Commentary Magazine


Posts For: December 2, 2012

Which Israeli Party is Dangerous?

Polls don’t show former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni’s new political party having much of an impact on the Israeli electorate, but she is enjoying some success in attracting veteran politicians to her banner. Seven members of the Kadima party that she led in the last elections have jumped over to the Movement, as her party is dubbed. More importantly, she has attracted Amram Mitzna, a former leader of the Labor Party to run with Livni. Mitzna, who led Labor in the 2003 election against Ariel Sharon’s Likud, is likely to be named to the number two slot under Livni. In announcing his decision, Mitzna denounced the administration of Prime Minister Netanyahu as a “failed government” and said the right-wing tilt of the Likud Knesset list made it “dangerous.”

But Mitzna, who was highly regarded for his service as a general in the Israeli army and as mayor of Haifa, is hardly in a position to say the ideas of his opponents are dangerous. Mitzna is, after all, one of the original advocates of one of the worst decisions in the country’s history: the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza that led to the creation of a Hamas terrorist state on Israel’s doorstep.

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Polls don’t show former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni’s new political party having much of an impact on the Israeli electorate, but she is enjoying some success in attracting veteran politicians to her banner. Seven members of the Kadima party that she led in the last elections have jumped over to the Movement, as her party is dubbed. More importantly, she has attracted Amram Mitzna, a former leader of the Labor Party to run with Livni. Mitzna, who led Labor in the 2003 election against Ariel Sharon’s Likud, is likely to be named to the number two slot under Livni. In announcing his decision, Mitzna denounced the administration of Prime Minister Netanyahu as a “failed government” and said the right-wing tilt of the Likud Knesset list made it “dangerous.”

But Mitzna, who was highly regarded for his service as a general in the Israeli army and as mayor of Haifa, is hardly in a position to say the ideas of his opponents are dangerous. Mitzna is, after all, one of the original advocates of one of the worst decisions in the country’s history: the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza that led to the creation of a Hamas terrorist state on Israel’s doorstep.

Mitzna, whose reputation for honesty and thoughtfulness enabled him to shoot quickly to the top of Labor after his retirement from the army, led the party off the electoral cliff in 2003 by campaigning on a platform that pledged to try to jump-start the peace process via a unilateral retreat from the Gaza Strip. Then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon scoffed at the notion and called it dangerous. The Israeli people agreed. The Likud doubled its number of Knesset members in that election from 19 to 38. Mitzna’s Labor went in the opposite direction, going down from 26 to 19 and Mitzna was quickly replaced as the party’s leader.

In retrospect, that election seems like something of a dirty trick played on the Israeli people. Although Israelis completely rejected Mitzna’s idea, in a shocking turnaround, Sharon decided to implement it anyway. In the process, Sharon split his party in an attempt to fundamentally alter Israeli politics. The leading opportunists of both Likud (like Livni and Ehud Olmert) and Labor followed Sharon to Kadima and a majority of the Knesset that won their seats in an election that hinged on rejection of Mitzna’s idea voted to put it into action.

Some may argue that what followed wasn’t inevitable. Perhaps with better decisions on the part of the Palestinians as well as Sharon and Olmert who succeeded him in January 2006, Gaza might not have slipped into the chaos of Hamas rule. But that is merely counter-factual speculation. What happened is that a weak Palestinian Authority and a weak Israeli government watched meekly as Gaza was transformed into a terrorist state from which thousands of missiles have been fired at southern Israel, necessitating two IDF offensives that attempted to reduce the threat.

But no matter how you look at it, the idea of a unilateral retreat from Gaza must be considered a disaster for the country. It not only did not advance the peace process nor gain Israel credit for wanting peace, it set in motion a train of events that has led to two wars and gave Hamas, an Islamist group that is implacably committed to Israel’s destruction, a base from which it can challenge Fatah for control of the West Bank.

The lion’s share of the blame for Gaza must belong to Sharon, Olmert, Livni and the rest of the government that chose this perilous path. But Mitzna deserves a portion of it too. The Likud may have its share of hotheads in the next Knesset, but whatever you can say about them, none of them have a disaster as bad as Gaza on their resume. Seen in that light, it’s hard to argue that the current Likud — whose membership rejected Sharon’s plan — is the dangerous party in Israeli politics.

