Though it was entirely unintentional, the New York Times deserves credit today for pointing out the hypocrisy of critics of Israel’s settlement building. No, the paper hasn’t reversed its policy of treating the presence of Jews in the heart of their ancient homeland as wrong or an obstacle to peace that is reflected on its news pages as much as it is on their editorial page. What they did was something more subtle than that and will require some context for their readers to understand. They published a feature about the Palestinians doing something that Israel hasn’t tried in more than two decades, the building of an entirely new city in the West Bank.
What’s wrong with that? Actually, nothing. If the planners of Rawabi own the land where they are constructing a town north of Ramallah, then why shouldn’t they build new homes and places of business for Arabs who want them? But the story about the effort and the travails of the planners—who are, ironically, under attack from Palestinians for their efforts to cooperate with Israel and Israeli businesses and contractors to get the job done—should remind us that doing so is no more of an obstacle to peace than the builders of homes for Jews.
The point about the West Bank that cannot be reiterated enough is that the conflict about ownership of the land is one in which both sides can muster arguments in their favor. Should the Palestinians ever reject their culture of violence and delegitimizing of Jewish rights to any part of the country, peace will be possible and the land will have to be divided, however painful that would be for both sides. Such a negotiation would be difficult but, assuming that the Palestinians were ever actually willing to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders were drawn, it would not be impossible. And since it is likely that if such a partition were ever to take place, Rawabi would be part of the Palestinian state, then why would Israelis complain that building on the site would make peace impossible?
Of course, Israelis aren’t making such a protest, any more than they speak out against the building going on in Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem or any other place in the West Bank.
But when new homes are built in existing Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem or in those towns and communities in the major settlement blocs in the West Bank that everyone knows would be retained by Israel in the event of a peace accord, they are bitterly condemned by the Obama administration, the Europeans, and the liberal media.
In fact, Israel hasn’t done anything on the scale of Rawabi in many years. Outside of scattered hilltop camps with trailers, it hasn’t actually built a new settlement since the Oslo Accords. What Israel has done is added new housing developments to existing places. But the Arabs have done the same and in the case of Rawabi, they are seeking to expand their hold on the land by establishing new facts on the ground that strengthen their claims.
Of course, Israel’s critics assert that Arabs have a right to live in Rawabi while the Jews don’t have a right to live in “stolen land” on the West Bank. That argument rests on the fallacy that history began in 1967 when Israel came into the possession of the West Bank as a result of a defensive war. But in fact, the “West Bank” (a name for the territories of Judea and Samaria that only came into existence when the Kingdom of Jordan illegally occupied the land to differentiate it from their territory on the East Bank of the Jordan River) is part of a territory set aside by international authorities for a Jewish homeland where Jews, as well as Arabs, had rights. Though the international community has sought to abrogate Jewish rights there, they cannot be extinguished in this manner. The resolution of the dispute over the land requires a negotiation in which each side must be prepared to compromise rather than, as the Palestinian Authority continues to do, simply dictate.
Contrary to the claims of Israel’s critics, if both sides continue doing as they are now and building at the same pace, peace won’t be any easier or harder to reach in the future than it is now. The same boundaries will be there to be drawn with Jews and Arabs on Israel’s side and Arabs only on the Palestinian side (as Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority have repeatedly made clear), then as they are now. The building of new settlements, whether Jews or Arabs populate them, won’t stop peace if both peoples truly want it. Israel has already demonstrated that it is prepared to do so, as it has repeatedly offered and made territorial withdrawals while the Palestinians have never given up their maximalist demands that aim at Israel’s destruction, not coexistence. The reason the Palestinians focus on settlement building as a threat to their future is not because these places are actually obstacles to peace but because they are opposed to Jews living in anywhere in the country.
Rawabi also demonstrates the priorities of Israel’s foes. Many of them are, as the Times makes clear, opposed to it, because building it undercuts the attempt to boycott Israel. Much like the efforts to prevent the descendants of the 1948 refugees from being resettled so as to keep them as an issue to hold over Israel, they’d rather keep Palestinians from having a new town so long as it doesn’t mean doing business with Jews.
If the Palestinians that will live in Rawabi and elsewhere in the West Bank truly want peace with Israel and to gain self-determination in exchange, they will get it. Moreover, if Palestinians persist in building on lands they are likely to keep and Israel keeps building in those places they will retain, it won’t put off peace by a single day. Let’s hope that, like its Jewish counterparts in Maale Adumim and Ariel, Rawabi will raise the quality of life for its inhabitants. Perhaps in doing so it will undermine the efforts of those Palestinians that continue to foment the hatred of Jews and Israel that remains at the core of the conflict.