The First Step: Confronting the Settlements

The famous idiom from Abba Eban, that the “Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity” has often been turned back on Israel. Yet it is no truer in any arena than it is with regard to the diffuse Israel-Palestine “peace movement.” It is happening again right now, and one of the best chances to turn the tide, not to mention one of, if not THE last chance to save the two-state solution is once again being missed.

It’s a presidential election year in the US and the Israeli Prime Minister is bracing for the release of a report which could stand a chance of bringing down his government. And what, in these days, are President Bush and Prime Minister Olmert saying?

Bush is saying that settlement outposts “ought to go.” Olmert said the presence of those outposts is a “disgrace.” Were these empty words? Absolutely. Bush even said that Israel needs to end its occupation of the Palestinians and Olmert is fighting with Defense Minister Ehud Barak over the removal of some few settler outposts. Is this mere political posturing? You bet it is.A settler and a soldier

But the words are still sign of the times. Right-wing Israelis, fearful of both a withdrawal from parts of the West Bank as well as some arrangement to share Jerusalem, called a rally to protest Bush’s visit to Israel. But they were unable to bring large numbers of people to the demonstration. Israel is battling the (correct) perception that it has not undertaken the tasks it has agreed to in the past. Removing outposts, sharing Jerusalem, even removing established settlements are part of the political discourse in a way they have not been in the past.

What would it take to at least start turning these words into actions? The answer is the same as always: political pressure. And that, both in the US and in Israel, is sorely lacking.

Threats to settlements in Israel always bump up against the entrenched position of the settlers, who have increasingly worked their way into key positions in the government, the military, and the various administrative bodies that manage the occupation in the West Bank on a day-to-day basis. They are resisted by the unity of the settlement movement and the simultaneous absence of a political party in Israel that makes a realistic peace with the Palestinians and the larger Arab and Muslim world a priority.

A serious push against the settlements also faces more widespread emotional responses in Israel. Even today, the settlers image strikes a familiar chord for many Israelis. They remind many of the early halutzim, pioneers, who first settled Palestine in the early 20th century. But perhaps a greater factor is the fear many Israelis have that a serious confrontation with the settlers over the West Bank could lead to a wider civil war. True, this fear was present but did not materialize during the evacuations of the Sinai Peninsula in the early 1980s, and of Gaza in 2005. But the West Bank is a very different beast; it is the place where the heart of the settlement movement lives and is focused, and it contains numerous sites of major Jewish historical and religious significance. One might argue, as I would, that the fear of civil war is overblown, but there is no doubt that the risk of it is much greater on the West Bank and no one can say for certain what will happen when Israel does withdraw from sensitive parts of it, like Hebron.

That’s a lot to overcome, and it’s not going to happen by itself. Without serious pressure from both the American government and the American Jewish community, it simply can’t happen. And that brings me back to my point about never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity.

When Eban made his glib observation, and when the same phrase has been used to criticize Israel, its meaning is that the party in question could have acted in a different manner but chose not to. In the case of so-called peace movements, however, it is the unwillingness to act in a practical and strategic manner that has rendered the voices of reason, of which there are many, mute.

Politics is a difficult game to play. It requires patience, often in the face of horrible conditions. It requires a sound strategy and it must be built on a base that people believe in. So, while activists debate the merits of one- and two-state solutions or the imaginary vision of masses of Palestinian refugees returning to Israel proper, the situation in the Occupied Territories spirals ever further into chaos.

What is needed, more than anything else, is a powerful movement that forges partnership between American Jews and Israelis who recognize the danger of expanding settlements and are finally willing to bond together and demand that Israel veer off from this self-destructive course.

Instead, we have debates over the legitimacy of Zionism, and arguments over hateful conspiracy theories about Jewish control of the US government, media and global finance.

For American Jews who are concerned about the future of Israel, time is running out. The settlement movement is entrenched deep in the Israeli government, throughout the Civil Administration in the West Bank and in the Israeli military. No ultimate solution can be arrived at until the settlements’ growth is not only stopped, but reversed, and the settler ideology confronted directly and powerfully.

Many Jews, in the United States and in Israel know this, but there is no organization, no political machine, and certainly no political party in either country giving voice to this concern. The ideological settlers who organized themselves decades ago as Gush Emunim (the Bloc of the Faithful) set about to settle not only the land, but also the “hearts and minds of the Jewish people,” and they have succeeded to a terrible degree. [I note here that the new book, Lords of the Land by Akiva Eldar and Prof. Idith Zertal is an absolute must-read for anyone who seriously wishes to understand the threat the settlements and the settler ideology represents.]

The reversal of the settlement program is an absolute necessity, not only for peace in the region, but for the future of Israel, and, indeed, of the Jewish people as a whole.

