It is 69 years since the State of Israel was established and verging on the centennial of the Balfour Declaration. The creation of modern Zion, however, goes back to the millennial vision, as prosaic as “next year in Jerusalem,” which in poetry and prayer, perseverance and even political protocol went deep into the past, recovering an ancient Zionism asserting itself as perhaps the most coherent and free nationalism in the post-World War II universe. Show me one more! Certainly not post-Gandhian or even Gandhian India. Or, for that matter, A.N.C. South Africa. For whatever it is worth, I put much stock in the Old Testament strain of European and American Protestantism — and notably the ideal of the Hebrew restoration to and in Palestine — to which Isaac Newton, Jonathan Edwards and other spiritually vibrant enlightenment figures fervently adhered.
Sharing the Land
Its modern political cartography, according to the United Nations Partition Plan of November 29, 1947, conceived of Jewish self-determination on barely half of the promised land that endured after historic Palestine had already been carved up in 1922. Was this in deference to the local Arabs, mostly Bedouin? No, of course not. This was to insure that there was territory aplenty for the lofty contenders, enough especially for the Hashemite clan, a nobility descended from the Prophet but apparently not noble enough to govern from the two ostensibly true Muslim holiest cities in the desert, Mecca and Medina. These fell to the Al-Saud whose power derived from winning battles against the other tribes in the vast lands of the Arabian desert and in the virtually unpopulated “empty quarter.” (If you want to get a gaze at this mysterious turf and its sparse habitation pick up Wilfred Thesiger’s Arabian Sands.) An enormous princely house of the Wahabi Muslim sect has ruled for a century and is now slowly, ever so slowly morphing into moderation and modernity. (I traveled to the kingdom at the invitation of Adel al-Jubeir, now its foreign minister, with the late -great- Fouad Ajami, along with Michael Kinsley, Tom Tisch and James Woolsey. We saw it coming.)
People have forgotten that “Palestine” of the “fight fight fight for Palestine,” pre-war, pre-partition drill, the Palestine of mass Jewish mobilization, meant both sides of the Jordan. But the Zionists — at least the mainstream Zionists — gradually surrendered (thank God) even the idea of “the other side,” under both duress and in pursuit of peace. And hardliner (but actual peacemaker with Egypt) Menachem Begin, before coming to power, had already abandoned the claim to ever hayarden, “the other side of the Jordan.” There were “Zionists” who opted out of organized Jewry and recognizable Judaism and called themselves Canaanites — a little nutsy, actually, and heretical — among whom was Chicago’s ur-Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf who taught a young politician named Barack Obama what he should feel about Israel. Not so good, as it happens. The Israelis experienced his enmity aplenty.
Still, history had played a dirty trick on the Arabs of Palestine. No refugees ever have scattered themselves so permanently and so near and far. And as for “near,” who ever thought that being 10 miles (or 20) removed from home made one a refugee? East of the river, there are three million of them, restive and not loyal to the monarch, but far short of a majority. A revolt may tempt them. But the king is both wise and popular. If an insurrection had developed when Obama was president, the royals would have been deserted by his administration, all in behalf of…God knows what. President Trump grasps the advantages of Arab allies to America. And so does Israel, whether it be Bibi Netanyahu still in power or, let’s say, Ehud Barak, not such a long shot if the people are smart.
Barak would be an ideal prime minister, first, in that his last time around, assuming sort of that the Palestinians really did want to be sovereign on their own turf, he came so close to diplomatic perfection that his terms were blessed by Bill Clinton, curator of the whole project…and, of course, the simplistic program — give up land, receive peace in return — collapsed before it began. This was the indispensable trial, and the Palestinians flunked it. More or less, ditto for the peace venture of Ehud Olmert. Just remember that both of these prime ministers were willing to give up furthering the settlement project from thenceforth on…and even retreat a shade everyplace elsewhere. But not for the numbers imagined by the international custodial care organizations — especially UNRRWA, the bloated and ideologically Palestinianized United Nations bureaucracy once headed by my father-in-law, Henry Richardson Labouisse. He was not a Zionist, believe me, and certainly not Jewish. Still in comparison to the professionally expatriate, holier-than-thou but emotionally trussed, international civil servants, he might be an Elder of the Tribe.
