The settlers’ mistakes

The settlements issue did not have to become synonymous with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. After all, this dispute between two peoples over one land began long before settlements were built in the post-1967 era, and there is no guarantee it won’t outlive the settlements. After 1977 Israel didn’t begin building settlements in earnest until many were persuaded the Palestinians were not interested in a reasonable solution. And it was the expansion of these same settlements, as much as any other factor, that convinced the PLO to accept a two-state solution before there would be no land left to bicker over with Israel.

Why, then, are the settlements such a central issue, to the extent that Israel has begun dismantling them unilaterally? And why did the settlers lose so badly–politically, publicly, internationally, geographically, ideologically–in the course of the recent Gaza disengagement? If I were one of the leaders of the settler movement, sitting in one of their many recent soul-searching sessions, I would offer the following thoughts as to where the movement went wrong.

First and foremost, the post-1967 religious-ideological settlers of the West Bank and Gaza thought they could "repeat history"–the history of the pre-1948 secular Zionist settlements in Mandatory Palestine and the 1948-1967 expansion of Jewish settlement, often on abandoned or expropriated Palestinian Arab property, inside the state of Israel. They completely failed to understand that what was acceptable, even appropriate Zionist behavior in the pre- and early-state periods–acceptable to most Israelis and to the world within the context of a (Jewish) national liberation movement, sanctioned first by the League of Nations and then by the United Nations–would be seen as an immoral, illegal, and wrongheaded exploitation of raw power in the last quarter of the twentieth century. The settlers keep telling the rest of us that they have simply become the vanguard of the movement we founded over 100 years ago. In fact, they are totally out of step with history–local, regional, a! nd global.

In this regard, the settlers failed to recognize that their enterprise would of necessity be perceived as merely an extension of Israel’s military occupation of another people. We might have been able to justify the occupation itself for several decades–but not the settlements. Here too, the contrast with pre-1967 settlement building is stark, because prior to 1967 settlements were not an expression of occupation, but rather a sovereign enterprise on sovereign land.

Another contrast suggests itself in this respect. There is far less fuss over Israeli settlement on the Golan, even though that territory is universally recognized as sovereign Syrian land, whereas the West Bank and Gaza settlements have ostensibly benefited from the lack of clarity over the sovereign status of those lands. This is because the Golan settlements are not perceived as evolving and expanding at the expense of a local population laboring under military conquest.

This points to yet another conceptual mistake on the part of the settler movement: demography. Try as they might, the settlers cannot explain to the rest of us Israelis why it makes sense to deploy the settlements in such a way that they create a geographic interlock between the Israeli and Palestinian populations. The settler leaders have no real solution for the demographic impasse they have produced–certainly no solution that passes a minimal test of democracy and decency in relations between two peoples in the twenty-first century.

Yet another failure of the settlements is economic: they cost huge sums of money, with veteran settlers by and large living better than the average Israeli, yet for the most part the settlements don’t appear to be self-sustaining. The majority of settlers either commute to major Israeli cities to work, or are employed in one form or another by the state. This explains why the Gaza settlers who attracted the most sympathy were the farmers: they were the only ones who appeared to have struck roots in the land.

Finally, the ideological settler leadership, the settler rabbis and the politicians, are religious fundamentalists. They believe they have discovered an absolute truth about how to bring redemption for us all. The level of indoctrination of their youth is frightening. They display a marked sense of superiority over us normal Jewish mortals, the vast majority of Israelis. They are "quality" people, with "values" the rest of us lack. Even those of us who grew up with an ingrained ancestral sense of deference toward rabbis and have a healthy respect for Jews who proclaim themselves pioneers, find this self-conceit repulsive.