Most American Jews agree; Israeli settlements on the West Bank are an impediment to peace. Not me. In my view, settlements hasten peace. Before you order me boiled in matzoh ball soup, consider this.
Those who fault Israel for the failure to achieve peace ignore two realities: First, Israel’s vibrant democracy has been governed by left, right and center. They have attempted virtually every plausible path to peace, including public, secret, high level, low level, land for peace, bilateral, unilateral and with mediating third parties — all with no result. It can be said, without reservation, that Israel has no “strategy” to thwart the national aspirations of the Palestinians and crush the hopes of the civilized world. The truth is quite the opposite. If there is a strategy, it is survival, the sovereign right of any nation.
Second, the Palestinians are not passive victims in this ongoing drama. Since 1947 they have taken an unwavering position never to agree to the existence of “the Zionist Entity.” It is anathema for them even to say the word “Israel.” But give them credit; they are remarkably consistent and predictable. They change only the level of violence, until Israel is forced to make the price of violence too high.
It is unfair and simply wrong to indict Israel for the failure to reach a peace agreement. Israel is governed by capable leaders who, while certainly not infallible, act in the best interests of the nation to achieve a just peace. Most of their decisions have been the best option for peace possible given the situation at that moment in history.
After all the exhaustive efforts to make peace, it no longer surprises us when outcomes fail to meet expectations; it is simply beyond Israel’s control without a willing peace partner. If no peace partner exists, the settlements and the security wall are not impediments to peace, as Israel’s self-appointed critics complain. Further, it is far too soon to know what history’s judgment of settlements will be.
I illustrate with two examples from America’s past: The most fractious quarrel in our fledgling republic was the rancorous debate in 1795 over ratification of the Jay Treaty with Britain. Disagreements were so intense they split the nation into political parties for the first time. John Jay said he could travel the length of the country by the glow of his figure burning in effigy. Many decades later, the hated treaty came to be lauded by historians. It placed American shipping under the protection of the British Navy and established American trade and industry.
More recently, President Reagan refused to give up “Star Wars” at Reykjavik and turned away from decades of “peaceful coexistence.” Reagan called the Soviets an “evil empire.”
“We’ll win,” he declared, and public opinion around the world, save Britain’s Thatcher, was aghast at the recklessness of the “dangerous cowboy.” History, however, says otherwise. If you still have doubts, ask a Pole, a Czech, or an East German.
Prevailing “wisdom” is often wrong. I believe it is wrong in respect to settlements. If Israel had never built a settlement, would the Palestinians have made peace? I think not. A learned friend whose opinion I respect agreed with me, but noted that without settlements Israel would have greater moral authority to extricate itself on its own terms. Again, I think not. Israel is awash in moral authority. It has not helped them. So, how can the settlements foster peace?
It is revelatory to think of the issue in terms of game theory. The Palestinian game — and they are very good at it — is to wait out the Israelis and delegitimize Israel. It has been so since 1967, when the Palestinians realized they could not win militarily. The boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, with its apartheid rhetoric and college professors who teach hatred of Israel, are the point of the spear in this war by other means. Palestinians believe time is on their side. What would change their minds?
The settlements might. The longer the Palestinians delay, the more territory they may have to forfeit when the lines of a future state are drawn, as they eventually will be. Other hopeful impulses toward peace are in evidence. The intractable leadership of the Arafat generation is expiring, and new leaders exemplified by Salam Fayyad are emerging. Security and prosperity are flourishing in the West Bank, eroding Palestinian desire to continue the impasse.
So there you have it. Settlements send this message: “Time is not on your side. Your best chance for a state is sooner rather than later.” So in the words of Joshua, be strong and have courage. With settlements, time is on our side.