What threatens Israel’s security: Saddam or settlements?

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So far this war in Iraq, unlike its predecessor of 1991, is not keeping us awake at night. This time around, we don’t have to deal with Scud missile attacks, wearing gas masks in sealed rooms. But that doesn’t stop me from waking up every so often at 3 a.m. in a cold sweat.

No, I don’t wake up because of Saddam Hussein and the threat posed by rogue states with missiles and weapons of mass destruction. The American war on Iraq, however problematic for much of the world, is for most of us in Israel a welcome attempt by a friend and ally to deal with a strategic danger that we have been struggling to cope with on our own for decades.

Nor do I worry about a mega-attack by an Islamic radical movement. The United States has determined that these same mortal enemies of Israel threaten vital American interests, and that too is good news for Israelis.

An onslaught by a coalition of hostile Arab armies? That last happened in 1973, and it’s at the bottom of everyone’s threat perception list.

Rather, I wake up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night because the government of Israel, with tacit American backing, is continuing to build and expand settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The settlements endanger not Israel’s immediate physical security but its very essence as a Jewish and democratic state.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s first government, from 2001 to 2003, presided over the emergence of some 70 new “outposts” on hilltops in the West Bank; in fact these are by any standard nascent settlements. That government included a Labor Party component that ostensibly constrained settlement expansion.

Now, in Sharon’s new government the housing ministry is in the hands of one far-right pro-settler party, the NRP, and the transportation ministry (which paves bypass roads so that 200,000 settlers can avoid contact with the three million Palestinians among whom they live) is in the hands of another, the National Union. We shall shortly witness even more energetic and unrestrained settlement construction, as Sharon and his allies deploy the settlements so as to create an unbreakable geographic interlock between Israelis and Palestinians. They seek to “win” the geographic battle to control the Land of Israel/Palestine between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.

Yet in the meantime we are losing the demographic battle. Jews are already a minority in the totality of these same lands–the State of Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Sharon aspires to maintain the Palestinian territories under long-term Israeli control precisely through the spread and proliferation of the settlements. He believes he can compel a Palestinian majority to live in a “state” that finds expression in a handful of disconnected enclaves that take up about 50 percent of the West Bank and are surrounded by settlements.

This plan is a non-starter. It is patently unacceptable to the world, and especially to Palestinians, who increasingly reply: “fine; if you Israelis no longer want a two-state solution, then we’ll demand ‘one man, one vote,’ and eventually we’ll rule everything.”

Saddest of all for my sleepless nights, US President George W. Bush–who ostensibly advocates a two-state solution quite energetically through the “roadmap” concept–is encouraging Sharon and the settlers. The same President Bush who seeks to dispense with our rogue state aggressors and our radical Islamic terrorist enemies, is the first American president not to demand outright that Israel freeze settlement expansion forthwith. Instead he repeats, not once but twice in recent weeks (on February 26 and March 14) that only “as progress is made toward peace, settlement activity in the occupied territories must end.”

As if restraining the senseless spread of settlements is merely a reward for Palestinian good behavior. As if progress toward peace can be made while the settlers celebrate their hilltop victories in the West Bank. As if Bush doesn’t understand that Sharon and the settlers must be denied support because the Israel that so many Americans admire and support is in danger of losing its very soul.

As if the American Jewish community, whose votes Bush seeks, does not itself support a compromise two state solution and reject the settlers’ path. As if the image of Israel as a Jewish, democratic state is not the single key aspiration that unites nearly all Israelis, Jews and friends of Israel.

As if Bush and his advisers never read “The March of Folly.”

Yossi Alpher is the author of the forthcoming book “And the Wolf Shall Dwell with the Wolf: The Settlers and the Palestinians.”

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