The reaction of the New York Times to the report authored by former Israeli Supreme Court Justice Edward Levy about the legality of Jewish settlements in the West Bank was predictable. It fulminated about the way the Levy commission differed from the consensus in the international community that holds, as the Times editorial put it, that “all Israeli construction there as a violation of international law.” But the Times is not just exercised about the legal dispute that it dismisses in a couple of sentences without even looking seriously at the arguments. As far as the paper is concerned, any measure or idea that does not contribute to the push to get Israel to leave the West Bank is an obstacle to peace and a threat to the Jewish state. Even worse, it went so far as to speciously claim that the ongoing dispute about settlements is diverting attention from the attempt to stop Iran’s drive for nuclear weapons.
This is a red herring that should and will be ignored by both the Israel and American governments. Iran is a threat to Israel but it is also a danger to the surrounding Arab countries as well as to the West. Israeli concessions won’t dampen Iran’s resolve to go nuclear because Tehran doesn’t care about a two-state solution for the Palestinians. Their hatred of Israel and the Jews and desire for hegemony over the Arabs can’t be bought off in this manner. But the mention of Iran should remind observers that what Israel’s foes oppose is not Israel’s presence in the West Bank but it’s existence.
What Levy’s critics are doing is, as I wrote earlier this week, conflating the issue of legality with that of the wisdom of the settlement enterprise. But what the Times editorial, as well as most of the comment about this issue ignores is that the question of the continued Israeli presence in the territories is not one that is controlled by Levy or even Prime Minister Netanyahu. Rather, it is the Palestinians and their refusal to make peace even when offered most of the West Bank and a share of Jerusalem for an independent state. So long as Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas and his Hamas allies refuse to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn, the settlements will remain since withdrawal would remain of the 2005 Gaza withdrawal disaster. Should they ever truly choose peace, there is no question that many will be dismantled. That’s why the obsessive desire to brand the settlements as illegal and to depict the Jews as foreign colonizers in areas in places where Jewish civilization was born and thrived does nothing to advance the cause of peace. So long as the Palestinians think that they don’t have to negotiate over the territories, the status quo will remain in place.
There is a connection between the question of the settlements and Iran but it is not the one the Times thinks it is. In the minds of those Islamists who wish to destroy Israel— be they in Tehran, Gaza or here in the United States agitating against Israel — the West Bank settlers are no different from the cosmopolitan urban dwellers of Tel Aviv. To them, every Jew in the country, whether in the coastal cities or hilltop settlements is an illegal settler. From their point of view the whole idea of Israel, be it within the 1949 armistice lines or one that would incorporate some of the settlements in the sort of territorial swap that even President Obama has recognized as the only possible formula for a two-state solution is anathema.
Far from discouraging Israel’s foes, the push to brand the settlements as not just unwise but illegal gives encouragement to those Arabs and Muslims who still nurture the fantasy that Israel is on the brink of collapse. While the majority of Israelis do not wish to rule over Arabs in the West Bank any more than they did to control those of Gaza, from which Israel completely withdrew in 2005, until the Palestinians give up the dream of the end of the Jewish state, there will be no peace. Those who decry Levy’s report upholding Jewish rights while not saying that they must be exercised are only feeding this delusion rather than promoting peace. Nor are they doing anything to give Western leaders the guts to stand up to Iran.