In the world of Israel advocacy, there is always much anguished discussion on why Israel always seems to be losing the public relations war.

Is it ineffective communication techniques, lack of strategic vision, or perhaps the fact that most of the media is unalterably biased against or hostile toward Israel, if not overtly anti-Semitic?

After two years working as a professional in the field, I have reached the conclusion that it is none of the above. As Cassius says in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, “the fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars but in ourselves.” And it can be boiled down (with some simplification) to just one word – settlements.

As long as Israel continues to build settlements, nobody really takes its claim to favor a two-state solution seriously – and the longer it continues to perpetuate this contradiction, the more its credibility will suffer. Unfortunately, things are probably just going to get worse after the Jan. 22 election, which seems likely to strengthening the settler movement even more.

The Ulpana outpost, adjacent to Beit El near Ramallah in the West Bank (photo credit: Noam Moskowitz/Flash90)

The Ulpana outpost, adjacent to Beit El near Ramallah in the West Bank (photo credit: Noam Moskowitz/Flash90)

Many Israeli supporters refuse to accept that simple fact and live in the illusion that support for Israel can be boosted by showing the world what a wonderful country it is. They love to speak of its high-tech industry, its growing wine industry, alternative energy programs, water purification plants and drip agriculture technology as well as its medical advances. Almost every day, the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem sends out information on these topics as well as Tel Aviv nightlife, pop music, the booming gay scene – anything other than settlements.

Visiting delegations are always taken to see the battery-operated cars at “A Better Place” and shown movies about how Israeli medics were first to get a field hospital up and running after the earthquake in Haiti. And all of this is true – but it is also irrelevant because the argument always boils down – and will always boil down – to the way Israel treats the Palestinians and whether it truly desires peace and will do what it takes to achieve it.

Here’s the simple truth: settlements are killing Israel’s efforts abroad while slowly throttling any hope of ever making peace with the Palestinians at home.

A few months ago, I was leading a workshop in a synagogue near San Francisco on how to respond to Israel’s critics on the settlement issue. As I went through my talking points, I realized how profoundly unconvincing they all were. All of them basically boiled down to an attempt to change the subject.

These are the arguments I advanced (to my shame) to justify – or more accurately to fend off – the issue:

  • Settlements are an important issue in peace talks – but only one of many. Security, borders, Jerusalem, refugees and water rights are equally important and all must be resolved through negotiations. Of course this is true as far as it goes – but of these issues only settlements change the status quo and shift the goal posts every day, reshaping the situation on the ground in the West Bank.
  • Israel has shown in the past its willingness to dismantle settlements. It evacuated some 7,000 from Sinai in 1982 as part of the peace treaty with Egypt and around 8,500 from Gaza as part of a unilateral disengagement in 2005. But those evacuations, painful, emotional and divisive though they were, did not involve giving up part of the biblical Land of Israel. They were comparatively tiny compared to the tens of thousands of people, many of them heavily armed and resolutely militant, who would passionately resist evacuation, and perhaps not just passively resist, if there were ever a peace treaty. In any case, it’s hard to make a case that Israel is settling land only to evacuate it later. It makes no sense.
  • Most of the settlement building in recent years has been on land that would be retained by Israel in any peace agreement, in exchange for other territory that would be ceded to the Palestinians – the so-called land swaps President Barack Obama referred to in his May 2011 speech on the Middle East.  But this is plain wrong. Almost 10 percent of the West Bank is now within the control of settlements, not including the huge expansion of the municipal borders of Jerusalem or the many highways Israel has built to link the settlements to its cities and to each other. Nobody is proposing 10 percent land swaps. And it is certainly not true of the recent Israeli government decision to build a new, massive settlement on a tract of land east of Jerusalem known as E1, which would effectively cut the West Bank in two.
  • The main problem is not settlements but that the Palestinian refusal to accept Israel as a Jewish state. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is fond of this argument and advances it at every opportunity. “We must constantly repeat that the root of the conflict is the very existence of the State of Israel, the refusal to recognize the State of Israel in any borders whatsoever,” he said earlier this month. The root of the conflict may have been as he stated – but the Palestinian Liberation Organization recognized Israel in 1993 since when the settler population has just about doubled. Settlement expansion is a signal to the Palestinians that Israel is on the West Bank to stay. It undermines moderates and emboldens rejectionists.

As things stand, there is no intellectual honesty in the Israeli position. It fails to answer the question, why build on land you intend to give up? Israel and its friends need to get real. It’s time for the Israeli peace camp and its American allies to face the truth and show some leadership. The forty years of settlement building have been a disaster and if allowed to continue will destroy Israel’s democracy and leave it isolated and without friends, facing a future of permanent conflict.