What he would have made of the world’s fixation on the Israeli settlements I do not know. It’s not as though their total dismantlement in Gaza has bought Israel any goodwill.
The Rise of the PA
Independent Gaza is now a calamity, a categorical catastrophe under the fierce lash of Hamas. But this does not lead the locals to the Palestinian Authority, which by half-mollifying Israel in various administrative and quotidian ways eases life for themselves on the other side of the other Green Line, the West Bank (or Judea and Samaria, as the historical literalists say). Yet Gaza is now more or less free, not less independent than Russia’s western satellites and probably more. Independent enough to aim missiles at Israel on a frequent but irregular basis. It is not a congenial model of free Palestine, not for the Israelis and not for the Palestinians either. Still, Gaza is run by Palestinians. God help them.
Of course, the Palestinian West Bank is not wholly Palestinian. My guess is that it was not ever to be wholly Palestinian. But, by fighting the notion of even a diminutive Hebrew Palestine, the Arabs guaranteed the sweeping Judaization of the Jewish homeland. (Ironically, many Arab effendi, what there was of a Palestinian aristocracy, continually bartered land up to 1948 for volatile currency and sold themselves out of influence and power.) And when the PLO was founded by Yassir Arafat in 1964, the terror war it and its compatriot-competitors waged against Israel…both outside and inside the Jewish state, that is, not only in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, the Galilee, the Negev and on the borders of the squeezed country but in London, Rome, Munich, Entebbe, Mumbai, various locales around the globe, even the demented drowning of a wheelchair-bound Jewish cripple in the sea (this atrocity lionized by Peter Gelb at the Metropolitan Opera)…and on the ramp from Manhattan to the Brooklyn Bridge. Their basic metier was not battle proper against armed men, but panic and horror strikes against children, the aged, women and men, on buses, trucks and airplanes, in restaurants and dance clubs, in the streets, wherever civilians congregate and innocents walk. Amble around any Israeli town or city and you are likely to pass a marked spot where innocent Jewish blood has been shed.
Actually, the Arabs of Palestine wasted a full century in forlorn violence against the Jews. They certainly were not united. They cleaved to various outside Muslim patrons and, even now, when their on-and-off fraternal allies are themselves in vicious internecine strife, they still fly the not only flimsy but by now false and shredded Arab flag, unanimous resolutions passed by Arab League notwithstanding. Viz., Israeli relations with Egypt and Saudi Arabia, dissimilar though they are, are also wholly inconsistent with the bravado resolutions to which each Arab state has affixed its name, almost as an alias. Besides being its most eager agitprop evangelist, Shi’a Iran — which is by definition not in the Arab League — is now the crucial arms supplier to the Palestine Sunni revolution, such as it is. And, yes, it is also fervently practical in its hatred of Israel.
Entrenching the Settlements
But “no.” I am not a settlement enthusiast. I’ve been to a few of them, and my blood pressure stays stable. They contribute zero to Israel’s general security and less to their own. No long-term gain can come to the cause of Jewish self-determination by entrenching an ascendant Israeli civilian presence among a much larger non-Jewish majority population that is (understandably) uninterested in being dominated. Still, the heaviest concentration of West Bank Israelis actually cleaves only a bit east of the cease fire lines. The over-the-line localities in their geographical boundedness can and maybe should be seen as an ironic reward for the forbearance or even stubbornness of Israeli governments. Just as a point of interest: Shimon Peres, the latter day hero of the “peace crowd,” (after all, Obama, the wiliest American proponent of Palestinian jingoism, spoke at his funeral), had been the most resolute patron of the settler movement in its controversial but heyday infancy. Ultimately these communities — and, believe me, they are communities akin in many ways to the kibbutzim of old — became psychologically cloistered. But they retained the justified anxieties of the nation. This is something I hesitate to say about my friends in the hip neighborhoods of Tel Aviv and other areas where opprobrium is a facile element of the vernacular.
There is an orthodoxy among this population and their American buddies (including American Studies). But it includes folk who care for Israel, some even deeply. The American cadres are primarily drawn from the deep left. A big batch of them are Jews, most of them well-to-do Jews, who are working out their psychological struggles defining to what degree they are Jews. Some of their parents or grandparents thought their being communists was a mitzvah. And don’t underestimate how many communists or real fellow travelers there were among us Jews…In 1948 Henry Wallace won almost 9% of the New York state vote and 4.5% of the California tally, not all of them Jewish, of course, but most. I’d guess that there weren’t many of Father Coughlin’s coreligionists in those tallies. In New York City in those years there were two “red” congressmen: one in Manhattan, the other a Jew from the Bronx. Another Jew also made it in Brooklyn. (The Brooklynites had a consolation: Leo Durocher took Jackie Robinson to the Dodgers.) Their descendants of today are not concretely “left.” If they consider themselves left at all it is over gender issues plus Black Lives Matter. And Zionism. The people I know from the public lists of J-Street office holders and big contributors — not, I should admit, a scientific cross-section of any sort — except for the many Reform rabbis — are both ignorant of and indifferent to Jewish values, Jewish learning and the Jewish future. Witless, I would say. So it is. Their preachments, which are more hectoring than erudite and less intelligent than zealous, follow in the generational procession of adulation of (dare I say Stalin?) Mao, Castro, Che, Ho, Jesse Jackson, the Black Panthers, Angela Davis… And, oh, oy, how pathetic: Linda Sarsour.
Still, the construction of new settlements is a question unto itself. I believe that the ongoing growth of the established communities in the West Bank is a natural phenomenon emerging from the void left by the Palestinians in rejecting remarkably abundant, even bounteous territorial offers. My beef is with the orthodoxy that holds that construction of new settlements — which I oppose — is the sole or principal reason for the failure of the peace process in the last 25 years and that it is the main impediment to a Palestinian state existing peacefully by Israel’s side.
This orthodoxy is stated in a variety of ways. Sometimes the settlements and the settlers are explicitly posited as the reason there is no Palestinian state. Often the number of settlers is given as proof that Israel is uninterested in peace, or the growth of the settler population is cited as proof positive that the peace process was a sham, a cruel joke perpetrated on the hapless Palestinians and peace-minded Israelis. More conventionally, the settlements are understood as creating a point of no return, beyond which a partition into two national states will be impossible. (I am very careful here: I do not mean “nation states.” The only Arab nation state is Egypt.
Blame the Diplomatic Process
This consensus is seemingly impervious to empirical challenge. The collapse of the Arab state system, the division of the Palestinian Authority into two parallel regimes in two different territories, the Islamist challenge, the years of terrorism and incitement, the tactically destructive but domestically popular rejectionism factor very little in the analysis that gives rise to this orthodoxy. And the murderous, pathological, obsessive Jew-hatred that animates so much poor decision-making on the Arab side of the century-long conflict is always either ignored or explained away as effect rather than cause. Blaming all the failures of the diplomatic process on settlements is an easy two-step thought process: first take the worst thing Israel does, and then make sure to ascribe no agency at all to the Palestinians.
This consensus draws no real dissent in the community of foreign policy experts in the West. It has the ring of plausibility. In fact, this orthodoxy isn’t just one plausible hypothesis, but four independent hypotheses of which each has the ring of plausibility. That is, each one could be true, and it’s possible to imagine a scenario where one or more might be true. But none goes beyond plausibility. Each one is verifiable — and falsifiable.
The Problem with Settlements: 4 Hypotheses
To understand this, it will be helpful to actually spell out all four hypotheses. None of the four is particularly ridiculous. None of the four merits quick dismissal. But, ultimately, none of the four stand up to scrutiny either.
