Israelis get a bad rap for their West Bank occupation. It’s an ugly situation over there, but there is more to it than manic lust to oppress other people. We should understand things as they are.
It is commonly thought that Israeli Jews who support the occupation do so either because they believe in a fantastical religious writ, are racists who think Arabs can be forever subjugated, or are too dim to calculate the demographic danger to their own Zionist cause.
All those variants indeed exist. There are even fringe cases of Israeli Jews who can count and do not think millions can be forever subjugated, but their solution is to yearn for apocalyptic mass expulsion.
It is enough to make a decent person sad and it plays into the hands of Israel’s many critics, from well-meaning friends to meddlesome diplomats to anti-Semites in and out of their closets. It has made the occupation into one of the thinking world’s least-favorite things, along with selfie sticks, cockroaches, North Korea and reality TV.
That’s great, but there’s one complication: The holders of all these viewpoints do not in themselves add up to enough voters to keep the right in power and the occupation alive. As with many issues in our maddeningly complex world, things are not as clear as they appear.
There is a different reason that puts Likud over the top and made it so that even in the last election more than 60% of Jews voted for parties that would retain the occupation. It is the thing you hear again and again if you actually talk to right-wing voters who are not religious zealots or ultranationalist wackos.
That thing is a fear of rockets raining down on central Israel.
It is easy to mock this fear as paranoia. In Israel it is a sensitive line of argument because it implies that rockets on the periphery towns near Hamas-run Gaza are more acceptable; the population there is a hundredth of central Israel, but that calculation is a political non-starter.
Nonetheless it is true.
Many Israelis with no time for religion and who understand the demographics and are no more racist than the average person have very great concern that a military pullout from all or even part of the West Bank would be a security disaster.
It took less than a year for Hamas to try to expel the Palestinian Authority from the Gaza Strip after Israel pulled out in 2005, and really just a few days for it to succeed. Now Gaza is a theocratic police state that is possibly the unhappiest place on earth. It’s not crazy to fear the same in the West Bank. If I were a West Bank Palestinian I would certainly fear it.
Furthermore, because there is no plausible scenario for an agreement in which the Palestinians get all they have boxed themselves into wanting — in Jerusalem, on the refugees’ return issue, and even with borders — dissatisfaction in their ranks will never be stamped out even if a peace agreement is somehow reached.
The enemies of peace in Palestine have a history of making the most of their dissatisfactions. Remember that terrorism ratcheted up dramatically after the 1993 Oslo agreement precisely because Hamas figured Yasser Arafat was planning to sell out their maximalist dreams.
Something similar happened in 2000 as the Ehud Barak government was making a real effort to offer the Palestinians independence, but on terms that left the door open to dissatisfactions. More than 1,000 Israelis and 3,000 Palestinians were killed as a result. Israeli support for the two-state solution fell from around two-thirds to less than half.
(To be fair, the enemies of peace in Israel have been wildly successful as well. There is something about wickedness that makes it stronger than good these days. But that is for another story.)
So what reasonable but skeptical Israelis fear is either chaos or enemy rule within miles of Jerusalem and the Tel Aviv area, pretty close to Haifa and looming over central Israel. Look at the map: that’s where they would be. From the West Bank to the Mediterranean Sea the distance in some areas is scarcely over 10 miles, or generously put 20 kilometers.
Furthermore, if Israel lost control of the terrestrial access to the West Bank towns through the Jordan River Valley, as it would in any deal that would satisfy even some of the howls, these enemies would also potentially have the ability to bring in weapons by land.
The only thing preventing that would be Jordan, a friendly country but one that has its own problems and where half the people are of Palestinian origin. If this failed, Tel Aviv would not be merely targeted by the mini-rockets Hamas rigs up in Gaza. There would be real damage, and horrifying war when Israeli retaliates, and the region would be seriously destabilized.
I would challenge critics of the occupation to swear on their children that they would bet the farm on this scenario not unfolding even though there is clearly no shortage of Palestinians who would start militating for it on Day One of the pullout. Because that is what they are asking the Israelis to do.
They are asking the Israelis to do this because the occupation is horrible, which it is. Even supporters of the left underestimate the disgrace being perpetrated in their name; the term “apartheid” may be exaggerated but it’s not a ridiculous description of the status quo with its parallel legal systems for neighbors based on ethnicity. (It’s also suicidal, since the Palestinians will eventually demand annexation and citizenship and the world will support them.)
But while the colonization project known as the settlements is not justifiable, the military occupation actually is — for the moment, until the security concerns are addressed.
With Israelis who cite the security concern, you cannot dismiss it. You look like an idiot or an ignoramus and you lose their respect and attention in a flash. You can diminish it, citing the valiant successes of the Palestinian security forces in preventing terrorism to this day. But you cannot dismiss it.
All you can really say is this:
Most of the settlements must be removed because the mixing of unfriendly populations on terms so unequal is toxic, immoral and dangerous, and the whole thing is a grand usurping of rights and property. The settlers should receive massive compensation so they can buy mansions and establish businesses wherever in Israel they wish; that is the cost of a mistake so major.
With that you have changed a dishonorable colonization problem into an always-reversible military occupation. That military occupation’s thoughtless cruelties and light trigger finger should be addressed, but nonetheless its basic contours perhaps can stay — with a pullout always possibly, basically overnight — until a better solution is found.
Start looking for that better solution.
It can take many forms, from a huge pan-Arab peacekeeping force to NATO to the Palestinians becalmed by the biggest-ever bribe to a genuine deal on Jerusalem to the passing of generations until one arises on both sides with requisite wisdom, wherewithal and craft.
Perfection is not within reach at this time. All that can be said is that while the status quo is a disaster, Israelis’ security fears are not unfounded, and they need to be addressed or the calamity will carry on. The least bad option can be devilishly hard to find.
I am not merely saying Israel’s critics around the world should understand this if they want to have any influence. That’s the easy part since only hypocrites would deny it (I’m thinking of you, defunct Soviet Union, with your absurd criticisms of “imperialist” policies of countries one-thousandth your size.)
I am also saying the Palestinians should understand this. They should work with Israel on an honest and realistic solution.
I can hear the protests now: How can you ask the oppressed to understand the concerns of the oppressor?
The answer is because only thus can there be progress.