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Targeting Jewish settlements wont bring peace closer
February 28th, 2003
Philadelphia Events and Palestinian Arab intransigence have conclusively proven that peaceful resolution of the conflict between Israel and the Arabs cannot be manufactured by Israeli concessions.
But that hasnt stopped many people, including American Jewish leaders and organizations, from continuing to obsess about settlements.
In the last year, the Reform movement has published a series of studies bashing the existence of Jewish communities in the West Bank and Gaza, and even promoted a nationwide program of discussion about the topic at their synagogues. This week, some of its members proposed a controversial resolution at the annual gathering of the Jewish Council of Public Affairs urging Israel to adopt a freeze on settlements.
The members and institutions of Reform have responded to the recent crisis with the same empathy, and emotional and financial support for Israels people as the rest of American Jewry.
However, by seeking to get American Jewry on the record as supporting a settlement freeze and a Palestinian state, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, head of Reforms Union of American Hebrew Congregations, seemed to be sending a message to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his new government not to count on them when push comes to shove in future negotiations.
The resolution was defeated. Nevertheless, by seizing on the settlement issue, Yoffie and company attacked the now triumphant forces of Israels center-right governing coalition at its most vulnerable point.
Yoffie and many others, here and in Israel, believe creation of a Palestinian state is a prerequisite for peace. They also think Israels safety depends on such a state because the maintenance of a status quo that incorporates millions of hostile Arabs inside Israels borders threatens Israeli democracy and security. If we assume, as we should, that expulsion of the Arabs in the territories is neither moral nor viable, what do you do with them?
The real obstacle
Few Jewish leaders will argue that Jews have no right to live or build in the territories. Settlements are neither illegal nor immoral. But in this formulation, the existence of the settlements and their expansion makes a future accord with the Palestinians more difficult.
Since even Sharon now says he can envisage a peace with a Palestinian state, albeit one that is both democratic and that has truly renounced violence against Israel, a freeze can be made to sound reasonable.
The problem with this analysis is that we are not arguing in a vacuum. The last three years have shown that the Palestinians never were interested in land for peace. Arab rejectionism is the obstacle, not the settlements.
The Palestinian Authoritys promotion of Jew-hatred has created a situation where it may well be that the best Israel can hope for is to defend itself against the infrastructure of terror while waiting for circumstances to change. A two-state solution seems no more a guarantee of peace than the status quo.
Sharon is smart to talk of accepting a state under highly specific circumstances; but the odds are against anything like a peaceful, democratic Palestinian state coming into existence.
Will a settlement freeze advance the chances of it happening? It is far more likely it would have, like previous Israeli concessions, the opposite effect.
By renouncing even the most precarious of settlements, such as those in Gaza, Israel will be repeating the mistake it made during former Prime Minister Ehud Baraks skedaddle from Lebanon in 2000. Under present circumstances, Israels military believes such a gesture would only embolden the Palestinians to step up their attacks.
Nor would surrender of the hot spot of Hebron help. By giving up the place where Jewish history began, Israel again would send an unintended signal to Palestinians that the Jews will renounce their patrimony and have lost their will to resist. The result would be more bloodshed, not less.
And a freeze really would not affect these controversial settlements. The only expansion that has gone on in the territories is in those places that most Israelis have no intention of giving up, such as Efrat and the Gush Etzion bloc (where kibbutzim were destroyed by Arab invaders in 1948).
Effectively, calling for a freeze is saying that the Jews of Efrat and other heavily populated communities near the 1949 armistice lines would be on the chopping bloc.
Marked for death
Settlement freeze advocates need to understand another fact. Stigmatizing the more than 200,000 Jews who live in the territories as an unnecessary burden on the Jewish people and an obstacle to peace supports the false claim by some Arabs that attacks on these Jews are not terrorism but self-defense.
The portrayal of these Jews as lunatics itching to kill Arabs has become a common stereotype held by many Americans. Though a tiny minority of extremists might fit this description, the overwhelming majority does not.
Though many American Jews act as if rhetoric delegitimizing settlements has no cost, this is false. All Jews in the territories young or old, religious or secular, hard-line or moderate have been marked for death by the Palestinian Authority and its allies.
And since most of the world sees no distinction between them and the more than 200,000 Jews living in the parts of Jerusalem that were occupied by Jordan from 1949 to 1967, we are really talking about the idea that nearly half a million Jews are considered fair game for murder even by Arab moderates and many of their European supporters. Any action or statement by American Jews reinforcing this idea is an unforgivable blunder.
By proposing a settlement freeze now, Yoffie et al are signaling that, should pressure for Israeli concessions resume after a war on Iraq, a major portion of American Jewry may not support Israels democratically elected government in its efforts to avoid steps that will endanger Jewish lives.
Most Jews, including many Reform Jews, understand a point Yoffie apparently does not. At the moment, no one in Israel or the United States has a formula that will bring peace.
Under these circumstances, a little more humility on the part of Jewish leaders is required.
Sniping at Israel and seeking to impose conditions on it while it is at war are not the actions of a friend or ally. While Palestinian terror continues with little letup, this is not the time for American Jews to play such games.
Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia.