One of the orthodoxies of Middle East peace advocacy is that Jewish settlements in the West Bank (which by now has come to include Jewish neighborhoods in the city of Jerusalem) are a terrible obstacle to peace. You see, so long as Jews are building homes in these places, the Palestinians and their supporters can’t believe in peace. So those who claim to be peace advocates insist that the number of houses and Jews in these towns and villages must be absolutely frozen as prerequisite for peace. And we are assured that, once a peace agreement is signed, this will mean without doubt that all of these settlements, including every single house and every single Jew living in the houses, must be removed. That is, we are assured, the definition of peace for Palestinians.
But a member of Israel’s Cabinet has now asked a very pertinent question. Moshe Ya’alon, a former Israel Defense Forces general who now serves as Benjamin Netanyahu’s strategic affairs minister, posed the following query in an interview published in the Jerusalem Post: “If we are talking about coexistence and peace, why the [Palestinian] insistence that the territory they receive be ethnically cleansed of Jews? Why do those areas have to be Judenrein? Don’t Arabs live here, in the Negev and the Galilee? Why isn’t that part of our public discussion? Why doesn’t that scream to the heavens?” Ya’alon believes that previous withdrawals, such as the evacuation from Gaza, only encouraged Hamas and Hezbollah to raise the ante in terms of violence.
These are excellent questions. If what Israel is being asked to negotiate with the Palestinians is mutual recognition and legitimacy in the context of a cessation of violence, why can’t Jews stay in the areas designated as part of a Palestinian state, just as Arabs live in Israel with full rights as citizens? Indeed, what kind of a crazy peace would create a state alongside Israel in which Jews are forbidden to live and where Arabs face the death sentence for selling property to Jews, as is currently the case in both Jordan and the Palestinian Authority?
Critics of the settlements might answer that the settlers are too extreme and too violent to be allowed to stay behind because some might attempt to sabotage the peace. Others might also point out that without the protection of the IDF, no Jew surrounded by hostile Arabs would be safe. As to the charge that violent settlers would seek to destroy the peace, that might be true of a small minority, but the overwhelming majority of settlers are law-abiding. But the fact that some Israeli Arabs were hostile to Jews didn’t mean that all Arabs couldn’t live in Israel. If there was a commitment to peaceful coexistence from a Palestinian government, there’s no reason why most of the Jews living in outlying settlements on land closely associated with Jewish history and faith couldn’t stay on. As for the threat to the safety of Jews remaining in a putative state of Palestine, that’s a different question that goes to the heart of the problem.
The reason why Palestinians insist that all Jews must leave their future state is because they do not recognize the legitimacy of Israel or the Jewish presence anywhere in the land. And Palestinian political culture is so steeped in violence and hatred of Jews and Israel that it is literally impossible to believe that Jews, even if they behaved like Quakers, could live in a Palestinian state.
Moreover, Ya’alon’s point about the example of Gaza is telling. Removing every Jew from Gaza didn’t satisfy the Palestinians there. Not only did the Palestinians burn the synagogue buildings and the tomato greenhouses left behind by the Israelis for them to use, they immediately began to use that land for launching terrorist missile attacks inside of Israel. So long as the Arabs still view the conflict as zero-sum game in which the goal is to remove or kill every Jew, territorial withdrawals won’t bring peace. If the Palestinian vision of peace — even the vision articulated by so-called moderates like Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas — is predicated on ridding the land of Jews rather than embracing coexistence, then there will be no peace.