Friday, December 8, 2006

Settlements: Israel's March of Folly, Gidon D. Remba

Settlements: Israel’s March of Folly

By Gidon D. Remba

Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle

Revised December 8, 2006

A generation ago, Daniel Ellsberg, a former US government official, leaked to the New York Times a top secret report that became known as the Pentagon Papers. The Papers revealed that the Johnson Administration had misled the American public when it promised not to expand the Vietnam war. They uncovered the true scope of the growing US entanglement, from Truman to Kennedy and beyond, in what the government knew was an unwinnable war. The Nixon Administration sought an injunction to stop the study’s publication by the Times and the Washington Post, claiming that further dissemination would cause “irreparable harm” to US national security interests. The Pentagon Papers became a perfect storm that helped turn the rising tide of public opposition to the Vietnam war into a tsunami. Former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, one of the war’s chief architects, eventually admitted that American policy was fundamentally mistaken.

Proving that history repeats itself first as tragedy, then as farce, an Israeli government official has leaked a treasure trove of secret data to Peace Now in Israel documenting systematic violations of Israeli law in the West Bank by successive Israeli governments over the last thirty-five years. The government had refused to accede to repeated requests by Peace Now filed under Israel’s Freedom of Information Act. It responded to a court petition with the claim that the data dealt with “a most sensitive issue” affecting the “security and foreign relations of the State of Israel.”

Facing continued government stonewalling and refusal to make the data public, Peace Now recently decided to release a groundbreaking report about Israel’s West Bank settlements which garnered front page coverage in the New York Times, capturing headlines in Israel and around the world. Titled “Breaking the Law in the West Bank: One Violation Leads to Another,” the study showed that 39 percent of the land in Israeli settlements and outposts in the West Bank is privately owned by Palestinians. According to the report, the State of Israel, under the sway of the settlement movement, has violated Israel’s own Basic Law on Human Dignity and Freedom and Supreme Court rulings by “confiscating private Palestinian property and building settlements on them.” While Israeli officials have long insisted that settlements were built only on state land, the report shows that the government has been misleading the Israeli public and the world. Peace Now has submitted a formal complaint to Israel’s Attorney General. The government is studying the group’s findings.

The settlers and their sympathizers lost no time before attempting to discredit the study and its authors. A spokesperson for the Yesha Settlers’ Council charged that the report was “just another lie to attack the settlement movement,” and that, “in Peace Now's war against the Jews, everything is kosher.” Another veteran settler leader said, “they merely want to weaken us and the State of Israel.”

“Nothing could be further from the truth,” responded Peace Now. The group’s efforts to “reverse West Bank settlement growth are aimed at securing Israel's long-term survival as a Jewish and democratic state. Peace Now tracks and reports on West Bank settlements because they create points of friction with Palestinians, burden Israel's security forces, drain its economy, and complicate the possibility of a two-state solution.” Dissent—especially from the follies of leaders of a country we cherish—is often the highest form of patriotism. The ancient rabbis taught that “Love unaccompanied by criticism is not love.” So too with amor patriae, love of country.

Other critics caviled that Peace Now’s definition of “private land” was flawed and that the land used by Israel to build settlements is in fact public “state” land. But they are attacking a straw man: it was not Peace Now that declared the land privately owned by Palestinians. It was deemed private by Israel’s own land registry and its Civil Administration for the West Bank. Moreover, Israel’s State Comptroller also issued his own sharp report documenting the construction of an Israeli industrial area on privately-owned Palestinian land in the West Bank, a violation of Israeli law which he described as both severe and far from exceptional, pointing to the existence of many other similar transgressions.

Objections raised to the Peace Now report by settlers and their allies obscure the larger problem facing Israel. Israeli leaders, including many who spearheaded the construction of the settlements in decades past, from Ariel Sharon to Ehud Olmert, have come to recognize that the ground has shifted and that Israel must, for its own sake, dramatically reverse course.

As just as it is in principle, the Jewish historical and moral claim to the entire Land of Israel, historic Palestine, has in practice fueled a four-decades long settlement juggernaut which is now widely seen by Israelis of nearly all political stripes as threatening Israel’s existence and the entire Zionist enterprise. Echoing the post-1967 warnings of Israel’s founding father David Ben-Gurion, then-Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was among the first to say in December 2003 that permitting most settlements to remain in the West Bank “will lead to the loss of Israel as a democratic Jewish state.” The settlements and the military occupation which supports them have transformed Israel, in Olmert’s words, into a country “that controls a large population under conditions of inequality.” If it fails to remedy this situation, warned Olmert, Israel will become a “pariah state.”

The proliferation of Jewish communities throughout areas where several million Palestinians seek self-determination has obstructed a two-state solution to the conflict, precisely as intended by their architects. Every U.S. administration for over twenty-five years, both Republican and Democrat, has viewed the settlements as an obstacle to peace. President Ronald Reagan said in 1982 that “further settlement activity is in no way necessary for the security of Israel and only diminishes the confidence of the Arabs that a final outcome can be freely and fairly negotiated.” Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice reiterated in November 2005 that “settlement activity is counter both to US policy and…to the obligations that the Israelis have undertaken. We’ve been very clear that there should be no activities that prejudge a final status agreement.”

Israel Army Chief of Staff Lieutenant-General Moshe Ya’alon echoed the views of many in Israel’s top brass when in 2004 he acknowledged that “the settlements, far from serving a security purpose, were a security burden [to Israel].” He also blamed the settlements—and the military presence their defense requires—for “exacerbating the tension between Israelis and Palestinians.”

Historian Barbara Tuchman defined folly as the pursuit by governments of policies contrary to their own interests, despite the availability of viable alternatives. The current Israeli government was elected to perform life-saving surgery for Israel’s survival. The Lebanon and Gaza wars deflected Prime Minister Olmert from his plan to disentangle Israel from the lion’s share of the West Bank, making way for a Palestinian state in provisional borders. But for the US to enlist moderate Sunni Arab countries to help stabilize Iraq, and face Iran from a position of greater strength, Israelis and Palestinians will need to take a giant leap forward, as the Baker-Hamilton report urges.

Now Olmert has announced that once the Palestinian Authority meets the Quartet’s conditions—recognizing Israel, renouncing violence and accepting past agreements—Israel is prepared to agree to “an independent and viable Palestinian state, with territorial contiguity and full sovereignty” in the West Bank and Gaza, evacuating “many territories and communities.” The writing is on the wall: Israel must soon gather the will for a negotiated withdrawal, lest history repeat itself again as tragedy.

Gidon D. Remba is co-author of the forthcoming The Great Rift: Arab-Israeli War and Peace in the New Middle East. His commentary is available at He served as senior foreign press editor and translator in the Israel Prime Minister’s Office during the Egyptian-Israeli peace process from 1977-1978. His essays have appeared in the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Sun-Times, the New York Times, the Nation, the Jerusalem Report, Ha’aretz, Tikkun, the Forward, and other periodicals.

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