Israel’s many adversaries always refer to Jewish civilian presence beyond the Green Line as ‘the illegal Israeli settlements’. I have often wondered why they feel the need to stress that ‘illegal’ attribute. After all, nobody says ‘illegal theft’ or ‘illegal murder’. Perhaps it’s a case of “the lady doth protest too much”: anti-Israel activists wish to persuade themselves – and others – that the settlements are indeed illegal. Because that’s not at all obvious.
But even among those who are generally supportive of Israel, the settlements are controversial. Just recently, over a dinner table, a friend (one who’s a staunch supporter of Israel) has expressed some sharp criticism of Israeli government’s latest bout of ‘settlement construction’.
So, even if legal, are settlements the smart thing to do? Are they ‘good for the Jews’? Why the settlements?
For some, the answer is trivial: Netanyahu is either himself an extremist, or is just a political hostage to extremist elements in his coalition. Unfortunately for its promoters, this facile answer does not withstand serious scrutiny. In reality, every Israeli government in history (left, right and centre) has expanded settlements. And not because of ‘pressure from the settler movement’ – not really. In truth, that movement is far from wielding the political power that some ‘liberals’ appear to attribute it. Those self-proclaimed liberals often quote the number of ‘600,000 settlers’. That sounds like a large number, before one realises it includes everybody who happens to live beyond the Green Line: non-Zionist charedim, run-of-the-mill families looking for affordable housing in some Jerusalem suburb, left-leaning Jordan Valley farmers… 600,000 is less than 7% of Israel’s population and ‘ideological settlers’ represent just a fraction of that. Wanna know how powerful the settler movement really is? Just look at its utter impotence when it comes to preventing evacuation of settlements: in Sinai in 1982, in Gaza in 2005, in the West Bank in 2017…
To starry-eyed ‘internationals’ who view ‘Palestine’ as some sort of primeval, pastoral Middle Earth, the reason for ‘settlements’ is a blatant ‘land grab’ fuelled by typical Jewish greed (shhh – don’t talk like that, say ‘Zionist greed’!) The Jewish state just wants more land. But – let’s do away with the deliberately misleading numbers produced on request and in return for generous ‘grants’ by dishonest ‘NGOs’ – settlements occupy (after 50 years of ‘colonisation’) less than 2% of the West Bank. Hey, that must be the most incompetent land grab in history! Well, that’s only surprising to ignorants and fools. Sure, Judea and Samaria are cradles of Jewish civilisation; names like Hebron resonate deeply in Jewish consciences. But most Israelis have never set foot in the West Bank, nor do they particularly wish to. Kosovo may be the cradle of Serbian nationalism and Southern Slavic Christianity; but these days, it happens to be inhabited mostly by Muslim Albanians!
So why not ‘freeze’ the settlements? Why continue to build in the West Bank homes (or ‘settlements’, or ‘settlement units’, as the anti-Israel crowd likes to call them), in the face of international opprobrium?
Well, the real answer is easy – just not easy to admit for any of the officials in charge. The truth is that verbal condemnation of Israel has become an obligatory rite in international politics. The ‘Arab World’ (nearly 400 million people and most of the global reserves of oil and gas) demands it; the ‘Muslim World’ (nearly a quarter of the global population, more than a quarter of votes at the UN General Assembly) expects it.
For many a third world dictator who happens to be Arab or Muslim, ‘Palestine’ provides a godsend opportunity to channel the population’s pent-up frustrations away from his fat behind and from the sumptuous throne it rests on; for many a politician in the rest of the world, condemnation of Israel is the key to Arab benevolence and to quiet among the growing Muslim minority at home. Settlements are a win-win proposition for both Arab/Muslim despots and for more-or-less-democratic politicians: the former can point at ‘universal condemnation of…’ as an achievement, as evidence of both zeal and power; the latter can get away with the cheap sacrifice of condemning ‘settlements,’ while cultivating everything else that Israel has to offer.
But why should Israel collaborate in this farce? Why play a part in that charade, why supply fuel to that fire? Here’s why: were it not for ‘the settlements’, something else ‘Israeli’ would have to be condemned. The truth may be disheartening, but it’s still the truth: what extensive parts of the Arab and Muslim population (spurred on by persistent religious incitement) object to is not really Israel’s ‘occupation which began in 1967’, but the ‘occupation and colonisation’ of ‘Muslim land’ which started in the 19th century and culminated with the establishment of the modern Jewish state on what is, doctrinally speaking, Dar al-Islam. That’s why the need to perform ritual condemnations of Israel did not diminish when Israel evacuated Sinai and Gaza. That’s why it wouldn’t diminish if Israel stopped ‘settlementing’ altogether, or even if it evacuated every single West Bank settler. Simply, something else would need to be condemned – and that something is likely to be more harmful, more toxic in practical political terms for the Jewish state’s international standing.
Settlements are not just a win-win. They are a win-win-win. From Israel’s point of view, they perform the function of a lightning rod; they are a relatively benign sacrifice on the altar of international hypocrisy. The settlement in Hebron may be a sore point on Israel’s public image; but it keeps Tel Aviv, Haifa, the Galilee and the Negev firmly in the realm of international consensus.
Yes, it’s a dishonest charade – but isn’t everything else in international politics? Stop the settlements? God no, that’d be a disaster! Israel will keep ‘settlementing’ – at a slow, measured pace, but with much fanfare. Settlements will continue to be the focus of lots of righteous indignation from many a holier-than-thou imbecil. Peace – with all that it entails – will come eventually, when the Arab world gets rid, once and for all, of its real oppressors and of their toxic heritage. Meanwhile, Israel will continue to develop and prosper. By all means – criticise the ‘settlements’, folks! Here’s a piece of ancient Middle Eastern wisdom: ‘the dogs are barking, but the caravan moves on’…