two States: Resolving the Israel-Palestine Conflict, by the brave and truthful historian Benny Morris.  He is also a frequent contributor to TNR.  I've learned from every piece of writing he has done, even when some of the material shocked me.  One of the original "new historians" of Zionism, Morris writes in this book about a possible solution to the "problem." It is a federation between Palestine and Jordan. OK with me; not OK, I believe, either with the king or the politicians of Palestine. 

The National Interest has had this book reviewed in its current issue by Walter Laqueur, certainly the most distinguished living historian of almost every aspect of the subject. A clear headed Zionist, he is not a patsy for anyone. He also thinks that the settlements, if held too indiscriminately and too long, would ruin Israel. But he knows well the intrinsic impediments to the Palestinians actually dealing with real realities on the ground. Here and there, I disagree with Laqueur (as with Morris).  But it would be a good deed for someone to slip either Morris' book or Laqueur's review essay, at least, into the president as he starts off on a trip to wherever.  And it better be soon, before he flies to Cairo and promises the impossible and gets nothing in return.