The settlements bugaboo

Now that Israel’s military action in Gaza is finished (for the time being), we’re hearing renewed complaints about Israeli settlements in the West Bank. There’s an irony here: Israel forcibly removed its settlers from Gaza when it withdrew from that territory, only to be subject to rocket attacks from Gaza once the Israelis were gone.

Nonetheless, a senior European diplomat recently cited Israeli settlers as a major obstacle to any progress towards peace. In doing so, he cited (quite fairly) former Secretary of State Rice’s expressions of frustration with the settlers. And my friend Steve Clemons captured the view of a portion of the foreign policy establishment when he characterized new Israeli settlements as “toxic.”

To view the settlements this harshly is to accept the Palestinians claim that they are entitled to live in territory that is free of Jews. But the assertion of that claim only further demonstrates the Palestinian’s deep and abiding hatred of Israelis and of Jews. It is that hatred, not the settlements, that represent the primary obstacle to peace. Indeed, Israel would be foolish to make concessions to such a population in exchange for mere promises.

One need not be a fan of the settlement movement to deny that Israelis are obligated to eschew settling on land captured by their government during a war of aggression waged by its enemies, on the grounds that some day the Palestinians might stop hating Israel enough to make real peace. As noted, and for better or for worse, the Israeli government demonstrated its willingness to take on the settlers — to the point of forcibly removing them from their homes — pursuant to larger purposes relating to the Palestinians. What followed, including the rocket attacks from Gaza, hardly supports a claim that settlements are a meaningful barrier to peace.

The “blame the settlements” theme doesn’t necessarily spring from anti-Israel sentiment. It may stem, instead, from the view that the West can move Israel on this issue, or at least that the prospects here are better than the prospects of causing Hamas and other militants to change their behavior. In other words, diplomats looking for “momentum” may well view the settlements as low-hanging fruit, at least as compared to other issues..

A deeper, more long-term perspective might counsel that the “peace process” is better served if Israel makes clear that the Palestinians, including Hamas, cannot obtain concessions through the offices of Western diplomats, but instead must earn them through their behavior.

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