Let’s call the first hypothesis the territorial hypothesis. It holds that as settlements expand and “gobble up more territory,” they make the creation of a contiguous Palestinian state in the West Bank impossible. This, indeed, has been one of the stated goals of the settler movement: to create facts on the ground that would prevent an Israeli withdrawal from the territory. An alternative territorial goal of at least some of the settler movement was to use civilian settlements to either broaden Israel’s narrow borders on the Green Line or secure Israel’s hold onto the Jordan Valley. These two territorial goals — a negative one of preventing partition and an affirmative one of endeavoring to make any future partition more advantageous to Israel — were often at cross purposes with each other; neither has been terribly successful.
As it coheres most closely with the stated goals of the political movement which is working so hard to advance the settlement enterprise, it must be taken seriously as plausible. A glance at the map of the West Bank with dots on it for each Jewish settlement certainly seems to make this case for the territorial hypothesis. More than 100 dots are scattered about the breadth of the territory, and it has always been impossible to imagine any line dividing it from Israel that retains those dots on the Israeli side.
Is this hypothesis plausible and if so, how could we measure its validity? There are two ways we could measure this. First we might look at the territorial footprint of the settlements themselves. Good data on this question is hard to come by. But the most reliable estimates of the built-up area of the settlements today is somewhere between 1.5% and 2% of West Bank territory. That’s right, less than 2% of the West Bank is covered by Jewish settlement. Moreover, that number hasn’t changed dramatically since the Oslo Peace Process began in 1993, when it was somewhere between 1% and 1.5%. No one has ever convincingly made the case that some number just above 1.5% renders the settlement enterprise irreversible or stoppable. But even if they could, they would have to argue too that some number just under 1.5% was not. And I don’t see how both of those could be true.
To see why that is, let’s consider the second way of measuring the territorial hypothesis: the number of settlements. Again, good hard numbers are hard to come by because of methodological disputes (new neighborhood or new settlement? count East Jerusalem or not? what to do with the outposts? etc.), but going by the numbers provided by Peace Now’s invaluable settlement database, there are today in the West Bank 125 settlements (I leave out outposts and East Jerusalem neighborhoods; including them doesn’t change the basic analysis). This is what makes the map with all the dots so frightening.
But what was the number at the dawn of Oslo in 1993? 117. I’ve yet to encounter anyone arguing that having fewer than 120 settlements is a reversible condition, but over 120 is simply a deal killer. Nor does anyone plausibly argue that the growth from 117 to 125 settlements in the last 24 years of on-again-off-again negotiations (and on-again-off-again violence) represents some sort of rampant unprecedented growth. But wasn’t Israel busy building more settlements during Oslo, thus sabotaging the whole process? Using Peace Now’s numbers, Israel only established five new settlements in the entire seven years of the Oslo period.
To put that in perspective, consider that in the seven years of Likud government from 1977 to 1984, Israel established 76 new settlements in the West Bank, raising their number from a mere 25 to 101. That seven-year building boom did establish facts on the ground that most certainly have complicated — but not fatally compromised — efforts to reach an Israeli-Palestinian accommodation. But nothing either during the Oslo years or since is remotely comparable.
Imagine for a moment if Israel had established 76 new settlements in the Oslo period. The territorial hypothesis might make sense then. And we’d hear much more about the number of settlements.
Instead, we tend to hear a lot about the number of settlers rather than settlements. This brings us to the second hypothesis, which I’ll call the demographic hypothesis. The demographic hypothesis holds that as more Jews move into the West Bank, they alter the demographic balance in a way that makes partitioning the Land into two states for two national groups impossible. Is this hypothesis plausible, and how could we go about measuring it if it were?
It clearly is possible, and again, it recapitulates (though in a much more reproachful idiom) one of the settler movements central goals and claims about itself. An Arab state of Palestine would not be sustainable with a Jewish majority or even a sizable Jewish minority, and it certainly isn’t viable with a Jewish minority protected a by a large Israeli military presence on its soil. And if partition is impossible and annexation is all that is left, a Jewish state of Israel in expanded borders which might include the West Bank could not be viable with a large and poor Arab minority — whether because they would swamp its democracy and terminate the Jewishness of the state or whether because their basic rights in the state would be limited. Put enough settlers in, this hypothesis suggests, and you render any partition, and any kind of constituted and territorially independent states for the two political communities impossible, consigning them to a mix of apartheid, terror, counter-terror, and political extinction.
