Commentary Magazine


The Settlements

To the Editor:

Hillel Halkin cogently explains the ambiguities and complexities surrounding the problem of the Israeli settlements [“Why the Settlements Should Stay,” June]. Nevertheless, he fails to acknowledge sufficiently the extent to which the original settlers and their ideological patrons in Israel’s religious nationalist community and in the secular right wing intended these settlements to be obstacles to any peace treaty that would involve compromising their maximalist claims to all of Judea and Samaria. It is precisely because the underlying rationale for most, if not all, of the settlements was to preclude territorial compromise on the West Bank that the solution favored by Mr. Halkin—leaving the settlements in place under Palestinian rule—is a nonstarter for most settlers and their supporters.

The only alternative seems to be the creation of a clear and defensible border by unilateral implementation of the Allon plan, which would allow settlements near the pre-1967 borders to be maintained intact while those too remote to be easily defended would have to be abandoned, no doubt at considerable expense. Israel would acquiesce in the creation of a Palestinian state on 80 to 90 percent of the West Bank, while leaving open the door to further negotiations to adjust borders and establish mutually beneficial economic ties in return for acceptable security arrangements. One would hope that over time, with the worst provocations and indignities arising out of the “occupation” eliminated, the responsibility for governing a state would foster a more realistic and conciliatory attitude on the part of the Palestinians toward Israel.

David Glasner
Silver Spring, Maryland

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To the Editor:

Hillel Halkin has an uncommonly adventurous idea for the settlements: they should exist under the authority of a Palestinian state. The list of countries safe enough for a Jew to live in contains how many Arab countries? None.

But let us suppose that Mr. Halkin’s experiment is attempted. If the most likely consequence ensues, and a quarter-of-a-million Jews are massacred, onlookers will sigh heavily (with anguish or pleasure, depending on their point of view) and say, “Oh, well, that didn’t work. Israel should try some other concession.” In other words, Mr. Halkin’s proposal is not susceptible of what we engineers call a nondestructive test.

Roberto Alazar
Irvine, California

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To the Editor:

Hillel Halkin’s suggestion that 225,000 settlers might live under Palestinian rule in exchange for permitting the same number of Palestinian refugees to return to Israel is untenable. To begin with, in order to maintain this symmetry, one would either have to ban further Jewish settlement on the West Bank—a policy that runs counter to the whole tenor of Mr. Halkin’s argument—or permit the continuing resettlement of Palestinian refugees inside the June 1967 “green line.” Even assuming that Jewish settlements were thus limited, the net gain for Israel’s Palestinian population, given the higher Palestinian fertility rate, would be far greater than for Israeli residents of a future Palestine.

More seriously, Mr. Halkin’s model would create a permanent subclass of Palestinian citizens within Israel. The 225,000 resettled refugees and their descendants, though presumably entitled to health, education, and welfare services, would be denied Israeli voting rights in favor of a ballot box in Ramallah or Nablus. How would they be identified? Would they live in separate “settlements,” in similar fashion to their Jewish opposite numbers on the West Bank, or could they build their homes and their careers in Nazareth, Umel-Fahm, or for that matter in Haifa or Jerusalem? If given the elementary freedom of movement enjoyed by the rest of their fellow countrymen, would they carry special identity cards branding them as permanent noncitizens of the state in which they live?

These are not mere technical matters; they go to the heart of how nation-states are defined. The settlements, unless backed by a policy of wholesale annexation, undermine the very idea of national boundaries. Mr. Halkin’s proposal would itself deconstruct the Jewish state.

Sam Shube
Jerusalem, Israel

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To the Editor:

In his well-reasoned article, Hillel Halkin proposes to “let the 225,000 settlers remain in a Palestinian state while allowing a similar number of Palestinian refugees to return to Israel and fairly compensating all those who cannot.” This recommendation seems to be based on the assumption that the West Bank belongs to Palestinians; that is why allowing Israelis to live there calls for compensatory measures.

Yet the history of the West Bank belies this idea. In renouncing Jordan’s claim to the West Bank in 1974, King Hussein left the area to “the Palestinian people.” But did he have any right to do so? With the exception of the years 1950-67, when it was unilaterally annexed to Jordan, the West Bank belonged to no one and was never ceded to any specific body or people in any broadly recognized action. It has always been administered—“occupied,” if you like—by an external power, as it continues to be today. Thus, contrary to Mr. Halkin’s unstated assumption, Palestinians have no prima-facie claim to the West Bank, and Jews have as much right to live there as do Arabs.

Rosalie Brosilow
Rehovot, Israel

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To the Editor:

To those who argue in favor of Jewish settlement in Judea and Samaria, Hillel Halkin attributes this view: “Jews have an absolute right to live anywhere in their historic homeland.” But this inadequately captures the position in question. Based on repeated divine promises, Jews have an absolute right not merely “to live” in Israel but to exercise sovereignty there. In other words, a sizable number of Jews adhere to the belief that their rights in Israel are based on divine guarantee and not merely on the mandates of the League of Nations or the UN.

Benjamin D. Sherman
Saddle Brook, New Jersey

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To the Editor:

Hillel Halkin’s article represents a first step in the rethinking of one of the last Israeli illusions: that the lands of Judea, Samaria, and Gaza hold a different status from those inside the 1967 borders, and that the “disputed territories” are therefore the crux of the Middle East’s problems.

