The current impasse in the movement toward Middle East peace has a number of causes, and different observers point to a variety of potential culprits. Extremists on both sides are, of course, pleased with the current impasse. Zionists who believe that God gave all of the “Land of Israel” to the Jews and who, as a result, are unwilling to give up the occupied West Bank and Gaza, while representing a minority of Israeli public opinion, are increasingly influential in the government of Ariel Sharon. Militant Islamic groups continue to reject the idea of a Jewish state even within its old pre-1967 borders. Although they, too, represent a minority of Palestinian and Arab opinion, they are increasingly vocal and active and are pledged to end any movement toward compromise.
One thing which has become abundantly clear, however, is that Israel cannot, in the long run, have peace and continued settlements in the occupied territories. Throughout the seven-year-old peace effort, Jewish settlements have continued to expand in the West Bank and Gaza. This has called into question Israel’s seriousness about withdrawing from these territories.
Some 150,000 to 200,000 Jewish settlers live in the West Bank and Gaza. Many are linked to one another and to Israel by a network of roads, for them alone, that bypass Palestinian villages. Thousands of Israeli soldiers are stationed in the West Bank and Gaza Strip to protect the settlers..
The New York Times reports that, “Physically, the settlements dot the West Bank in strategic positions. Their red-tiled roofs perch above crowded Arab towns. Even though the overwhelming majority of the Palestinian population [but only 4 percent of the land-ed.] is now under Palestinian rule, Palestinians see the West Bank as a Swiss cheese with the settlements as the holeséThe army has tripled the number of troops roving the West Bank and Gazaéand has set up roadblocks separating one Palestinian town from the next.”
In March, UNWRA, the U.N. agency responsible for the welfare of Palestinian refugees, said that 250,000 people had lost their jobs since Israel imposed its blockade in October, putting one million Palestinians-a third of its population-into penury. The International Committee of the Red Cross said that, for the first time since 1967, some West Bank villages are now so destitute that starvation was a possibility “if the current situation persists.” Palestinian health services warn that the Israeli army’s new division of the West Bank into 60 separate military enclaves, and Gaza into four, not only prevents access to hospitals-several people have already died as they tried to reach them-but also the implementation of basic vaccine programs.
There are now 6,000 housing units being built in the occupied territories.
In May, an international committee investigating the continuing violence in the region issued a strong call for an Israeli freeze on settlements and a Palestinian crackdown on terrorism. The five-man fact-finding committee, led by former U.S. Sen. George J. Mitchell, was asked to examine the cause of the first weeks of clashes between Palestinian demonstrators and Israeli security forces. But as the violence has continued, the committee concentrated instead on measures that might permit a renewal of negotiations and security cooperation. It issued a series of recommendations.
As an essential step toward renewed negotiations, Israel should immediately “freeze all settlement activity, including the ‘natural growth’ of settlements,” the committee stated.
éhe Israelis rejected these proposals. Israel’s deputy prime minister, Silvan Shalom, hailed the Mitchell Commission’s call for an immediate end to Palestinian violence-but rejected its call for an end to Israeli settlement construction. He said that Israel would build what he described as “a few hundred” apartments or homes to accommodate expanding families among the nearly 200,000 Israelis in the occupied territories.
According to Israel’s Peace Now movement, there are now 6,000 housing units being built in the occupied territories. In March, Israel’s Jerusalem municipality approved the construction of another 2,832 new houses at Har Homa, despite the vacancies in the existing stock.
The Pretext of Permits
The Economist notes that, “Palestinians have more immediate reasons for wanting a freeze. In the first week of April, the Israeli army demolished 25 Palestinian houses in the West Bank and issued orders for the razing of 19 in East Jerusalem. In all these instances, says the army, the houses were built without permission. But the Palestinians argue that the houses in the West Bank were removed because they were preventing a widening of existing Israeli settlements, and that at least some of the houses in East Jerusalem were marked for destruction because they lay athwart plans for yet another new ring road around the city. These roads are designed to lock Israeli settlements in an urban grid, and to sever Palestinian villages in the municipality from their West Bank hinterland.”
West Bank Palestinian leader Marwan Barghouti says, “We can have negotiations, but we cannot have a situation where we negotiate on the one hand and Israel builds settlements on the other. Those days are over.”
The Mitchell Report declares: “The Government of Israel should give careful attention to whether settlements which are focal points for substantial friction are valuable bargaining chips for future negotiations or provocations, likely to preclude the onset of productive talks.”
There is a growing feeling on the part of some Israelis and many American Jews that it is inconsistent to speak of Palestinian rights in the West Bank and Gaza and, at the same time, push forward with settlements, which make any prospect of a future viable Palestinian state seem less and less possible.
Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, said in a June 1 address to the Union’s board of trustees: “The intifada has left us shaken and more cautious than we were, but it has not changed the history, the demography or the economics of the Middle East, and it has given us no reason to revise our long-term view of what is necessary for peace. We believe that in order for there to be peace, Israel must end her occupation and her rule over the Palestinian people. We believe that the way to end occupation is for Israel and the Palestinians to reach a negotiated agreement, based on mutual recognition that provides security for both sideséWe believe that a Palestinian state is inevitable, and, indeed, is already in formation.”
Beyond the fact that relinquishing the occupied territories is a precondition for any meaningful peace, maintaining Jewish settlements in the territories is eroding Israel’s moral position and its democratic claims. It is also eroding the good name of American Jewish organizations which persist in defending policies which, in religious terms, are difficult to reconcile with Jewish values.