But just looking at the absolute numbers of settlers doesn’t tell us much about whether this plausible danger is really transpiring on the ground. Missing from the picture are the relevant figures that would indicate whether this nightmare scenario actually threatens. The number of Jews living in the West Bank tells us very little, for example, without also knowing the number of Arabs — or the growth rates in either population. According to the Peace Now figures, the settler population (not counting East Jerusalem) grew from about 110,000 when the Oslo process began in 1993 to 190,000 when it fell apart in 2000; 15 years later it stands at 385,000. At the same time, the Arab population of the West Bank (not counting East Jerusalem) went from about 1,300,000 at the dawn of Oslo to about 2,000,000 seven years later when the peace process broke down; today it stands at roughly 2,600,000. (Adding in the Jewish and Arab populations of East Jerusalem doesn’t materially change the picture.)
What do these numbers tell us? Both populations are growing very rapidly, far above the average for most other Arab and Jewish populations in the Middle East or elsewhere. The demographic balance has shifted to the benefit of the West Bank Jews — a win for the settler movement and a possible cause of concern for two-staters. But that shift has been far from dramatic or fateful — and certainly not fatal. Jewish settlers were roughly 10% of the West Bank population in the Oslo years, and they are (again, according to Peace Now) about 13% today. To put that into perspective, remember that Israeli Arabs are today nearly 20% of Israel’s population, yet none of the peace camp Cassandras who claim to be concerned about Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state seem especially bothered by this figure. If they were, they would probably state it in absolute terms the way they do for settlers: the Arab population of Israel grew by 300,000 during the seven years of the Oslo process from 900,000 to 1,200,000, and it hasn’t stopped growing since, standing at 1,400,000 today.
There are two possible objections to this point. First, the Arabs in Israel are citizens of the state, not a hostile population that is seeking to deny the national and individual rights of the Israeli Jews. This is mostly true, though of course in 1948, the Israeli Arabs (who numbered only 150,000 at the time) were the remnant of a population that had just risen up in a war of extermination and ethnic cleansing (an unsuccessful one, thankfully) whose goal was to deny Jewish self-determination (and generally to be rid of a Jewish presence entirely). The second objection is that the growth of the Arab population in Israel is entirely “natural,” rather than being the result of migration…or negotiation.
But the majority of the growth of the Jewish population in the West Bank is actually not due to migration either. More than half (and in recent years, much more than half) of the growth of the “settlers” doesn’t come from people settling at all, but rather from new births.
In fact, in the last 10 years, nearly half of the growth in the total settler population has been in just two out of the 125 settlements: Beitar Illit and Modiin Illit. It’s worth pausing for a moment to consider what is special about these two settlements in order to see just how weak the demographic hypothesis is. Neither of these two communities is populated by religious nationalists or even secular “quality-of-life” settlers. Their residents are ultra-Orthodox Jews who in the main reject Zionism and don’t serve in the army — and tend to have many, many children. Moreover, both of these settlements are close to the Green Line. Very close, for that matter. Beitar Illit is 1,800 feet (yes, feet!) from the Line, and Modiin Illit is 2,200 feet from the Line.
So the population growth of the settlements is not due to migration, not being expressed in new settlements changing the geography of the West Bank, and centered on two non-ideological settlements which hug the Green Line. Moreover, it has not exceeded the growth of the Palestinian population of the West Bank, and its effect on the demographic balance of the West Bank is negligible and, in any event, smaller than the demographic gains of the Arab population inside Green Line Israel.
But but but, argue proponents of the demographic hypothesis, whatever these figures show, the absolute number is still so big that it is inconceivable that Israel might ever agree to a substantial withdrawal from the West Bank. It’s not a question of demographics at all, according to this hypothesis, but of politics. This is the third hypothesis, which I’ll call the political hypothesis.
