Chang­ing my mind on Is­raeli set­tle­ments

South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Sunday) - - Voices & Opinion - By Max Boot The Washington Post

JERUSALEM — I have been vis­it­ing Is­rael for 20 years, mainly for meet­ings with gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials, gen­er­als and pol­icy an­a­lysts. Af­ter a trip this sum­mer ar­ranged by a non­profit group called Aca­demic Ex­change, I re­flected on how much Is­rael has — and has not — changed since 1998.

A lot has hap­pened in those years, in­clud­ing the death of Yasser Arafat (whom I met in 1998), the Sec­ond In­tifada, a war in Le­banon, and the Is­raeli pullout from the Gaza Strip fol­lowed by a Ha­mas takeover and mul­ti­ple con­flicts. But what was strik­ing to me was the con­ti­nu­ity. Af­ter all, the prime min­is­ter back then, Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu, has been in power again since 2009, pre­sid­ing over what is still a vi­brant, ca­cophonous democ­racy.

The West Bank, then as now, was di­vided by the Oslo peace process into a crazy quilt of A, B and C zones un­der vary­ing de­grees of Pales­tinian con­trol. Then, as now, the an­i­mos­ity be­tween the Is­raeli gov­ern­ment and the Pales­tinian Author­ity dis­guised a sub­stan­tial amount of se­cu­rity co­op­er­a­tion be­hind the scenes. Then, as now, Is­rael faced a ter­ror­ist threat but not one that dis­rupted or­di­nary life: Six­teen Is­raelis were killed by ter­ror­ists in 1998 and 34 last year. Then, as now, se­cu­rity con­cerns could seem re­mote while strolling along the beach in Tel Aviv or sit­ting in a trendy cafe.

The Pales­tini­ans, for their part, com­plain that peace is not pos­si­ble as long as Is­raeli set­tlers oc­cupy their land. In the past, I had played down this com­plaint be­cause Is­rael had shown, not only in Gaza but also in the Si­nai Penin­sula, that it was will­ing to evac­u­ate set­tlers for the sake of peace. But the de­mo­graphic changes over the past two decades have been stark: In 1996, there were

134,000 Jewish set­tlers in the West Bank and Gaza. To­day, there are

430,000 set­tlers in the West Bank, not count­ing East Jerusalem, which is home to 200,000 Is­raelis.

Granted, most of the set­tlers live in large blocs along the 1949 “Green Line” that, in the­ory, could be in­cor­po­rated into Is­rael in re­turn for ter­ri­to­rial com­pen­sa­tion to the Pales­tini­ans in a “fi­nal set­tle­ment.” But up­root­ing 8,000 set­tlers from Gaza was trau­matic enough; mov­ing at least 80,000 out of the West Bank would be far harder, es­pe­cially given the po­lit­i­cal strength of the set­tler lobby. The re­li­gious right is more pow­er­ful in Is­raeli pol­i­tics (and the Is­raeli army) than it was in 1998, while the left is weaker.

Among both Is­raelis and Pales­tini­ans, sup­port for a “two-state” so­lu­tion has waned since 1998. Ex­trem­ists on both sides imag­ine they can some­how have the whole she­bang to them­selves. But it’s hard to imag­ine how, ab­sent geno­cide, the Pales­tini­ans could gain con­trol of roughly 7 mil­lion Jews or how, ab­sent in­def­i­nite oc­cu­pa­tion, the Is­raelis can con­tinue to con­trol 7 mil­lion Pales­tini­ans. (The fig­ures are pro­jec­tions for 2020 — and like ev­ery­thing else in the Holy Land, they are dis­puted.) Just as in 1998, so to­day, there is still no prac­ti­cal al­ter­na­tive to a Pales­tinian state, even if that goal ap­pears more dis­tant than ever.

Max Boot is a Washington Post colum­nist.

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