“The only thing that can save Israel as a Jewish state is by unilaterally withdrawing our settlements from the West Bank,”

In recent weeks I’ve had to repeat, several times, that I advocate a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from most of the West Bank to the portion of Judea and Samaria that is west of the Security Fence. I don’t believe this will constitute a final border, but it will remove a pretty sharp arrowhead from Israel’s bleeding achilles heel.

To be clear, I consider the West Bank to be “disputed” territory and not occupied. I believe this land is the cradle of Jewish civilization, perhaps to a greater degree even than where Israel is situated today. I abhor the bigotry that causes the Arabs to seek to remove all of the Jews from their midst. I am fully aware that the Palestinians do not seek a Jewish state called Israel to exist next to them and have designs on the entire area (including Jordan).

I have little sympathy for the Palestinians and their war on Israel. They could have and should have made peace long ago, and the formula has been on the table for almost a decade. In other words, I don’t believe that justice rests with the Palestinians. They have not earned a state or the right to a state. They have shown in Gaza that left to their own devices, they will use their resources to wage war rather than build their society and economy.

The weepy Left excuses all of these shortcomings, usually by blaming Israel: “the Occupation;” “the starvation of Palestinians;” “genocide;” “cruelty;” “collective punishment;” “resistance;” etc. They fall all over themselves justifying Palestinian terrorism, Palestinian war-mongering, Palestinian anti-Semitism and even Palestinian lies and perfidy.

For example, if you read a number of the anti-Zionist blog-sites out there, even ones written by Jews, they have taken recent Palestinian claims about ownership of the Dead Sea Scrolls at face value. They actually call Israelis thieves for possessing the Scrolls even though the Scrolls are written in Hebrew and Aramaic, contain the books of the Torah, and other writings that relate to religious life and belief among those Judeans who lived in the area we now call the West Bank a couple of thousand years ago. There could not be a clearer case of artifacts bearing the cultural heritage of a people than the relationship between the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Jewish people. And yet, in a cynical game played by the very same people who declare openly that Jews have no historic, religious or cultural connection to the Land of Israel, the Palestinians claim and demand ownership of these treasures of Jewish history.

In other words, morality is not the Palestinians’ strong suit. Their sympathizers have to twist themselves into awkward pretzel-like shapes to excuse the behavior of the Palestinians over this past century of conflict. Of course, they do it by constantly casting blame upon the Jews and upon Zionists.

By leaving most of the West Bank/Judea and Samaria, Israel would be handing over this important area to the Palestinians.

Then again, the Israelis are far from perfect themselves. The ongoing construction of settlements over the past 40 years has been an epic mistake.

Regardless of the strong links between Judea and Samaria and the Jewish people, it was clear from 1967 that settlement construction was a questionable pursuit. I’m not talking about neighborhoods surrounding Jerusalem – those are perfectly legitimate. I’m talking about those settlements that are far from the Green Line that are intended to be not just residential areas but outposts marking Jewish territory.

The problem is that these outposts are oil to the fire of the conflict because they represent an Israeli refusal to compromise and share the land – precisely the same sin of which the Palestinians are justifiably accused.

This is where the wacky Rightists come in and exclaim that the settlements are no different than, say, Tel Aviv (as in, if one is a settlement, so is the other); that settlers are and must be treated and defended like every other Israeli (even if they need a platoon or three to defend their little outpost); that God gave this land to Israel; that the Palestinians, all two to 3 million who live there, can leave or accept Israeli military rule in their midst; that superior resources available to Israeli settlers are understandable even if the Palestinians do not enjoy the same; and, of course, what is never said out loud but is believed by the staunchest settlers…that one day there will be another war, a vicious one, and somehow, by magic, the Palestinians will be made to leave. To jordan. To Lebanon. To Syria. Wherever.

If many settlers – and here I differentiate between the hard-core settlers and the majority of settlers – along with their strong supporters didn’t believe this, then they would not continue to build outposts in the heart of the West Bank. As a result, this well organized and highly ideological group compels Israeli government to act and move forward in ways that may be beneficial to the settlers, but are not necessarily beneficial to the majority of Israelis who live inside the Green Line or in Jerusalem neighborhoods built after 1967.

