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Weeks of turbulent Arab uprisings throughout the Middle East have dislodged dictators and inspired tens of thousands of young Muslims to dream of freedom. Swarming through streets and squares, they have demanded the end of autocratic rule.
With due concern lest this ferment ultimately bring Islamic extremists to power, it has nonetheless been heartening to see a generational cohort of young Arabs draw inspiration, for a change, from values that are deeply embedded in Western democracies.
But old habits die hard. For weeks, no blame fell upon the long proclaimed source of all Middle Eastern problems: Israel. Nor was there even a detectable whisper of concern over the plight of Palestinians, ever the justification for Arab rage. Even Jewish settlements were ignored. It was widely, and correctly, understood as a spontaneous Arab revolt until President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen declared that from Tunis to Oman, the Arab upheaval was managed by Tel Aviv.
For a time it was possible to imagine that even the Obama administration understood that Arab fury had nothing to do with Jewish settlements. Indeed, amid the turbulence, the United States blocked a UN Security Council resolution condemning settlements as illegal. But what the administration gave with one hand it quickly reclaimed with another. Advertisement
After the 13-1 vote Susan Rice, American ambassador to the United Nations, apologetically explained: “Our opposition to the resolution…should not be misunderstood to mean we support settlement activity. On the contrary, we reject in the strongest terms the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlement activity,” which “violates Israel’s international commitments, devastates trust between the parties and threatens the prospects for peace.”
This boilerplate attempt at even-handedness, balancing the reluctant American vote with an impassioned mea culpa, suggested that the Obama administration remains locked into old fallacies about Jewish settlements as the primary obstacle to Middle East peace. What does it say that the American president, ever so hesitant to support democratic movements in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya – and, two years ago, in Iran – still relentlessly pressures the only democratic nation in the region?
Yet rarely, if ever, during the past twenty years has any Israeli government – whether led by Labor or Likud – challenged the absurd canard that the primary obstacle to peace in the Middle East is Jewish settlements.
Just a year ago Netanyahu capitulated to American demands for a ten-month settlement freeze, during which time the Palestinian leadership quietly folded its hands, did nothing, and awaited the expiration date so that it could demand another extension.
Although Netanyahu rejected that demand, his government remains unwilling to authorize even the expansion of existing settlements that are certain to remain part of Israel – to say nothing of building new ones. And it has swallowed the claim, reiterated by American no less than Palestinian officials, that new or enlarged Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem are “settlements.”
Following the UN veto, the Netanyahu government expressed its gratitude. Israeli border police demolished three homes in the outpost of Gilad Farm, located on Jewish-owned land in Samaria, while wounding a dozen young defenders. Netanyahu, citing “international reality,” indicated to his Likud colleagues that “the American veto in the Security Council was only achieved with great effort” and, presumably, must be rewarded with the sacrifice of a settlement.
Israeli governments have long swallowed the insistent – and erroneous – claim of their Arab enemies (and presumed Western friends) that Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) are illegal under international law. To the contrary: “close settlement” by Jews in all the land west of the Jordan River is a right recognized by the League of Nations eighty years ago and confirmed by the United Nations twenty-five years later. After the Six-Day War, United Nations Resolution 242 (by design and careful drafting) called only for the withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from “territories” not “the” territories or all the territories. By now more than 300,000 Israelis have embraced the venerable Zionist principle of settling the Land of Israel.
For many of the pioneering settlers, the lament of Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook just weeks before the Six-Day War became their inspiration. Rejecting the partition in 1947 that had severed the new State of Israel from the biblical Land of Israel, he cried out: “Where is our Hebron? Have we forgotten it? And where is our Shechem? And our Jericho – will we forget them?”
After the war his students, led by Rabbi Moshe Levinger, remembered. Rabbi Levinger located the new settlers within the historic mainstream of Zionism: “Like emigrants and settlers at the turn of the century and the kibbutz farmers, we, too, are pioneers.” The overwhelming majority of he early settlers, in Gush Etzion, Hebron, and Samaria, were religious Zionists.
To be sure, as the years passed secular Israelis searching for affordable housing relocated into sparkling new settlements that were appealingly accessible to major Israeli cities. Now the largest settlements, closest to Jerusalem, are ultra-Orthodox communities. But the pioneering stronghold of religious Zionism is Hebron, where 700 Jews and their 6,000 Kiryat Arba neighbors (surrounded by more than 100,000 Arabs), remain faithful to its centrality in Jewish history and determined to continue three millennia of Jewish habitation there.
With all that is happening in the Middle East, the Israeli left (enthusiastically supported recently by J Street) continues to cling to its dogma that Israeli “occupation” is the axis on which the region turns. But this anti-settlement fervor should be recognized for what it is, and always has been: an expression of the fear of secular Zionists – including prime ministers across party lines – that religious Zionism may yet challenge their cultural and political hegemony.
For that partisan impulse to override Israel’s ever more precarious security situation could be catastrophic. It already confronts Hamas in Gaza (with Mubarak no longer available to enforce the terms of Egypt’s peace treaty), and Hizbullah, controlled and armed by Iran, on its northern border. Israel hardly needs to add a vulnerable eastern border, where even Jordan has recently rumbled with internal discontent.
More than ever, Israel’s security – and, perhaps, survival – depends upon its continued control of the mountain ridges of Judea and Samaria, where there is a string of Jewish settlements stretching from Ariel to Hebron. These ridges, demographer Yoram Ettinger observes, “constitute the ‘Golan Heights’ of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv,” where 80 percent of Israelis live.
Considered in this geopolitical context, Israeli settlements are not an “obstacle to peace” but a vital security barrier. Middle Eastern turbulence and uncertainty should not be permitted to override reality. And Israeli prime ministers might recognize that international law – however distorted its current restatements – protects, rather than undermines, Jewish settlements.
The largest Jewish settlement in the Middle East, after all, is the State of Israel.
Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of “Brothers at War: Israel and the Tragedy of the Altalena,” to be published this spring.
About the Author: Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of “Jewish State/Pariah Nation: Israel and the Dilemmas of Legitimacy,” to be published next month by Quid Pro Books.
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