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Is Ted Cruz Running for President?

Marco Rubio may not be the only Cuban-American thinking about the 2016 Republican presidential contest. Ted Cruz is weeks away from being sworn into the U.S. Senate seat he won last month, but the Texas Tea Party favorite is already starting to fuel speculation that he is thinking about the White House. Politico’s coverage of a Cruz speech this week in Washington takes the position that the incoming freshman senator from Texas’s bold assertion of conservative principles may mean that he’s got bigger things on his mind than getting acclimated to the upper chamber.

To say that he may be getting ahead of himself is fairly obvious. Cruz has yet to demonstrate that he can be a force on the national stage. And even if he does become a leading voice for conservatives, he’ll have plenty of competition with names like Rubio, Chris Christie, Paul Ryan, Bobby Jindal, Rand Paul and Jeb Bush, just to name the most prominent possible nominees. However, no one should be laughing at Cruz’s pretensions if indeed he really is already thinking big. As a landslide winner in the nation’s most important red state, the affection of the party’s conservative base and a Hispanic identity, a Cruz candidacy must almost by definition be considered a likely first-tier candidate in GOP primaries. But even if Cruz still has a long way to go before he can think about an elite status, Republicans ought to think about what such a development would mean for their party.

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Marco Rubio may not be the only Cuban-American thinking about the 2016 Republican presidential contest. Ted Cruz is weeks away from being sworn into the U.S. Senate seat he won last month, but the Texas Tea Party favorite is already starting to fuel speculation that he is thinking about the White House. Politico’s coverage of a Cruz speech this week in Washington takes the position that the incoming freshman senator from Texas’s bold assertion of conservative principles may mean that he’s got bigger things on his mind than getting acclimated to the upper chamber.

To say that he may be getting ahead of himself is fairly obvious. Cruz has yet to demonstrate that he can be a force on the national stage. And even if he does become a leading voice for conservatives, he’ll have plenty of competition with names like Rubio, Chris Christie, Paul Ryan, Bobby Jindal, Rand Paul and Jeb Bush, just to name the most prominent possible nominees. However, no one should be laughing at Cruz’s pretensions if indeed he really is already thinking big. As a landslide winner in the nation’s most important red state, the affection of the party’s conservative base and a Hispanic identity, a Cruz candidacy must almost by definition be considered a likely first-tier candidate in GOP primaries. But even if Cruz still has a long way to go before he can think about an elite status, Republicans ought to think about what such a development would mean for their party.

As Rick Perry’s abortive presidential candidacy showed, the reality of Republican politics in our era means that any prominent Texas Republican is always going to have a leg up. Perry was great at raising money and could have cruised to the nomination on the strength of strong support from Tea Partiers and religious conservatives had he not proved himself to be over his head in the debates.

Cruz appears to be far more articulate than Perry and could fit into an important niche as being far closer to the Tea Party base than any of the more prominent GOP names that are being mentioned for 2016. As the son of a Cuban immigrant, he also satisfies the perceived Republican need to appeal to Hispanics.

As for his lack of experience, it’s not clear that will be much of an advantage. Though Republicans tend to look at this subject more than Democrats, in 2016 Cruz would have as much time in federal office as Barack Obama had in 2008.

Though it’s not easy for any freshman senator to make a splash, the fiscal cliff negotiations could give him an opening if he winds up being one of the leaders of a Tea Party insurgency against a budget deal. That would not endear him to party leaders, but it could earn him a national reputation and solidify his status as one of the leading conservative voices in Congress.

Nevertheless, any craze for Cruz is premature. Unlike Obama, who had a star turn at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, all of Cruz’s triumphs have been in Texas, which leaves him open to skeptics who wonder if he is as unready for prime time as Perry was.

It should also be pointed out that unlike Rubio and most of the other major GOP contenders, Cruz’s stands on foreign and defense issues have been closer to that of isolationist Rand Paul than the Republican mainstream.

One interesting note about Cruz is that if he does run, his Cuban ancestry isn’t the only thing he’ll have in common with Rubio. Since Cruz was born in Canada it could feed the conspiracy theorists that have developed some original, if absurd ideas about who is eligible for the presidency. Like George Romney and John McCain, Cruz was not born in the United States. But since his mother was an American, he must still be considered a natural born citizen. But expect some who have questioned Rubio’s eligibility (although the Florida senator was born in the United States, his parents were not yet citizens) to probably play the same with Cruz.

To talk of Cruz as a presidential contender right now is a little silly. A lot can change in the next three years and we have no idea what issues or candidates will come to the fore by then. But the interest in the Texan should remind observers that any notion that the field for 2016 is already set is nonsense. 

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Did Bibi Slap Obama in the Face?

Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s political options at home are limited. His breach-of-trust conviction and his pending corruption trial are preventing him from running in next month’s Knesset election. But even if he could run, the fact that the overwhelming majority of Israelis reject his position on the peace process would give him no chance to defeat Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. So he has done what he and other Israeli political has-beens always do: go to the United States and receive applause from their country’s critics.

To that end, he was in Washington yesterday criticizing his country’s government and saying that Netanyahu’s decision to approve building projects in Jerusalem and its suburb was a “slap in the face” to President Obama. He believes the project to build in the so-called E1 area that connects Maale Adumim with the city was an insult to the president, especially after the United States stood by Israel during the conflict with Gaza and at the United Nations. Olmert is right to say that Obama’s recent support for the alliance has been exemplary and there’s little doubt the administration would have preferred if Israel would have taken its punishment at the UN meekly rather than by showing that it would stick up for its rights. But Olmert’s assertion that the building in the E1 area undermines a two-state solution is belied by his own behavior while in office.

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Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s political options at home are limited. His breach-of-trust conviction and his pending corruption trial are preventing him from running in next month’s Knesset election. But even if he could run, the fact that the overwhelming majority of Israelis reject his position on the peace process would give him no chance to defeat Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. So he has done what he and other Israeli political has-beens always do: go to the United States and receive applause from their country’s critics.

To that end, he was in Washington yesterday criticizing his country’s government and saying that Netanyahu’s decision to approve building projects in Jerusalem and its suburb was a “slap in the face” to President Obama. He believes the project to build in the so-called E1 area that connects Maale Adumim with the city was an insult to the president, especially after the United States stood by Israel during the conflict with Gaza and at the United Nations. Olmert is right to say that Obama’s recent support for the alliance has been exemplary and there’s little doubt the administration would have preferred if Israel would have taken its punishment at the UN meekly rather than by showing that it would stick up for its rights. But Olmert’s assertion that the building in the E1 area undermines a two-state solution is belied by his own behavior while in office.

It should be remembered that Olmert offered the Palestinian Authority a state in almost all of the West Bank, Gaza and a share in Jerusalem with the PA to be compensated for Israel’s retention of the settlement blocs with swaps of territory. Among those areas to be held by Israel was the Maale Adumim bloc of suburbs just outside of Jerusalem.

Whenever he is in America earning speaking honorariums from liberal groups, Olmert is always careful to praise PA head Mahmoud Abbas as a genuine partner for peace, even though he didn’t accept Olmert’s proposal just as his predecessor Yasir Arafat rejected Ehud Barak’s offers. Olmert claims that if he had just had a few more months in office, the two could have crafted a deal and brought about peace. But such assertions are either delusional or mendacious.

It is true that Abbas didn’t definitively turn down Olmert’s offer. He was so afraid of the political consequences of making a deal that recognized the legitimacy of a Jewish state that he fled the negotiations without saying anything. That left Olmert free to pretend that if he hadn’t been driven from office by both corruption charges and crushing unpopularity (at one point during his dismal tenure in office, his poll ratings were so low they were within the survey’s margin of error), he could have made a peace that Netanyahu has failed to achieve. But anyone who has paid the slightest attention to the situation knows this is utterly false.

