For years, Israel’s critics have been railing against the construction of illegal outposts by Jews in the West Bank. The hilltop enclaves are erected without government permits and are therefore illegal, but the settlers have often been able to win delays from sympathetic politicians or to otherwise tie up their status in court. This is seen as a failure of the rule of law in Israel but the Palestinians have apparently been taking notes from the settlers’ tactics. Today a group of Palestinians erected a tent city in the controversial E1 area just outside Jerusalem protesting plans to incorporate the area into the city and the Jewish state. Police told them they would eventually be evicted, but those involved say they are on Arab-owned land and intend to stay until their camp is incorporated into a independent Palestinian state rather than Israel.
This is an effective tactic, but at the heart of their stunt is a concept that doesn’t necessarily work in favor of their cause. If, as their sympathizers will argue, Palestinians have the right to live and/or build on Arab-owned land anywhere in the country, then why shouldn’t Jews, who want to do the same thing, have that same right? In other words, is an outpost only truly illegal, not because of the lack of government building permits, but because the residents of the tent are Jewish rather than Arab?
Yesterday, I took issue with the Union for Reform Judaism for condemning planned Israeli construction in the West Bank’s E-1 region. Many liberal American Jews would doubtless respond that they don’t object to E-1 remaining Israeli under an Israeli-Palestinian agreement; they merely object to building there before such an agreement exists. That, after all, is precisely what Ehud Olmert said last week when asked how he could condemn the Netanyahu government for doing something he himself supported as prime minister.
Unfortunately, this response betrays a serious lack of understanding of how the “peace process” actually works. First, as I noted yesterday, insisting that Israeli construction is an “obstacle to peace” even in areas that every proposed agreement has assigned to Israel merely encourages Palestinian intransigence by feeding their fantasies that the world will someday pressure Israel into withdrawing to the 1967 lines. Equally important, however, is that in a world where Israeli security concerns are routinely dismissed as unimportant, construction has proven the only effective means of ensuring Israel’s retention of areas it deems vital to its security.
Israel’s current government, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has never shied away from engaging its critics abroad, as is evident by the numerous op-eds authored by Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren. Oren was considered an inspired choice for ambassador to the U.S. in part because he is one of the leading historians on the Middle East and has written perhaps the definitive history of America’s involvement in the Middle East from its founding.
Oren was also teaching at Georgetown before being asked to represent Israel’s government in Washington, and he had previously worked as an IDF spokesman as well. Netanyahu himself speaks in flawless, almost accentless English, having spent so many years in top-flight American schools. It seemed that Netanyahu had recognized Israel’s weakness in communication, and sought to rectify that. Netanyahu himself stresses the history of Israel and of the Jewish people when he talks about the challenges confronting the Jewish state–a feature of his diplomatic style that often annoys the media in part because of their sometimes-staggering ignorance of that very history.
And on that topic, with Israel embroiled in just such a diplomatic controversy over building in Jerusalem, the city’s mayor has joined the effort with an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal today. Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat takes readers on a historical journey through the ages, explaining the Jewish people’s thousands-year-old connection to the city and its existence as a united capital (until Jordan’s occupation of the city from 1948-67). Barkat also makes the important point that Jewish sovereignty over the city has been its only reliable guarantor of religious openness, access, and equality.
Last week, Seth wrote an excellent post on the irreconcilability of European and Israeli visions for a two-state solution. What’s far more worrying, however, is that liberal American Jews appear to be on the European side of the divide. To grasp just how wide the gap yawns, compare the Union for Reform Judaism’s response to planned Israeli construction in the West Bank’s E-1 area to today’s remarks by one of Israel’s most dovish politicians, Tzipi Livni.
Last week, the URJ issued a statement condemning Israeli settlement activity, “especially in the E-1 area,” saying it “makes progress toward peace far more challenging, and is difficult to reconcile with the Government of Israel’s stated commitment to a two-state solution.” Now here’s what Livni–long the darling of liberal American Jews for her dovish views, and someone who has consistently blamed the Netanyahu government for the impasse in peace talks–told a gathering of foreign ambassadors today: