In recent days, Israeli settlement activity has been the focus of considerable attention, condemned in a United Nations Resolution which the Obama Administration did not veto but abstained from supporting and in an impassioned speech by Secretary of State John Kerry who warned that settlement activities were rapidly making a future “two-state” solution impossible to achieve. Both the abstention and the speech were sharply attacked by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu as well as members of Congress from both sides of the aisle and a number of American Jewish organizations. And President- Elect Trump made it clear that his administration would treat the Israelis totally differently, asking them to “stay strong” until he takes office.
Whether or not one agrees with the UN actions or all of the elements of Kerry’s speech, one should recognize the importance of one ongoing development that Kerry briefly referred to. Israel’s religious nationalists, like the Jewish Home Party headed by Naftali Bennett, and other right wing Israeli groups, powerful members of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s governing coalition, are using settlement expansion as part of a strategy ultimately to incorporate the West Bank -what they call Judea and Samaria – into a biblically inspired “Greater Israel.” And, disappointingly, in Trump’s choice of bankruptcy attorney David Friedman as his Ambassador to Israel, he has selected an avowed supporter of Israel settlement expansion who is hostile to a two-state solution and argues that it would not be illegal for Israel to annex the West Bank. Thus, settlement expansion has become the means to two ends: to preclude a two state solution and to carry out annexation.
There are now about 570,000 Jewish settlers living over the “Green Line” ((pre) 1967 borders.) The problematic number is not settlements in East Jerusalem (200,000 representing 35.1% of settlers over the Green line) or settlements in lands that will end up as part of Israel in a land swap (large settlement blocks and land adjacent to the Green Line with a population of 260,000 representing 45.6% of settlers). It is the small and isolated settlements in the mountain ridge, east of the separation barrier created by Israel, with a population already of 103,000 people (representing 18.2% of settlers; not including 6,500 Israelis living in settlements in the Jordan Valley) that present the major and growing problem. These settlements are being placed in the heart of the West Bank, on land that must remain part of any Palestinian state for it to have the contiguity that allows it to function effectively as a state. Recognizing the enormous difficulty in the past of moving even a few hundred settlers, imagine the impossibility of moving thousands of committed settlers who refuse to leave and whose rabbis tell the Israeli troops to disobey orders to force them out. After expanding settlements throughout Palestinian lands, the nationalists plan to annex the West Bank (and perhaps even Gaza) and put Israel in a position of either accepting the millions of Palestinian residents as full citizens in a bi-national state which, because of the disproportionate numbers of Palestinians and their higher birth rates, will not be Jewish (a course they have no intention of following) or applying apartheid principles to treat them as second class denizens in Greater Israel or try to force them out of their ancestral lands altogether to another country, (the Gaza population to Egypt and the West Bankers to Jordan or another state.).
Until now, as a supporter of Israel and like most American Jews involved in Jewish organizational life, I have been reading and listening to discussions about these developments simply from the perspective of their effect on Israel. I have been an ardent Zionist from a very early age, continuing through my service in a number of American Jewish organizations and I still serve as a Board member of the Israel Policy Forum, which I helped found at the request of then Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Not only did I consistently support Israel politically, I headed a major business in Israel investing millions of dollars and creating numbers of jobs there. In all of my thinking, then, I focused on the implications for Israel of settlement expansion and the end of a two-state solution. And, as I have written before, I concluded that such a program would destroy the Zionist dream of what Israel could and should be. But, recently, I asked myself a different question: what are the potential consequences – benefits or detriments – to the United States of Israel’s continued expansion of settlements and are there any implications from these consequences for the American Jewish community?
To start, I can see absolutely no benefits that would accrue to the United States from Israel expanding its settlements into the West Bank but I can clearly see detriments to the United States from the failure of a two-state solution. Israel’s annexation of the West Bank and treatment of the 2.6 million Palestinians living there and what actions it may take against the 1.4 million Palestinians living in Gaza, could end Israel’s position as the only democracy in the Middle East. If having it as a democratic ally is now so valuable to the United States interests as to warrant, for example, $38 billion in American military aid, the converse is also true – not having a democratic ally is a heavy loss to the United States. Moreover, the proposed treatment of the Palestinian population by the religious nationalists would end up in violent reactions against Israel directly from Palestinians and then from other Arabs, including Jihadists, and quickly would be matched by attacks on American interests – of the country most supportive of Israel. It is too optimistic to expect that these attacks would be limited to the Middle East and not end up on our own shores. Meanwhile, as Thomas Friedman points out in his column “Bibi Makes Trump His Chump” (NY Times, December 28, 2016 p.A21) all of this would greatly benefit Iran and ISIS and enable Iran ”to present America’s Sunni Arab allies as lackeys of an extremist Israel.”
These developments would take their toll on the American Jewish community in a number of ways. Anti-democratic Israeli actions would open the door for challenges in our country to the high levels of economic and other support given to Israel. This would include the very people who voted Donald Trump into office who, together with other American voters, might find it difficult to understand why billions of dollars are going to an undemocratic Israel while they continue to suffer job losses and reductions in health care and in social security. When those in the Jewish community seek to defend Israeli actions, as they always do, that would open the door to attacks on them and provide fodder for increased anti-Semitism here in the United States.
One of the most grievous impacts of this scenario is the effect on young American Jews. Many American Jews, like me, had hoped that Israel would be a beacon, attracting younger generations of Jews to the Jewish heritage, culture and religion. Already, rather than being a source of pride, many Jewish college students are seeing Israel attacked on their campuses. At the same time, younger American Jews, some the children and grandchildren of committed supporters of Israel, are disavowing Israel and decrying its actions. One can imagine the reactions of the younger Jews if Israel engages in apartheid activities or forced transfer of Palestinians off their ancestral land.
At the end of the day, only the Israelis can decide on the course of action that their country will take. And I recognize full well that Israelis today generally have little regard for the opinions of American Jews. I do hope they will understand the implications of their actions on their own future. At present, as Secretary Kerry has pointed out, the two- state solution is in “serious jeopardy” and some experts, like Stephen A. Cook, Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, argue that it is already dead. But there is a group of approximately 240 former IDF generals, heads of Israel intelligence services like Mossad, Shabak and Police equivalents, who have joined together under the banner “Commanders For Israel’s Security” (CIS) who still hold out hope. They are working to make a two-state result a reality through a pro-active political and security plan that they have developed and publicly presented. Maybe, that kind of leadership can prevail to help their fellow Israelis see the light. The alternative is very painful to contemplate!
Robert K. Lifton, a businessman and political activist has served as President of the American Jewish Congress; co-Chair of the Middle East Project of the Council on Foreign Relations until its termination; and Founder, Chair and currently board member of the Israel Policy Forum. His memoirs titled “An Entrepreneur’s Journey: Stories From A Life In Business and Personal Diplomacy” was published by AuthorHouse in 2012.