The point here is not just that Olmert’s self-promotion is both deceptive and in bad taste. It is that his own vision of peace with the Palestinians would have left Israel in control of Maale Adumim and the E1 area that is supposedly so controversial that any Jewish building there is both an obstacle to peace and an insult to Obama. Had Abbas not sped away from the talks with Olmert and actually signed the deal he was offered, Israel would have had the right to build in these areas. That leaves us asking how Netanyahu’s decision to treat areas that would be held by Israel even after it surrendered both the Arab areas of Jerusalem and most of the West Bank would somehow prevent an accord.

This “slap” to Obama is much the same as the trumped-up “insult” to Vice President Joe Biden in 2010 when another housing project in a 40-year-old Jewish neighborhood in Jerusalem was approved while he was visiting the city. Unless the United States were to take the position that those neighborhoods must also be handed over to the Palestinians, how could building there prevent a deal that would divide the city by the handing over of the predominantly Arab portions of the city?

Few Israelis share Olmert’s high opinion of his own record or his belief in Abbas’s devotion to peace. But their evaluation of the former PM hasn’t penetrated into the thinking of many American Jewish liberals who cling to the notion that Israel can magically produce peace via concessions despite the fact that even Palestinian “moderates” have demonstrated they have no interest in signing a peace deal.

President Obama needs no help from Olmert in finding reasons to dislike Netanyahu, even though he is almost certainly fated to spend the next four years dealing with him. However, for any Israeli to try and exacerbate the situation in order to feather their own nest ought to be beyond the pale. Netanyahu’s decision was no insult to Obama. Olmert is welcome to come here as often as he likes and to bolster his legal defense fund. But it is outrageous for him to use these junkets to try and undermine the delicate relationship between the U.S. and Israel by making misleading statements about the peace process that contradict his own past stands.

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Israel’s Settlements and the Europeans

Those looking for an explanation for why almost all of Europe backed the Palestinians in the recent vote to upgrade their status at the United Nations are blaming it on Israel’s decision to continue building homes in Jerusalem and its suburbs. As reporter Laura Rozen put it in a tweet, “Does Israel really not get how fed up Europe is w/ its settlement policies?” The upshot of this sort of thinking is that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s fanatical devotion to “Greater Israel” is isolating Israel and forcing even its friends to abandon its cause in international forums.

The problem with this thesis is that it is pure bunk. As Jonathan Schanzer and Benjamin Weinthal point out in their article in Foreign Policy (about which Rozen was commenting), there are a lot of reasons why the Europeans stabbed the Israelis in the back at the UN, among which their objections to “settlements” is by no means inconsiderable. But as I pointed out earlier, if the Europeans believe that the 1967 lines with land swaps is the formula for peace, it’s hard to understand why they are upset with Israel building in places that everyone knows they would keep under such a plan. After all, does anyone who is actually interested in peace–as opposed to those who think every Jewish home anywhere in the country is an illegal settlement–actually think Israel will abandon 40-year-old Jerusalem neighborhoods or the suburbs that are close to the green line? Far from the Israelis pushing the limits in their quest for settlements, it is the Europeans who are redefining the terms of peace.

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Those looking for an explanation for why almost all of Europe backed the Palestinians in the recent vote to upgrade their status at the United Nations are blaming it on Israel’s decision to continue building homes in Jerusalem and its suburbs. As reporter Laura Rozen put it in a tweet, “Does Israel really not get how fed up Europe is w/ its settlement policies?” The upshot of this sort of thinking is that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s fanatical devotion to “Greater Israel” is isolating Israel and forcing even its friends to abandon its cause in international forums.

The problem with this thesis is that it is pure bunk. As Jonathan Schanzer and Benjamin Weinthal point out in their article in Foreign Policy (about which Rozen was commenting), there are a lot of reasons why the Europeans stabbed the Israelis in the back at the UN, among which their objections to “settlements” is by no means inconsiderable. But as I pointed out earlier, if the Europeans believe that the 1967 lines with land swaps is the formula for peace, it’s hard to understand why they are upset with Israel building in places that everyone knows they would keep under such a plan. After all, does anyone who is actually interested in peace–as opposed to those who think every Jewish home anywhere in the country is an illegal settlement–actually think Israel will abandon 40-year-old Jerusalem neighborhoods or the suburbs that are close to the green line? Far from the Israelis pushing the limits in their quest for settlements, it is the Europeans who are redefining the terms of peace.

