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March of folly: Israel’s fresh hope for a two-state solution

In an ironic twist of fate reminiscent of occupied Algeria, it is the settlers themselves who may ultimately bring about a new drive for peace with the Palestinians

From far away it may seem that the peace process between Israel and its neighbors is utterly hopeless. Prime Minister Netanyahu, after a series of promising speeches at the outset of his term, has given no indication of readiness to compromise and has not met with any Palestinian partners. His latest pronouncements are focused almost entirely on Iran; his widely reported Bar Ilan speech on two states for two peoples seems to have been become yet another meaningless slogan devoid of content. Yet there do seem to be some harbingers of change, with at least two new trends worthy of note.

The first is the movement for social change that emerged last summer and is still bringing protesters out into the streets. There are a number of targets for the protesters’ ire, including tycoons, banks, and the ultra-Orthodox who get preferential treatment and budgeting. As the left has found itself in the fore in these protests, old slogans are reemerging: people are beginning to wonder how cutbacks can be justified when the government is spending half a billion shekels on roads alone in the territories and an estimated NIS nine billion a year on building, infrastructure, security, and more.

To some extent it is disappointing that economics may be the what turns the tide of public opinion. Over the years the left has presented a wide range of arguments for withdrawal. There are, first and foremost, the moral issues involved in occupying another people’s land and denying them the right to self-determination. There are security arguments regarding the folly of trying to maintain control of a hostile people and territory adjacent to ours. There is the problem of international public opinion, which of course condemns this violation of international law. There are economic arguments that decry the terrible waste of resources used to develop the settlements and to placate the settlers, rather than to develop Israel proper as well as social and other services for its citizens. There is the concern for the moral and physical well-being of our soldiers, who waste years of their lives — and often lose their lives — trying to “defend” Israel’s right to occupy a hostile and alien land. In recent years there has finally been an awakening to the demographic and ethical problems: do we want to insist on holding hostage 3.5 million Palestinians at the cost to us of losing a majority as well as the historical right to a nation-state for the Jewish people? How can Israel maintain its identity as a democracy if it denies citizenship and the right to vote to Palestinians living in the territories it claims for itself?

Horseback riding on the hilltop settlement of Migron (Photo credit: Kobi Gideon/ Flash 90)
Horseback riding on the hilltop settlement of Migron (Photo credit: Kobi Gideon/ Flash 90)

Yet Israel has continued to build and maintain settlements, with several hundred thousand settlers living on land that is not ours. Today one can see the beginning of what could be called the “Algeria scenario.” What this means is that, ironically, it may the right — and not the left — that will finally bring about a turnaround in policy.

Thus the second new impetus for finally relinquishing control over the West Bank may, ironically, come from the settlers themselves. Over the last several years Israel’s ultra-right wing government has been accepting and even encouraging even the most outrageous demands of the settlers. Costs have been ballooning, building has accelerated, and the government has been finding ways to whitewash even the most blatantly illegal acts by the settlers, including construction on private Palestinian land, vandalism, and acts of Jewish terror.

The settlers have crossed what many have felt to be red lines. They have attacked Israeli soldiers who have been sent to carry out court and army orders. They have attacked Israeli army bases and high-ranking Israeli officers. Leaders of the settler community have called on soldiers to refuse to carry out orders for evacuation, and some of the “naarei hagvaot” – the wild young settlers taking over hilltops – have been rejected from induction. Perhaps they will succeed where the left has failed, and finally get us out of the territories?

Algeria was considered part of France for more than 100 years. It was formally annexed in 1848 and administered as if it were part of the mainland. Yet in the late fifties, the local population began to demand independence. By 1954 approximately half a million French troops were stationed in Algeria in order to maintain French control as war broke out. President de Gaulle was elected on a platform guaranteeing that Algeria would remain French. But the French, non-Muslim, anti-independence population became as radical and vicious, if not more so, than the locals demanding independence. Their violence became directed even toward the French troops. Their extremism horrified the French electorate and eventually brought about a huge shift in French public opinion. No one wanted to defend them or their hold on Algeria any more.

What has happened is that the settlers themselves have become so drunk with their own successes that they are turning public opinion against them. They made what may be their worst error by making Netanyahu their target when they sent their representatives to a Likud Party caucus and voted against him — Netanyahu, who has done more to indulge the West Bank settlers than any other Israeli leader. Netanyahu retaliated briefly by bringing in the centrist party Kedima into the government, thereby considerably diluting the coalition’s right wing – but that alliance of convenience was short-lived.

Barbara Tuchman wrote that government action qualifies as folly if it entails “a perverse persistence in a policy demonstrably unworkable or counter-productive.” In her seminal book on the subject, “The March of Folly,” she addressed a long history of such policies in venues as varied as Troy and Vietnam. If she were to scan the nearly five decades since the book’s publication she would find no better modern example than Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. Perhaps the effects of economic practicalities and a lunatic fringe will help us out of our own predicament – even if common sense and moral responsibility have hitherto failed.

About the Author
Dr Laura Wharton is a member of Jerusalem's City Council as a representative of Meretz and an adjunct lecturer in the Department of Political Science at the Hebrew University. Born in the U.S., she immigrated to Israel after receiving a B.A. in the Department of Government at Harvard University and then served a full term in the Israel Defense Forces. She subsequently completed a Master's degree and a Ph.D. at Hebrew University. She is a mother of two and has been living in Jerusalem for more than a decade.