Jeffrey Herf

Unanswered Questions about Settlements

This past March, I blogged about Israeli settlements.

I argued that especially after PM Netanyahu’s speech at Bar Ilan University in 2009 accepting the principle of a two-state solution and thus abandoning notions of a Greater Israel or annexation of the West Bank, the issue of Jewish settlements on the West Bank assumed a different political meaning. As they were no longer the vanguard of an annexation but, in their great majority, a matter of practical convenience and proximity to Jerusalem, they ceased to be a barrier to a two state solution. As Elliot Abrams has pointed out, the factual assertions of the Obama White House do not stand up to scrutiny. Most importantly after the Bar Ilan speech, those opposed to racial discrimination should have defended the right of Jews to live on the West Bank. Rather than being “illegal” barriers to a two state solution as the UN Security Council Resolution has now asserted, they have not and do not stand in the way of a Palestinian state. They could only stand in the way of such a resolution if the character of a possible Palestinian state would exclude Jews from being citizens.

For some years now I have asked people in Washington, in and out of government, in think tanks and the media this set of questions: If it is all right for Arabs to live in a Jewish state then why is it unacceptable for Jews to live in a Palestinian state? If it is unacceptable to the Palestinian Authority for Jews to live in a Palestinian state, then isn’t it clear that the Palestinian Authority, like the Palestine Liberation Organization before it, is in reality an advocate of ethnic cleansing of Jews from the West Bank and defines its future state as one that would be free of Jews? If that is the case, why doesn’t the State Department, the White House, the EU and the UN call the PA’s policy what it is—racism and antisemitism? But if the PA is not an advocate of racism and housing discrimination against Jews and if Jews can live in the Palestinian state it wants to create, then what the is wrong with the settlements in the first place and how could they be a serious obstacle to a two state solution? Why doesn’t the “international community” tell the Palestinian leadership to abandon visions of a state without Jews, decide to live with your Jewish neighbors in your own future state and build one on the large portions of the West Bank in which there are no settlements?

I have not received good answers to these questions.

The absence of good answers suggests that the real reason that the settlements have become an issue in international politics is that they are used by the Palestinian leadership as a pretext to refuse to end the conflict with Israel in hopes that it can break the US-Israeli alliance and use pressure from the UN and the EU to support its efforts to delegitimize and isolate Israel. The recent UN resolution is the latest of efforts of the past five decades that immunize first the PLO from criticism of policies that amount to seeking a state based on principles that would exclude Jews from citizenship. It is appalling to see this toleration of Palestinian intolerance presented as fidelity to the rule of international law.

Jeffrey Herf, Distinguished University Professor, Department of History, University of Maryland, College Park.

About the Author
Jeffrey Herf is Distinguished University Professor in the Department of History at the University of Maryland, College Park, USA. He has published extensively on modern German and European history including Undeclared Wars with Israel: East Germany and the West German Far Left, He is completing a study entitled “At War with Israel: East Germany and the West German Radical Left, 1967-1989" (Cambridge University Press, 2016). His "Israel's Moment: The United States and Europe between the Holocaust and the Cold War" is forthcoming.