The presence of Israeli soldiers among a Palestinian society is a necessary evil. They are needed to prevent terrorism against Israeli civilians. They are there to defend the lives of Israelis who are also settlers. They ensure that Israel maintains the upper hand militarily even as it faces numerous enemies.

But the presence of Israeli soldiers among the Palestinian population also has an ugly side. Young boys are turned into young men once they join the IDF. And yet, with little life experience, they are assigned to watch over Arabs young and old. These young men are sent with guns to lord it over people without guns.

It is not so simple to be an Israeli soldier in the West Bank/Judea and Samaria – regular army or post-service (miluim) – because they are the ones on the front lines who have to make ethical decisions at all times because of their position of power and strength. It is here, where the common Israeli experience of military service intersects with the role of superior strength embodied in the soldier watching a civilian (generally hostile) population, that Israel and its society face their greatest challenge. It is easy to hate another, but it eats you from inside. It is easy to wield guns to keep another population in line but doing so indiscriminately, which is a by-product of maintaining control over another society, assaults and undermines your good intentions. Nobody can be trusted; the Other is always the enemy; their lives are made more difficult so that yours and those whom you protect can be safer or just more comfortable.

Standing as a soldier among the Palestinians inevitably changes both the person and the society from which s/he comes. While leaving most of the West Bank will not remove Palestinian enmity or hatred, and may well open the door to attacks against Israel as we saw and see in Gaza, it will change what Israelis are going through individually and as a society because they rule over Palestinians.

There will also be pragmatic benefits to leaving Judea and Samaria and focusing Israeli settlement on the areas closer to and inside the Green Line. The first and most important is the demographic issue facing Israel as the Palestinian population grows. Unless Israel wants to end up an apartheid state, it must disengage from the Palestinian population. Second, Israel’s friendship with its closest ally, the USA, will improve dramatically. The settlements have been a source of friction since Jimmy Carter’s days in office and every President since has been critical of the settlements and their growth.

Also, Israel wastes billions of shekels supporting and even building settlements instead of using that scarce money and energy to develop new settlements and communities inside Israel. Sometimes, it is now believed, Israel actually turned a blind eye to settlements that were built on private Palestinian land, which is illegal under Israeli law.

As if those reasons for leaving most of the West Bank/Judea and Samaria weren’t sufficient, one must consider that the IDF is stretched thin and wears itself out doing tasks that should be replaced with training for wartime; that Israel’s international standing is undermined and potential allies turn away in frustration and anger; that the possibility of the Palestinians actually moving toward peace becomes even less likely; and, quite important, that one of the key issues dividing Israel’s supporters and those who would support it, will be eliminated.

This is why I was heartened to read today that Benjamin Netanyahu’s nominee for ambassador to the UN, the superb and well respected historian Michael Oren, state in an public talk,

“The only alternative for Israel to save itself as a Jewish state is by unilaterally withdrawing from the West Bank and evacuating most of the settlements.”

“I may be the last of the standing unilateralists,” he said. “The only thing that can save Israel as a Jewish state is by unilaterally withdrawing our settlements from the West Bank,” and waiting for a new Palestinian leadership.

Oren said he does not believe that a solution to the conflict could be achieved at this stage. Instead we should find ways to “better manage the conflict, to relieve tensions and ameliorate the conditions under which people live to ensure against future flare ups.”

“Peace as a solution is not a question of next week but a generational issue,” he said. “One of the lessons that the failed Oslo process has taught us is that peace must be built from the bottom up. We cannot impose peace from the top down, it doesn’t percolate from the top down.”

There’s more in this short article that suggests that Dr. Oren is a sane man who sees the forest despite the trees. That Netanyahu sees him as someone who should represent Israel in the country of its most important ally, the USA, is also heartening and may indicate that there’s a softening position in this new Israeli government regarding the settlements.

We’ll see.

I have some hope.

(image by Efrat Nakash)

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