Changing my mind on Israeli settlements
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.