The U.S. needs to show Israel some tough love — before it becomes an apartheid state
Israeli politician Abba Eban quipped in 1973 that the Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity — for peace, that is. It was a clever line, and it has been confirmed plenty of times over the years.
Too bad it now applies just as well to the Israelis themselves.
Consider the events of the past week. The 50-day Gaza War has wound down. Hamas has been hobbled, its cease-fire demands mostly unmet. The government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu continues to operate from a position of strength.
So what does the Likud government choose to do? Make a conciliatory gesture toward Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas? Attempt to jump-start peace talks? Loosen the Israeli military's grip on the West Bank's less radicalized Palestinians?
Instead, Netanyahu's government has chosen to steal nearly 1,000 additional acres of land from the West Bank. That's of course on top of all the land that Israel has taken since the Six-Day War of 1967 — 47 very long years ago.
Why now? Because Israel's large and growing settler faction demanded it as retribution for the killing of an Israeli teenager by three Palestinians a month before the Gaza War began. In a revealing statement in defense of the land grab, Naftali Bennett — Israel's economics minister and the head of the hard-line nationalist Jewish Home party — declared that commandeering the territory was an "appropriate Zionist response" to the murder.
As increasing numbers of troubled liberal supporters of Israel have begun to understand in recent years, this is what Zionism means now: not just support for the existence and security of a Jewish state in the Middle East, but the goal of creating Greater Israel throughout all of biblical Judea and Samaria. And it increasingly looks like the Palestinians will be subjected to perpetual powerlessness and a Bantustan-system of segregation, disenfranchisement, check points, and separation barriers, and ruled over by an armed population of millenarian religious zealots.
Where liberal Zionists have begun to wrestle with this deeply disturbing state of affairs, the pro-Israel right in this country has opted for silence, preferring instead to focus entirely on Israel's external threats: Hamas, Iran, Hezbollah, Bashar al-Assad, ISIS, and so forth.
While those threats are real, the exclusive focus on the nation's foreign enemies is too often a diversionary tactic meant to deflect attention from Israel's reckless, self-destructive behavior in the West Bank. Unlike the actions of its regional antagonists, Israel has the power to control its own deeds. Those who truly care about Israel's future need to do everything they can to shame the nation's leadership into changing course quickly and dramatically.
The problem is that most members of the pro-Israel right live in a state of complete denial about the gravity of the situation, insisting that the settlements are a distraction and refusing to acknowledge the role they play in provoking justified outrage among the Palestinians — outrage that makes reaching a peace agreement that much more difficult.
Then there's the claim, repeated endlessly, that "everyone knows" the settlements will be dismantled in any final peace deal, with only apartment blocs in the Jerusalem suburbs remaining in Israeli hands, and with the Palestinians compensated with similarly sized land swaps in other border areas.
That sounds imminently reasonable — at least until you realize that any such arrangement is supposed to be the end result of a negotiated peace deal between the two parties, not a solution unilaterally decreed by the Israelis. Maybe the Palestinians will accept such an arrangement. But to presume ahead of time that they will is both condescending and bullying.
And there's a much bigger problem with this argument: The policy may be impossible to implement.
Yes, Israel forcibly evacuated roughly 9,000 settlers from Gaza in August 2005. But the West Bank settlements are far more massive, with well over half a million Israelis living in disputed territory — and 341,000 of them residing outside of the contiguous neighborhoods around Jerusalem that will supposedly remain in Israeli hands. That's nearly 38 times the settler population of Gaza. Add in the fervent, messianic faith of many of those settlers, and we're left with a recipe for civil war, not a path to peace.
But let's assume I'm being overly pessimistic and most of the settlements can and will be evacuated by the Israeli government in any peace deal. That might excuse existing settlements, but it certainly doesn't justify building more. Think about it: Israel's defenders say the country will repatriate hundreds of thousands of settlers and dismantle and remove or turn over to the Palestinians many thousands of homes, apartments, and buildings used by businesses, as well as roads, electricity, plumbing, and other infrastructure. That sounds like a stunningly foolish and wasteful policy. And yet, against all apparent good sense, Israel apparently intends to continue and expand it.
No wonder so many Palestinians have despaired of ever reaching a two-state solution with Israel. Regardless of what Israel's leaders and apologists say — and these days they often sound ambivalent at best — its actions are those of a country that has no intention of ever leaving the West Bank.
When a friend is behaving badly — acting thoughtlessly, endangering himself and others, justifying his harmful deeds with a mixture of arrogant bluster and insouciant denial — we assume candor is called for.
Now is a time for tough love. It certainly isn't a time for more evasions and defensive rationalizations. Israel is actively turning itself into something that resembles apartheid-era South Africa far more than it does a pluralist democracy. Its friends need to be saying so. Loudly, and repeatedly.
Before it's too late.