Specifically, what the political hypothesis is claiming is that even if geography and demography can be put aside, the absolute number of settlers in the territory prevent any government from taking any action which might involve a mass evacuation (or, alternatively, a regime change in the West Bank which would leave the settlers under Palestinian sovereignty).
This argument too has the ring of plausibility and should not be dismissed out of hand. We might even have to regard it as true if it had never been tested, but it has been tested, repeatedly — and repeatedly falsified. The population of settlers nearly doubled in the Oslo years, but that did not stop an Israeli offer at Camp David to withdraw from nearly 95% of the West Bank. Nor did it stop Israel from accepting the Clinton Parameters with even more significant withdrawals months later. The settler population didn’t shrink in the subsequent eight years, either. It grew, but Israel still offered in 2008 to withdraw from roughly 98% of the West Bank then. And it continued to grow over the next six years, and Israel nonetheless was able to accept (with reservations) the bridging proposals of John Kerry in the 2014 peace talks which included a roughly similar West Bank withdrawal.
Nevertheless, argue proponents of the settlements-killed-the-peace-process orthodoxy, even if the increasing number of settlers weren’t able to block any previous withdrawal or any Israeli agreement to a future withdrawal, the very act of building in the settlements is an act of bad faith and a signal that Israel is not serious about reaching a deal. This is the fourth hypothesis, and I’ll call the intentional hypothesis. It argues that Israel sends a message that it is unserious about peace if it allows construction in the settlements while negotiations are going on (or even while they are not going on).
This is a more difficult hypothesis to disprove than the other three, because there’s no definitive way to assess how a message is sent or received. It is normal in a conflict situation to interpret an adversary’s intentions in the worst possible light. But once the principle of partition has been accepted, then any Israeli construction in the West Bank can only fall into one of two categories: either it is in a settlement that will go to Israel in a final status deal, in which case it is making no difference, or it is in a settlement that Israel will be abandoning, in which case it makes no difference either. This is why settlement construction was not banned or limited in the Oslo Accords.
No Ban on Settlement Construction
That’s right; you read right. Oslo didn’t forbid settlement construction at all. The charge that Israel was violating Oslo by allowing the Jewish population of the West Bank to expand rests on assumption which the text does not back up at all. In fact, if you scan all the interim accords of the Oslo period, from the Declaration of Principles through the agreements in Cairo and Paris and Wye Plantation among others, you will find only one reference to construction and settlements — and that is in a passage limiting Palestinian construction close to settlements and military installations. (There are further height restrictions that apply to both sides and a very specific ban on Israeli settlement construction in one area of the Gaza Strip with a Palestinian population inside an existing settler bloc since evacuated entirely. The results in Gaza are not promising for the whole peace-making enterprise.)
If it was so important to have a ban on any settlement construction at the beginning of the process rather than deal with the settlements at the end, that could have been negotiated, presumably with a commensurate concession on the Palestinian side of something at the beginning rather than at final status talks (such as on Jerusalem or borders or refugees or, the easiest of them all: that Israel is the state of the Jewish people). But this sensitive issue, like the others, was left to the end of the process. The interim accords were focused on limited withdrawals on Israel’s part (carried out to the last millimeter) in exchange for a Palestinian undertaking to stop terrorism (which increased rather than decreased in the Oslo years) and a commitment to amend the National Charter to no longer call for the destruction of Israel (also never happened).
And despite all this, it is still plausible to argue that Israel’s construction does somehow send a message of questionable intent. But there are many messages to process here. Israel’s withdrawals from territory as called for in the agreements certainly sent another message, as did Israel’s acquiescence to other moves in the establishment of a self-governing Palestinian Authority (an armed police force, an international airport). Israel’s evacuation of settlers in an earlier peace agreement (with Egypt) certainly sent a message about its seriousness in any future undertaking with the Palestinians, as would, much later, its withdrawal of settlers from all of Gaza and the northern West Bank in the 2005 “Disengagement.”