That this notion is illusory was made clear to the Israeli public after the failure of the 2000 Camp David negotiations. Last Passover’s massacre in Netanya—an attack on the festival that celebrates Jewish freedom—underlined for many Israelis that the current hostilities are not about the “territories” but represent a war on Jewish existence throughout Israel.

The nation is coming to understand that the Jewish right to live here derives from a biblical and historical bond, and that the settlements are extensions of the original Zionist movement. Peace will be found only when Jews become a whole people in a whole land.

Yehuda Ben Asher
Neve Daniel, Israel

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To the Editor:

Several years ago, in an article in an international “peace journal,” I offered a set of radical proposals for resolving the Palestinian-Israeli dispute that drew upon a principle of symmetry and reciprocity strikingly similar to that outlined by Hillel Halkin in his thoughtful article. The plan I described, however, would go one huge step beyond his in allowing Palestinians and Israelis to realize simultaneously much of their respective national dreams. At the heart of it was the requirement that all Arabs currently citizens of the Jewish state transfer their citizenship, national identity, and national voting rights (but not their residence) to a West Bank-Gaza Palestinian state.

Under this proposal, Israel/Palestine would consist of two ethnically defined political entities, each with its own territorial base; but the territorial entities would together constitute a single community of settlement. Arabs, regardless of their residence, would be citizens of the Palestinian state, just as Jews, even those in the West Bank and Gaza settlements, would be citizens of Israel. Jews could not only keep their settlements in the territories of the Palestinian state but could expand their size and number, just as Palestinian Arabs would have the right (within certain stipulated numerical limits) to settle in Israel. Each side would get what it most wants: an ethnically secure state for Jews and Palestinians alike, a right of return to their ancestral homeland for Palestinians, and a right of settlement on the West Bank and in Gaza for Israeli Jews.

Russ Nieli
Princeton University
Princeton, New Jersey

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To the Editor:

Hillel Halkin’s is a thoughtful and detailed analysis of the history, legalities, and political realities that have shaped the present Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

The trouble, however, is that his words will go unheeded by those who most need to hear them. Arab leaders are not interested in a reasonable solution to the conflict because they have never had a true interest in the plight of the Palestinians. They rejected the UN offer of Palestinian statehood in 1947, refused Israel’s offer to return the West Bank after the Arab defeat of 1967, kept Palestinians in squalid refugee camps, and finally rejected former Prime Minister Barak’s unprecedented concessions at Camp David.

A.L. Kolom
Los Angeles, California

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To the Editor:

According to Hillel Halkin, the total cost of evacuating the settlements could exceed $20 billion. This is a powerful point, and deserves further elucidation. If Israel closes a settlement, will each owner lose the equity he has in his home, and, if he has had a mortgage on that home, will the bank lose the income? Those who advocate abandoning the settlements should at least offer proposals that would save lending institutions from widespread bankruptcy and protect individual settlers from major financial losses even as they are forced to give up their homes.

Jerry Steinman
West Nyack, New York

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Hillel Halkin writes:

Since I openly admitted in my article that the solution proposed there for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict might be utopian, I have no deep argument with critics like David Glasner, Roberto Alazar, or Sam Shube who, for different reasons, make the same point. And yet they make it somewhat simplistically.

Mr. Glasner, for example, argues that life under Palestinian sovereignty would be a “nonstarter” for most settlers. But without Israeli government compensation for evacuating their homes, many settlers not keen on such an experiment might have to try it anyway. And even if compensation were offered, so that most settlers left before a Palestinian takeover, the experiment could still be tried. If the issue is not Jewish control of the West Bank but the Jewish right to live there, the number of Jews choosing to exercise that right is not crucial.

Mr. Alazar, on the other hand, fears a massacre of “a quarter-of-a-million” settlers by the Palestinians once the Israeli army withdraws. But of course it would not take a massacre of even a hundred settlers to bring the army back in—after which, the experiment having failed, Israel would remain in the Palestinian territories long enough to draw a unilateral border and withdraw to it, evacuating the settlers as it does. Would it be better simply to concede failure in advance? Perhaps, but I do not think it self-evident.

To Mr. Shube, I would say the same. If economic conditions were good and Israeli-Palestinian relations satisfactory, Palestinian citizens living in Israel would not necessarily have to be reduced to a “permanent subclass”—especially if they replaced the many Asian and East European “guest workers” in Israel who themselves replaced West Bank and Gaza Palestinians during the 1990′s. It is reasonable to assume that a genuine Israeli-Palestinian peace with open borders would mean an economic boom for both sides.

The argument made by Rosalie Brosilow, Benjamin D. Sherman, and Yehuda Ben Asher that Israel has a better claim to the West Bank than do the Palestinians is of theoretical interest only. The demographic facts, which are that within a generation there will be fewer Jews west of the Jordan River than Palestinians, dictate that Israel divest itself of as many Palestinians as possible. Since it is folly to think that this can be achieved by the mass eviction of Palestinians from their current homes, surrendering political and military control of all or the greater part of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip is an Israeli imperative.

I have had thoughts similar to Russ Nieli’s about how best to make Palestine/Israel a single country divided between two sovereign, federated states, and I would urge that his ideas be taken seriously. They are unconventional, as are those expressed in my article, but the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is itself an unconventional one, and routine thinking about such things as borders, sovereignty, and citizenship may provide no mutually satisfactory solutions to it.

Having said this, I will again concede that there may not be any mutually satisfactory solutions to this conflict, so that Israel will be forced in the end to act unilaterally. But before arriving at this conclusion, we owe it to ourselves to explore, if only in the realm of thought, other possibilities.

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