Columnist Anthony Lewis argues that, “The establishment of these settlements in violation of international law mocks the tradition of Jews as a people of law. Louis Brandeis, a great Zionist as well as the greatest of Supreme Court justices, would denounce them with the force of an Isaiah if he were here. The damage occupation has done to Jewish ethical values is distressing. When I wrote critically of the settlements in a recent column, I got letters and messages seeking to justify them in the most fantastic terms. One dismissed Palestinians as a non-existent nation-people who had ‘crept into the country from Egypt, Jordan and Syria.’ Other readers insisted that Jewish settlements in the occupied territories were built, as one put it, ‘on unwanted, unclaimed property.’ Can such readers really be ignorant of the pain suffered by Palestinians who have seen their olive groves bulldozed to make room for settlements?éThat Jews should be indifferent to the mistreatment of another people-that they should invent justification for inhumanity-seems to me the bitterest of ironies. When all the invention and pettifogging arguments are finished, the inescapable fact is that Israel has been colonizing the occupied territories. And still is.”
In 1967, David Ben-Gurion said that, Jerusalem apart, “To get peace, we must return to the pre-1967 borders. Peace is more important than real estate.” He said that the occupied territories should be given back quickly, before resentment could build. The Arabs would not make peace at once, he said, pride barred that after such a defeat. But it would come.
Anthony Lewis notes that, “The moment for peace came with the Oslo agreement in 1993, when the PLO at last accepted the reality of Israel. Palestinians believed it meant that they would have a state alongside Israel. A wise Israeli government would have made that belief concrete by closing down at least the settlements in Gaza, which have no purpose except provocation and domination. But instead, settlements continued growing.”
éhose supporters of Israel who defend the policy of settlements on an ideological basis, either religious or secular, are missing the point of what is necessary at the present time for the achievement of peace.
Maintaining Jewish settlements in the territories is eroding Israel’s moral position.
Melvin Jules Bukiet, who teaches at Sarah Lawrence College and whose new novel, Strange Fire, is set in Israel, makes this point: “One people rides in on camels or three-masted galleons or Panzer tanks and obliterates another people and is obliterated in turn. Visigoths sack Rome and eventually disappear. Pilgrims destroy the Native American population that might very well have destroyed the prehistoric population. Jews do not have the earliest claim on the skinny little sliver of land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. Before them were Canaanites as well as Hittites and Yevusites and the descendents of Anak whose cities the Bible says were ‘fortified exceedingly large.’ And subsequent to the Jews there were Romans, Ottomans, crusading knights and British soldiers. At one time or another the wallet variously called Israel and Palestine has been in the pocket of any number of nations.”
In Professor Bukiet’s view, “When two conflicting moral orders collide, they nullify each otheréAt this point, the only solution to the endless Middle Eastern dilemma is political. Until the majority of people on both sides-and their leaders-give up the hope that suicide bombers or F-16 bombers will win the day, no one shall win. It no longer makes a difference who owned the wallet and who found it when. All that matters is that it’s about time for peace.”
The Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot suggested in a May editorial that the Israelis were in some ways at odds with their right-wing prime minister. “According to updated polls, most Israelis-in contrast to their elderly military leaders-support a settlement freeze,” the editorial said. “A decisive majority also supports diplomatic activity and not just military pressure, sees Arafat as a partner and wants to accept the Jordanian-Egyptian proposal.”
New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman writes that, “The settlements are foolish and their continued expansion is a shameful act of colonial coercion that will meet the fate of all other colonial enterprises in history. The inability of American Jewish leaders or U.S. governments to speak out against settlement expansion-which should be stopped under any conditions for Israel’s sake-is a blot on all of them.”
The whole point of planting settlers in the occupied territories, of course, was to make it difficult-if not impossible-to return the land. In Sinai, the settlers were uprooted in the interest of an Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, but in the West Bank and Gaza they are encouraged to remain and multiply. This is a contradiction if peace is being sought. Throughout the seven years of the Oslo peace process, the number of housing units grew by more than 50 percent, though many houses and apartments already stood empty.
There are those who say that while Israel has been prepared to compromise for peace, the Palestinians have not. This, however, may misunderstand the real dynamic involved. Professor Avishai Margulit of the Hebrew University points out that, “Palestinians view the Palestine that existed during British rule between 1918 and 1948 as theirs-100 percent theirs, from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River. They see themselves as the indigenous population of this region and hence the natural owners of the entire land of Palestine. Any part of the land that they yield as part of an agreement is, for them, a huge concession. Recognizing the State of Israel as defined by its 1967 borders-the so-called Green Line-and thus yielding some 77 percent of British mandate Palestine is to them by itself a colossal concession, a painful historical compromise. By recognizing Israel within the Green Line they give up their claim to redress what they see as the wrong done to them by the establishment of Israel in 1948é.Thus to ask them to compromise further after what they already regard as a huge compromise, is, as they see it, an historical outrage. To call any such compromise a ‘generous offer’ is to them sheer blasphemy.”
Professor James Ron of Johns Hopkins University, who is both an Israeli and American citizen, argues that, “Israeli withdrawal iséthe only way to win genuine Palestinian support for a peace treatyéIsraelis have spent 53 years avoiding the issue of Palestinians, refugees and land. The time has come for them to confront reality head on. The occupied territories are not theirs to keep.”
Allan C. Brownfeld is a syndicated columnist and associate editor of the Lincoln Review, a journal published by the Lincoln Institute for Research and Education, and editor of Issues, the quarterly journal of the American Council for Judaism.