For Israel’s European critics, “Greater Israel” is no longer all of the West Bank, which even Netanyahu has conceded may be ceded for a real peace deal, nor even retention of an undivided Jerusalem. They are now acting as if any Israeli government that acts as if it is going to hold onto all of the Jewish areas of Jerusalem is a foe of peace. In doing so, they are not only distorting Israel’s position — which is still perfectly compatible with a two-state solution based on the ’67 lines with swaps — but also covering up or ignoring the fact that the Palestinians have refused Israeli offers of a state and now no longer even wish to negotiate.

The idea that the Europeans — save for the principled stand of the Czech Republic — have turned on the Israelis solely because of “settlements” is a misnomer. The tilt toward the Palestinians and against Israel is not a recent phenomenon, nor is it the product of Netanyahu’s tenure as prime minister. Virtually any act of Israeli self-defense is treated as impermissible. Nor can one understand the unwillingness of these governments to stand with Israel outside of a context in which anti-Zionism has become the orthodoxy of European intellectuals and the rising tide of anti-Semitism on the continent.

Moreover, as Schanzer and Weinthal point out, the decision to back Mahmoud Abbas at the UN has just as much if not more to do with the hope that giving him a shot in the arm will undermine Hamas. This is a monumental misjudgment, since Abbas cannot hope to compete in the long run with the more violent Islamists who run what is already an independent Palestinian state in all but name.

Europeans who think isolating Israel in this manner will teach Netanyahu or the Israeli people a lesson are ignoring the realities of the conflict. Though they would divest themselves of almost all of the territories in exchange for an end to the conflict, the overwhelming majority of Israelis have no intention of allowing the West Bank to become another, more dangerous version of Gaza from which Islamist terrorists will launch missiles or terror attacks. A European demand for an Israeli withdrawal to the 1949 armistice lines including a divided Jerusalem and the eviction of nearly half a million Jews from their homes to empower a Palestinian entity that won’t negotiate is antithetical to the idea of genuine peace.

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Israel’s Building No Obstacle to Peace

The reaction to Israel’s announcement on Friday that it had approved building plans in Jerusalem and its suburbs was nearly unanimous. Even those who disapproved of the vote by the General Assembly of the United Nations to upgrade the Palestinian Authority to a pseudo-state at the world body damned the housing as either a childish tantrum on the part of the Israeli government to demonstrate their anger or a genuine threat to peace. The argument is that by allowing building in the E1 development area that connects the Maale Adumim suburb to the city, Israel will be foreclosing the possibility of a two-state solution since this would effectively cut the West Bank in half and forestall its viability as an independent Palestinian state.

It sounds logical but it’s absolute nonsense. If the Palestinians did want a two-state solution, the new project as well as the other ones announced yesterday for more houses to be built in 40-year-old Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem wouldn’t stop it. That’s true even of those that say that the final borders of Israel and a putative state of Palestine must be based on the 1949 armistice lines with agreed-upon land swaps. Those swaps wouldn’t amount to more than a few percentage points of the total land area of the West Bank and probably preclude Israel keeping many far-flung settlements in the territory. But everyone knows that the swaps would have to account for the Jewish suburbs of Jerusalem, including Maale Adumim and the other towns in the vicinity that are already inside the security fence that does not protect most settlements. But the operative phrase here is “if” the Palestinians wanted such a solution. They have refused every offer of a state they’ve gotten and refused even to negotiate for four years, not to mention employing the UN gambit specifically in order to avoid talks. The notion that Israeli building in areas that everyone knows they would keep if there was a deal in place is stopping peace from breaking out is ludicrous.

