A better way to help Israel: Don’t subsidize settlements

A better way to help Israel: Don’t subsidize settlements

At an Orthodox synagogue in Teaneck, Israeli west bank settlers last Sunday made their most blatant attempt yet to harness Americans to support their effort to thwart a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Representatives of the settlers’ council came to Cong. Bnai Yeshurun to try to entice American Jews to purchase homes in west bank settlements. In a flier they prepared for the housing fair, the settlers described their enterprise as "the Zionist horse pulling the State of Israel’s cart up the hill."

Why are the settlers trying to sell houses to Americans? For the same reason that they find it increasingly difficult to sell homes to Israelis: because very few in Israel buy their messianic vision; because most Israelis have long ago concluded that the beast trying to drag them to the hilltops of the west bank is not a white horse but a stubborn mule, insistent on denying Israelis hope of ever reaching a historic compromise to divide the land and allow both sides to live separately in peace.

Long ago Israelis concluded that settlements are not a bulwark against Arab aggression, as the settlers and their supporters have always attempted to portray their enterprise. Israelis now realize, rather, that the settlements are one of the primary obstacles to Israeli-Palestinian peace. They are certainly the most concrete obstacle.

Set in concrete, on west bank hilltops, are 1’1 Jewish settlements, many of them intentionally located next to Palestinian towns and villages, creating daily friction between Arabs and Jews. Large portions of them, as documented by a report that Israel’s Peace Now movement recently published, are built on land privately owned by Palestinians. As a reporter covering the west bank for many years, I have more than once visited the homes of Palestinians who from their front windows could see the red shingles of homes in the adjacent settlement, built on land taken from them.

Israelis have come to realize how many resources the settlements divert, both in terms of security manpower and in terms of the national budget. A Peace Now study in ‘003 found that the Israeli government spends $’,150 more for every settler than it spends on Israel’s other citizens. And this study did not even examine the security budget.

More than anything, the settlements are a network of strategically located obstacles on the path to peace. They were intended, by the chief architect of the settlement enterprise, Ariel Sharon, to thwart the creation of a Palestinian state in the west bank and Gaza. That was before Sharon became prime minister and signed on to President Bush’s vision of two states, Israel and Palestine, living in peace and security. It was also before he unilaterally evacuated all the Israeli settlements from the Gaza Strip in ‘005 and four more from the northern west bank.

By doing so, by partially reversing his own venture, the former prime minister showed Israelis that this growth can be contained, trimmed, even removed.

But Gaza is not the west bank. In addition to the 1’1 west bank settlements — some of them small towns with populations of over 15,000 — the settlers also illegally built 10′ settlement "outposts," without the approval of Israel’s government. The settlements and outposts, swiss-cheesing Palestinian territory, are connected to each other and to Israel by an elaborate network of roads that crisscross the land, fragmenting it and denying contiguity and viability to a future Palestinian state.

Some say that this web of settlements, outposts, access roads, and bypass roads has created an irreversible reality on the ground, which will never allow the establishment of a viable Palestinian state. Renowned Israeli author A.B. Yehoshua last month told an interviewer that west bank Palestinians and Israeli settlers are like Siamese twins whose blood relationship is not one of symbiotic sharing but one of unending mutual bloodletting.

We at Americans for Peace Now believe that it’s not too late. We believe that Israelis and Palestinians can still be separated into two viable political entities. We believe that the settlement enterprise is still reversible.

But it will not be for long. Subsidizing the settlements with private American Jewish dollars certainly will not help. It will only assist the settlers to dig in their heels in Palestinian land and resist future attempts by Israeli governments to reverse their enterprise for the sake of peace.

In order to reverse this malignant growth, we need more than a "do no harm" attitude from fellow friends of Israel in America. America’s interest in calming the Israeli-Palestinian conflict prompted successive U.S. administrations to oppose settlements. The Bush administration has even secured Israeli commitments to freeze all settlement activity. What is needed now is American leadership, which, instead of turning a blind eye to continued settlement expansion, would help Israel meet its commitments and begin negotiations that bring Israel back to its sensible and defensible borders.

Ori Nir is the spokesman of Americans for Peace Now, a Zionist Jewish organization supporting Peace Now, Israel’s largest peace movement.