What does this mean in concrete terms? In Israel, it means crucially that the various groups and organs of the Israeli left, from Shalom Achshav (Peace Now) to Gush Shalom (the Peace Bloc) to the other, smaller left-wing organizations must reconnect to the Israeli political system. Shalom Achshav, in particular, was once connected to the Labor and Meretz parties. Some such connection must be revived and strengthened.

In the US, groups that recognize the profound danger the settlements represent must find a way to reach deeper into the Jewish community and also outside of it and support and partner with the Israeli movements. Some progress in this regard has been made by such groups as Brit Tzedek v’Shalom and the Israel Policy Forum, but this must go further and lead to a political program. It must lead to serious action in political campaigns, in Congress and with the executive branch.

In short, it is time for the left to stop being afraid to get down into the political battle with AIPAC. I strongly suspect, based on my personal experience, that if peace groups do this in a more concerted and directed way, and without the disregard for Israeli concerns that is typical of many “peace groups,” we’ll find that we have more allies in “mainstream” Jewish groups than we would have ever imagined.

It is no longer enough to simply call on the US government to ask the Israelis nicely, if you please, take down a few of the so-called “illegal outposts.” There needs to be a rallying cry, reflecting the desperation of the times, that demands that the US take firm action to get Israel to halt all settlement construction, to immediately remove all outposts set up after 2001, as stipulated in the Roadmap and to begin drawing up plans for further evacuations. Indeed, the US must tell Israel that in negotiations for a final status agreement, the starting point is that all settlements must be evacuated and that any alteration in that condition must be arrived at through honest negotiation with the Palestinians.

Is this really so far-fetched? Certainly, under today’s conditions it is. And that is because there is no voice given to those who recognize the danger to Israel as well as to the Palestinians that the settlements represent. The voices we have either dismiss all or most of Israel’s concerns and focus only on the (certainly massive) harm the settlements have done to the Palestinians, or fail to stand firmly behind the principle that the settlements never should have been allowed to spring up in the first place outside of a negotiated agreement.

What is missing is the simple equation: to be pro-Israel is, by definition, to be anti-settlement, because the ideological underpinnings of the settlements place redemption of the land above Israeli security and place their messianic vision in direct opposition to the rule of law and, indeed, to secular Zionism. And there is no such moderate but powerful voice because the effort has not been made with sufficient vigor to bring it forth. That effort must focus on organizing Jews to call for what is most crucial for Israel’s future—the removal of the settlements, the confronting of the settler movement and the breaking of that movement’s disproportionately powerful grip on Israel’s decision-making and actions.

That effort must not only bring out Jews to sign petitions, but it must bring Jews into the political arena of mainstream American political parties to demand that candidates show they truly care for human rights for all, for a practical and sustainable peace in the Middle East and for Israel’s future by taking concrete steps to bring the settlement project to a halt. To be effective and legitimate, this must be done in partnership with like-minded Israeli groups.

Just this past weekend, one of Israel’s literary giants, A. B. Yehoshua, called on the US President to take definitive action to get Israel to take down its outposts, up to and including recalling the American ambassador “indefinitely for consultations” until Israel complies. Yehoshua is quite correct that such an act would result in the immediate removal of outposts and a great deal more trust in the US from the Palestinians and the rest of the Arab world.

Yehoshua also correctly points out that dealing with the outposts implies that other settlements are legal, which they are not, according to international law. But Yehoshua forgets, at least in the Yediot Akhronot report, one other important result from such an act by a US president: that it would be an immense boon to Israel’s democracy and to Israel’s future and security.

Wouldn’t it be great if there was a Jewish lobby that was pushing with real money and real influence on the various presidential candidates to heed Yehoshua’s call? Well, there isn’t one. But next year, there could be one that is working on Congress and the newly-elected president. In 2010, there could be one that is targeting some congressional elections. And in 2012, there could be a real discussion of these options in presidential debates. That can be… if the great many Jews who wish to see a secure Israel, an Israel that is once again respected in the global community, an Israel that does not hold 4 million people under its control without representation, an Israel that is not cutting off needed electricity and economic resources from innocent people in response to repeated rocket attacks…if those millions of Jews could come together with the many others who truly respect Israel’s right to exist but object to many of its policies to mobilize the votes and money necessary to bring this idea into the realm of political reality.

The Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported that in response to Yehoshua’s op-ed, “The comments …stirred anger in Israel, where many consider the United States to be their only reliable ally.” Indeed, the US is that. And it’s high time US policy reflected true friendship for Israel and pushed hard for the measures that are absolutely required for Israel to be secure. That security is incompatible with occupation and with settlement.

The pieces needed for that political movement are all around us. It is clear to me, from working in this field that the people, the money and the influence is there to be harnessed. It is the abject failure (indeed, in many cases, the refusal) of peace groups to pursue this result that leaves the voices of reason and moderation without expression and bereft of political impact. Nothing can proceed without the settlements and their ideology being confronted.

I’m ready to do it. Who’s with me?