Settlements: My Take


Leonard Zwelling

Much has been made of the United States’ position to allow the UN Security Council vote against the Israeli settlements in the West Bank to stand. Usually the Americans would have vetoed such a resolution, but the US abstained allowing its passage. Now Secretary of State John Kerry has averred his support for this position and Prime Minister Netanyahu has expressed his displeasure. Everyone did exactly what he or she wanted to. Great. Now what?

Please allow me to take a pass at explaining the problem because I have been very unimpressed with the electronic media’s ability to convey the complexity of the Settlements issue.

First, in 1967 the Israelis were surrounded by hostile Arab states—Egypt, Jordan and Syria threatening to push the still nascent democracy into the Mediterranean Sea. Israel pre-empted the invasion and the Six Day War was over in, well, six days. Israel blew up most of the Egyptian Air Force on the ground and expanded its hold over most of the territory west of the Jordan River and up into the Golan Heights. These were areas previously controlled by Jordan and Syria. Israel still controls these areas almost 50 years later.

Second, the West Bank is no more one geographic entity than is Long Island. All of Long Island is in New York State, but only half of it is in New York City (Brooklyn and Queens). The rest is Nassau and Suffolk Counties.

The West Bank consists of three zones, A, B and C plus East Jerusalem which has been officially annexed into Israel proper. These are not neatly laid out like states in the US. It’s more Rube Goldberg than Lewis and Clark. This official annexation is not the case of A, B or C. A and B are largely Arab areas in Israeli control. Israelis are not really supposed to go there. When we visited A (e.g., to see Bethlehem), we had to use a Palestinian guide. Most of the settlements, as I understand it, are in C. This now consists of some 600,000 people who consider themselves Israeli, but who our East Jerusalem cab driver called “Jewish” Settlers. That Israeli vs. Jewish distinction is crucial. By the way, many of these settlers are Americans who have made aliyah, settling in Israel.

Here in lies the quandary.

What is Israel? Is it the Jewish State? Is it a democracy? Is it defined by the pre-1967 borders? Can it be all three? Why would that be hard?

Let’s remember that pre-1967, Jews from around the world could not get to the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem as it was in Arab hands and they would not let Jews see it. Many areas of great historical and religious significance that I have seen with my own eyes would not have been open to me before 1967. Why should the world return to a status quo that denies Christians and Jews access to holy sites within the Old City?

OK, let’s say Israel keeps all of it. It annexes all the post-1967 captured land into Israel. Much of that land belonged to Palestinians. There are streets in East Jerusalem with houses that still bear the symbols of Arab families that are today under the control of Jews. If Israel takes all the land, would it still be a democracy? Will they allow full citizenship to the Arabs within those boundaries? About 20% of people currently in Israel are not Jews. Do they really have full citizenship? Ask them and you will get many answers. I have.

Let’s turn the problem on its head.

In about 1789 when the Constitution became the law of the United States, the area now known as South Dakota, was inhabited by American Indians. Later, the white people from the east took it by force. There was no real negotiation there beyond the treaties that seem to have permanently enslaved the Indians. So if Israel is to give back East Jerusalem and much of the West Bank, should the United States give back Mount Rushmore? Just asking.

This is the level of the problem. A democratic government founded on the principle of being a Jewish State expanded its borders at a time of war. Now everyone wants them to give back the land Israel captured while being attacked. Why should they?

The answer is for peace, but who is going to guarantee that? The Palestinians? I don’t think so. Their central government is no government at all and in fact is in two pieces with Hamas in Gaza and the PLO in Ramallah. Neither Palestinian government has the capacity to guarantee a peace settlement. Why would the Israelis do that anyway? Will the Americans underwrite the peace? The Obama Administration was never trusted by the Israeli government under Prime Minister Netanyahu. Obama was perceived as hostile to the Israeli cause. The latest nonsense by the Americans in the Security Council only serves to substantiate Netanyahu’s unwillingness to trust Obama. Perhaps under Trump things will be different.

Could the Russians underwrite the peace? No Israeli in his right mind would trust the Russians after the mess they made in Syria let alone the Ukraine. Jews haven’t had a good track record in Russia. Many of the Israeli Jews come from Russia and would be most reluctant to put their trust in the Russians for their security and survival.

There are only two choices.

Either Israel will give up land in A, B, parts of C and East Jerusalem to create an independent Palestinian state or they won’t. Right now, the odds are against the Israelis doing that because they really have no partner with whom to do a deal. Until the Palestinians—all of them—recognize the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish democratic state, this will not happen.

Israel could annex it all. After all, the US still has all of South Dakota, even the reservations. But in truth that would be a huge headache for Israel and threaten the existence of Israel as the Jewish State as it would incorporate many non-Jews and it would start to look a lot like apartheid South Africa.

There is one other possibility. If Jordan would take the West Bank in A and B, leave the settlements in C and consolidate Jerusalem into an international city under joint Israeli-Jordanian control under the current peace accord between the two countries, while the Golan stays in Israel, that’s a third choice. That’s mine.

What’s yours? Maybe you have a better idea.

For certain, Israel is a grown-up nation capable of taking care of itself in a very dangerous neighborhood. Most Israelis that I have spoken with on my recent trips in 2014 and 2015 are fed up with the whole thing and wish it would all just go away. For the most part, the country is booming despite being next door to a hostile, economically depressed Palestinian entity.

In 1998 and 1999 when we visited Israel and the West Bank before the Second Intifada, there was hope that a peace agreement was possible with the engine of Israeli economic growth assisting the Palestinian state with jobs and commerce. Terrorists ended that, not Israelis.

What Mr. Obama and Mr. Kerry fail to see is that the onus is on the Palestinians to stop grandstanding at venues like the United Nations and actually come up with something they can live with that allows the Israelis to be a free, democratic, Jewish State with some of the territory it captured in 1967 as a buffer against terrorist incursions. If the Palestinians can find a leader who can get them there, I am all for it.

I’m still waiting.

Leonard Zwelling