There was an unusual Mark Twain quotation that circulated during the Vietnam War — unusual in that Mark Twain actually wrote it. He was referring obliquely, and with typical sarcasm, to an earlier American military adventure: “‘Even if the war be wrong we are in it and must fight it out: we cannot retire from it without dishonor.’ Why, not even a burglar could have said it better. We cannot withdraw from this sordid raid because to grant peace to those little people upon their terms — independence — would dishonor us.”
The American generation that largely saw the Vietnam War as a “sordid raid” is now running America and feels the same about the Israeli presence that stands in the way of an independent Arab state on the West Bank. Too often, Israel’s response is that whether we should be there or not, “we are in it.” We’ve built whole towns; surely we can’t be asked to evacuate them.
With our confidence boosted by the famous 2004 letter in which George W. Bush told Ariel Sharon that “In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli population centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949,” we may not have casually referred to any settlement or settlement bloc as “permanent” — we’d rather be discreet than tempt the evil eye — but we worded our way all around the idea with phrases like “blocs Israel retains under any negotiated arrangement.” The same concept is expressed in many ways, but I like that particular phrasing because you can make it into an acronym. Blocs Israel Retains Under Any Negotiated Agreement = BIRUANA.
President Obama seemed to threaten the Biruana, promising the Palestine Authority veto power over each and every, shall we say, Biruanum. It isn’t yet clear how much of a Biruanist we have in President Trump, but his embrace could be insufficient — or even a disadvantage, considering his large opposing camp — if the only argument for the Biruana is the inconvenience of removing them.
Although some Biruana have been there for more than a generation, their long history may mean little in America, where time isn’t what it used to be. The past and present are equally vivid on the TV screen. Jonathan Pollard stayed in prison for more than a quarter century because the difference between a crime committed yesterday and a crime committed in 1987 doesn’t register. If you’re angry about the crime now, it’s as if the crime happened now. And whereas Pollard wasn’t continuing his crimes in the meantime, those opposing the settlements consider that every day a settler wakes up in the Biruana, a crime is committed afresh.
The size of the Biruana need not be an obstacle either, in the American mind. Nothing is any bigger or smaller than the media make it look. A single poster child can cause more of a fuss than a raftful of refugees drowning somewhere off camera.
It’s understandable that some Israelis might prefer to finesse the controversial question of whether the settlements were proper in the first place and concentrate on the undeniable fact that they exist. It’s even understandable to theorize that by conceding the isolated, outlying settlements, we can save the Biruana. But as long as Israel is seen as the burglar, the Western world will consider that the stolen property must be returned. No statute of limitations.
To make the case for the settlements at all, even for the Biruana, Israel must assertively tackle some misconceptions that many Americans and other Westerners hold dear. It should point out, for example, that the West Bank was part of the area designated for close settlement by Jews under the League of Nations mandate for Palestine, which the UN is not entitled to overturn. Israel acquired the West Bank in a defensive war and has every right to retain it indefinitely for the sake of Israeli security. The question of sovereignty shouldn’t be confused with property rights, which Israel respects. Self-determination is not, and cannot be, an absolute right for every self-declared national group all at the same time; nations with a history naturally take precedence over newly invented ones.
The principles involved there aren’t just the justifications for Israel’s presence on the West Bank; they are also the justification for Israel’s existence. If Israel won’t step forward and make the case for the settlements, then no one will listen to the case for Israel either.