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The reaction to Israel’s announcement on Friday that it had approved building plans in Jerusalem and its suburbs was nearly unanimous. Even those who disapproved of the vote by the General Assembly of the United Nations to upgrade the Palestinian Authority to a pseudo-state at the world body damned the housing as either a childish tantrum on the part of the Israeli government to demonstrate their anger or a genuine threat to peace. The argument is that by allowing building in the E1 development area that connects the Maale Adumim suburb to the city, Israel will be foreclosing the possibility of a two-state solution since this would effectively cut the West Bank in half and forestall its viability as an independent Palestinian state.

It sounds logical but it’s absolute nonsense. If the Palestinians did want a two-state solution, the new project as well as the other ones announced yesterday for more houses to be built in 40-year-old Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem wouldn’t stop it. That’s true even of those that say that the final borders of Israel and a putative state of Palestine must be based on the 1949 armistice lines with agreed-upon land swaps. Those swaps wouldn’t amount to more than a few percentage points of the total land area of the West Bank and probably preclude Israel keeping many far-flung settlements in the territory. But everyone knows that the swaps would have to account for the Jewish suburbs of Jerusalem, including Maale Adumim and the other towns in the vicinity that are already inside the security fence that does not protect most settlements. But the operative phrase here is “if” the Palestinians wanted such a solution. They have refused every offer of a state they’ve gotten and refused even to negotiate for four years, not to mention employing the UN gambit specifically in order to avoid talks. The notion that Israeli building in areas that everyone knows they would keep if there was a deal in place is stopping peace from breaking out is ludicrous.

Nor should the Israeli gesture be viewed as petulant. To the contrary, it is exactly what is needed to start changing the one-sided nature of the argument in international forums about the dispute over territory.

Though you wouldn’t know if from listening to the UN debate or even to most spokespersons for the Jewish state over the last forty years, the argument about the West Bank is not solely about pitting rights of Palestinians against Israel’s security needs. The West Bank is, after all, part of the area designated by the League of Nations for Jewish settlement under the Mandate of Palestine. It is also the heart of the ancient Jewish homeland to which Jews have historical, legal and religious ties that cannot be erased by a century of Arab hatred.

Some of Israel’s friends and all of its enemies claim that for Israel to speak of its rights to the West Bank is tantamount to saying that it doesn’t want peace. Not so. Just because it has rights there doesn’t mean that it must assert them under all circumstances, or that it wouldn’t, if convinced that peace was to be had, give up some or all of the territory in exchange for an end to the conflict. Indeed, throughout the last 20 years, Israel has been in engaged in peace talks or attempts to revive them, during the course of which it has made numerous concessions about territory to the Palestinians.

For its pains, Israel has been subjected to even greater vituperation and delegitimization during this period than before. So long as it does not speak of its rights, it will always be treated as a thief who must return stolen property rather than as a party to a conflict with its own justified claims.

Even if the E1 area is developed, there will be no obstacle to peace talks that could produce a Palestinian state in almost all of the West Bank except for the major settlement blocs that no one expects Israel to give up. Nor would the Palestinian state be blighted by this project since highways and tunnels could easily be constructed to allow access between Arab areas to the north and the south of Jerusalem. Indeed, Jewish housing in the disputed areas is no more of an obstacle to peace than the far greater Arab housing boom in other parts of Jerusalem.

If the Palestinians truly wanted to live in peace in their own independent state next to Israel they could go back to the negotiating table and get it. If they were ever to actually offer an end to the conflict in which they recognized the legitimacy and the security of a Jewish state no matter where its borders were drawn, they would find the Israeli people would welcome their offer and no Israeli government could refuse. Instead, the so-called moderates among them — Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah-run PA — avoid talks and go to the UN where they seek an international fiat rather than an agreement. Meanwhile, the far more popular extremists of Hamas govern an independent Palestinian state in all but name in Gaza with an iron fist and use it as a terrorist launching pad rather than to help their people.

A few Jewish homes aren’t the obstacle to Palestinian statehood. Their existence would make no difference to a peace deal that spoke of the 1967 lines with swaps, if that was actually the Palestinian goal. The problem is that to the Palestinians and their terrorist leaders, the E1 area is no more or less a settlement than the rest of Israel. Until they can rid themselves of the rejectionist spirit of 1947 in which they rejected the first UN vote to give them a state, talk of peace is empty rhetoric.

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