Why the settlements are bigger than just a few acres of land

TOI editor-in-chief David Horovitz identified the issue that has been causing Israel more trouble internationally than any other: the West Bank settlements. He knows that they are a problem, but I can’t tell what his tone is when he writes paragraphs like these:

No matter that building at Givat Hamatos — the subject of the most recent US flare-up — has yet to begin, or that Givat Hamatos is barely over the Green Line, and lies within Israel’s claimed sovereign, unified Jerusalem. Never mind that the planned West Bank land annexation so galling to Sir Richard Ottaway is in the Etzion Bloc area, immediately south of Jerusalem, much of it privately purchased by Jews before the establishment of Israel, and envisaged by many Israelis as an area that would be retained by Israel as part of a land swap-redefined border under a permanent accord with the Palestinians. It makes no difference that the 1,000 acres at issue are near to the spot where three Israeli teenagers were seized and murdered by a Hamas terrorist cell on June 12.

Is it a complaint, or is it simple truth-telling? Perhaps, it is both.

Israelis are confused why everyone hits the settlements when there are horrible things done all the time by the other side. Let me clear up some confusion. It’s all about narrative. The settlements are toxic—poisonous—to narratives that pro-Israel Westerners, and the Israeli government, use to justify Israel’s security focus and support from the West.

Israel’s security doctrine from the state’s beginning has been oriented in a duality: the strategy is defensive, but the tactics are offensive. Israel, with no strategic depth in the event of an enemy attack, has always tried to keep the fighting on enemy turf. The Israeli military was created to deliver rapid, decisive victories that took the offensive from the get-go. The Six-Day War was not only a giant victory for the IDF—it was also a perfect encapsulation of Israeli defense doctrine.

But remember: the strategy was defense. Israel has never fought a war to permanently expand its borders—they have all been meant to address a real security threat.

The settlements are different. The original military outposts in the West Bank may have been designed for security purposes, but the residential settlers are not playing defense. They are intruding on land that is not theirs. They use the might of the IDF to push their way into the West Bank. Pro-Israel parliamentarians in Europe mostly seek to defend Israel—not to assist its offense.

The settlements undermine another important narrative, too—that Israel is uniquely committed to the rule of law in a chaotic, despotic region. The process of settlement development is often an exercise in bureaucratic games where the state, in slow motion, incorporates illegal activity so that it becomes “legal.” How on Earth is this defensible unless under the logic of divine law?

The two pro-Israel narratives above are based in reality. Israel really is under threat from a number of foes and isn’t about to conquer neighboring countries to plunder their resources. Israel really does have by far the most advanced liberal democratic institutions in the region. But the severe cracks in the narratives invite alternative, far less charitable narratives to take their place. Repeated flagrant abuses are hard to ignore.

Facts don’t matter in the Middle East, or in any international conflict. How facts fit story lines is much more important. Disputing tiny details like what steps the Palestinians can take to challenge new settlement construction is pointless; in the anti-settlement narrative, this is a fig leaf of due process on a colonial project.

Many Israelis, including those in leadership, seem to have given up the pretense of supporting, even in theory, the idea of a Palestinian state. This is a fatal coup against Israeli narratives of defense and commitment to the rule of law. It lays bare the intentions of the Israeli state: to permanently house Jews on lands that don’t belong to them except in the Torah.

It’s quite remarkable that, at a time when Islamic fundamentalism is an ever greater threat to the states of the Middle East, Israel has managed to produce sympathy from basically no-one in the world except a shrinking contingent of right-wing Americans, and has driven the U.S. government into fits of fury that portend an unprecedented shift in policy attitudes. A truly outstanding, and by no means inevitable, achievement in statecraft.

About the Author
Dan Rozenson is a graduate student in security policy at George Washington University in Washington, DC. He also writes about baseball at Baseball Prospectus.