Settlements were a political mistake, but it’s a done deal
JERUSALEM — In the Western world, nations meet on the battlefield to wage war and then sit down at the conference table to make peace.
But not in the Middle East.
Israel fought Jordan in 1967, conquered its West Bank, which the Jordanians had annexed in 1950 (an act recognized by only two countries — Great Britain and Pakistan) without any diplomatic follow-up.
The Arab states, which conferred in Khartoum (Sudan) later that year to lick their wounds — Egypt’s loss of the Sinai Peninsula and Syria’s loss of the Golan Heights and Jordan’s loss of the West Bank — stroked their national egos by proclaiming three “no’s”: no recognition (of Israel), no negotiation and no peace.
Those three “no’s” are the root cause of the unpleasant squabble now under way between the United States and Israel over the American demand that housing and all other construction in the West Bank’s Jewish settlements be frozen so that the Palestinian Authority, which enjoys unprecedented American largesse and sympathy, will resume talks on Palestinian statehood — a prospect the Democratic Obama administration, like its Republican predecessor under President George W. Bush, adamantly supports.
Had the Jordanians come forward in 1967 to talk peace, the Israelis would have returned, much, most or possibly all of the West Bank. That is what then-Prime Minister Levi Eshkol wanted to do and that is why then-Defense Minister Moshe Dayan waited for a telephone call from the Jordanian monarch that never came.
It took 17 years for Jordan to sign a peace treaty in the wake of Egypt’s signing — 12 years after the Six-Day War.
The political vacuum created by Hussein left the territory in question up for grabs. Irredentist Israeli Zionists pressured Eshkol and his successors to authorize and subsidize Jewish settlements on the biblical terrain in question. (These settlements cost Israel’s taxpayers more than $8 billion to date.) There were faint objections from local moderates and foreign governments that settlement of conquered territory by citizens of a victorious power was a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, but to no avail.
Enacted after the dismal record of Nazi Germany in occupied Poland during World War II, during which it urged its “Volksdeutsche” adherents to move into Polish territory and transform it into an ethnic extension of the Fatherland, the Convention specified that the “protecting power,” (i.e. the conqueror) must not alter the social, economic and cultural fabric of the country under its military rule.
Had the Fourth Geneva Convention been obeyed by Israel, 300,000 Israelis would not be living in hundreds of settlements clustered just across the armistice line that existed from 1949 to 1967. External entities like the European Union would not be able to contemplate their compulsory expulsion, Israeli politicians would not have conjured up ridiculous geographical trade-offs for the settlements’ removal and President Obama would not have insisted that new housing starts, not even for “natural growth,” be banned.
The president and his advisers probably were unaware of the fact they were clashing with one of the fundamental concepts of practical Zionism: settling land in strategic areas and thereby demanding their inclusion in the Jewish state. That tactic was used here successfully in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. In other words he and his team were going against the Israeli ethos without being able to guarantee that Israeli compliance would bring the Palestinians back to the negotiating table and mollify their other terms (such as withdrawal to 1967 borders, ceding part of Jerusalem to them as their capital and allowing the return of some, many, most or all of the Arab refugees of the 1948-49 conflict). Besides, any student of the Bible knows that the land in question is the heartland of ancient Israel and the setting of most of the Biblical narrative.
It is hard to say what Israel gained from the past 42 years of settlement construction. The West Bank settlements did not enhance Israeli security and did not bring any economic benefits. Nor did they win friends and influence people abroad in favor of Israel’s cause.
But the bottom line is that they exist, that only a ruthless government might be willing and able to drive out their inhabitants and even if one did, the controversial goal of Palestinian statehood would be no nearer to achievement as long as the Islamic Hamas regime persists in the Gaza Strip — a major segment of the projected Palestinian state. Hamas, which won the last Palestinian election and may win again if the Palestinians go back to the polls in January, opposes a West Bank-Gaza Strip state and rejects Israel’s right to exist.
After all, Israel foolishly withdrew from the Gaza Strip in 2005, dismantling all the prosperous Jewish settlements there in the process only to be compensated for this by thousands of Kassam and other missiles fired by Palestinian extremist gunners into its territory.
Isn’t it time that the dire consequences of this political mistake be recognized and that the obvious conclusions be drawn? As they say in colloquial Hebrew, “What’s done is done.”
(Jay Bushinsky, an Israel-based political columnist can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)