At the same time, questions can legitimately be raised about the message the Palestinian leadership, especially Arafat, was sending about its intentions in the same period. The repeated refusal to follow through on its commitments regarding recognizing Israel, the provocative incitement on Jerusalem and other issues, and, most fatefully in the Arafat years, the tolerance for and occasional encouragement of Islamist terrorism against Israeli civilians did a lot to dampen Israeli enthusiasm for further concessions as well as discredit elected leaders who had staked their reputations and careers on the successful completion of the peace process.
The intentional hypothesis is the only one that cannot be summarily dismissed, but only because, unlike with the territorial or demographic or political hypotheses, there is no definitive way to measure it. But if the argument rests on reproaching Israel for not going beyond its commitments in a series of bilateral and international peace agreements while giving the Palestinians a pass for not even approaching the minimum of their obligations, then it’s not actually taking us any further than the other three.
And it is revealing quite a bit about the assumptions of those who make it. We could ask why such a broad swathe of foreign policy experts seem to believe something which is demonstrably false. But I don’t think they actually believe it at all. If they did, they would be advocating an entirely different set of policies.
Establishing That Palestinian State
Think about it: If you believed that settlement construction could prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, and you sincerely believed in the importance in establishing such a state, you would devote all your energies to getting that state established now. You would apply every conceivable pressure on the Palestinian leadership to accept a two-state offer — whether an Israeli one like in 2000 or 2008 or an American proposal like in 2001 or 2014. If you cared about a Palestinian state and genuinely believed that settlements could get in the way, you’d want to make sure that issue would be resolved right away with a border that results in the evacuation of some settlements and the annexation of others, presumably with a land swap. You would impress upon the Palestinians whose cause you care about so much that insisting on unrealistic demands like “return” of refugees and their descendants to Israel or refusing to recognize Israel in a way that settles once for all any claims and counterclaims risks more than a delay in statehood, but might actually preclude it all together.
In fact, if the Palestinians themselves believed that their statehood project (assuming it is one they genuinely aspire to) were imperiled by settlements, they too could be expected to want to reach a deal as soon as possible even at the cost of concessions (especially symbolic ones like recognizing Israel as a Jewish state). Even if this weren’t the regnant view, we might at least expect it to be the view of a loud minority.
But it simply isn’t. All the settlement orthodoxy ever leads to is condemnation of Israel and the demand for the international community to take a tougher line on Israeli policies. When those have actually yielded a building freeze, as in 2010, no reciprocal action was ever forthcoming.
Where Foreign Policy Consensus Is Wrong — and Right
It’s a hard view to challenge within foreign policy circles. But it’s worth remembering just how wrong the foreign policy consensus has been on a lot of issues of importance to Israel. No one in the last 30 years doubted the wisdom of an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, and several times it nearly happened. Today, it is obvious that the Israeli presence in the Golan Heights is the only thing which has kept the Syrian Civil War from sucking Israel into one side or another and potentially turning the bloody aftermath of the Arab Spring into a wider regional conflict. The Heights are now part of Israel regardless of what plans Secretary Clinton or Secretary Kerry — or Ronald Lauder — had for the territory.
Foreign policy experts were similarly wrong in all their prognoses regarding the peace process of the 1990s. Israeli withdrawals from major Arab population centers in Gaza and the West Bank was supposed to lead a reduction in terrorism (they led to a massive increase); giving the Palestinians “something to lose” like an airport, a police force, and the trappings of a state-in- the-making would have a moderating effect (it heralded the beginning of the Islamization of the Palestinian claims against Israel); an Israeli military offensive during the second Intifadah could only inflame the situation and create more terrorists (Operation Defensive Shield in 2002 and the high profile assassinations of Hamas leaders in 2003-4 brought the terror campaign to an end); a West Bank barrier couldn’t possibly keep suicide bombers out (it has done exactly that for more than a decade now).
The foreign policy consensus has been consistently right on at least one thing: no amount of additional settlement building will ever move the international consensus on where a final, peaceful, recognized border for Israel should run. A good thing for Israelis who have spent so much of the national treasure and reputation on this hopeless enterprise to pay attention to. And a good thing for those same experts to keep in mind before the next time they pretend to believe that settlement construction might actually accomplish what they have all along shown that it has not and cannot.