The news that Israel is preparing to announce permissions for new housing starts in Jerusalem and the West Bank settlement blocs is causing predictable consternation in the international community. The Palestinian Authority is claiming the building of these homes threatens the peace process. European nations are expressing their unhappiness with rumblings about a “harsh response” that may go beyond their previous efforts to restrict economic cooperation with the Jewish state so as to exclude anything to do with the settlements. Prime Minister Netanyahu can also expect U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to be upset since he has gone on record as branding the Jewish presence beyond the cease-fire lines of June 4, 1967 as “illegitimate.”
Why is Netanyahu doing it? The consensus answer is domestic politics. Having agreed to release more convicted Palestinian terrorists next month, he is hoping to keep his coalition together by throwing a bone to his right-wing supporters in the form of housing starts. But even settlement movement supporters are no more thrilled with a policy that somehow equates building homes with sending unrepentant murderers of Jews back to a hero’s welcome than is the PA about an announcement of new houses within existing settlements. Considering that it is unlikely that these homes will be built any time soon, if ever, the announcement seems to be a lose-lose proposition for the prime minister and his government. But before you join in the chorus of critics lambasting his decision, it is worthwhile to re-examine the question of what is and what is not an obstacle to Middle East peace.
This is a moment when terrorism against the Jewish state is on the rise. Rockets are flying from Gaza into southern Israel. And Israel’s supposed peace partners continue to say they will never recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn. Yet the world is about to pounce on Israel for having the temerity to state its intention to build houses. If that doesn’t tell you all you have to know about the skewed moral compass of Israel’s critics and the lopsided morality of Middle East peace processing, nothing will.
Let’s first walk back the assumption that is treated as self-evident by the Obama administration and the rest of the foreign-policy establishment: that building these homes makes peace less likely. This is simply false.
Furthermore, the existence of settlements over the green line would not prevent their removal if the Palestinians were ever to make the leap the world has been waiting for them to make for decades: to renounce the conflict and recognize that Israel is the Jewish state which will never be toppled so as to create another Arab majority state. Until the PA renounces the “right of return” for the descendants of the 1948 refugees and stops treating pre-1967 Israel as “occupied territory,” there is nothing to talk about.
It should also be understood that Israel is not building more settlements, merely allowing natural growth inside the communities that have existed for decades.
Even more to the point, the peace agreement that Kerry, liberal pundits, and others all say is well known is one in which the areas where these homes will be built will remain inside Israel. The accord that “everybody knows” and which we are endlessly told merely has to be acknowledged by Israel isn’t going to be one where the 40-year-old Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem are handed over to the Palestinians. Nor are the major settlement blocs going to be razed and their population evicted. Even President Obama has said that they will be accommodated by territorial swaps.
The Palestinians can have their state in almost all of the West Bank and even part of Jerusalem without having a single one of these homes or most of the settlements touched. Why then is there such consternation about building in an area that won’t change hands even in the unlikely event that peace is achieved?
Unless the administration and the Europeans are as committed to the proposition that hundreds of thousands of Jews will be tossed out of their homes in Jerusalem, its suburbs, and the other blocs close to the ’67 lines, making a fuss about building in these places is a red herring designed to obfuscate the real problems of the region rather than focusing on a matter of vital interest.
Far more troubling for the future of the region is the current surge in terrorism taking place in the West Bank as well as the increase in missile firings from Gaza. Contrary to the conventional wisdom about the Middle East that is routinely published in the mainstream media, this is not part of a cycle of violence for which both Israelis and Palestinians are equally to blame. Rather it is a function of Palestinian politics in which the Islamists of Hamas and Islamic Jihad are competing with equally radical segments of PA leader Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah Party. None of these groups is prepared to accept true peace with Israel on any terms, even if not a single Jew were left on the other side of the 1967 lines. Until a sea change in Palestinian politics occurs that will enable their leaders to embrace peace—something that Hamas control of Gaza currently makes impossible—diplomacy doesn’t have a chance.
By threatening Israel with another intifada if it does not make more concessions to the Palestinians, Kerry has set in motion a train of events in which Palestinian rejectionists feel justified, indeed encouraged, in engaging in violence. A U.S. policy that treats houses as more of a threat to peace than terrorism is one that is not only bound to fail but is also likely to make the situation worse.