This Right-winger's About-face on Settlements Might Inspire Netanyahu to Stop Building

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Elliott Abrams speaks at CPAC on February 10, 2012.
Elliott Abrams speaks at CPAC on February 10, 2012.Credit: Gage Skidmore / Wikipedia

A prominent right-wing American Jew has finally admitted that Israel's settlement policies are putting an end to the possibility of a two-state solution, and harming ties with the United States along the way.

Elliott Abrams, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, served in the Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush administrations. A seasoned diplomat and a thoughtful man, Mr. Abrams has been arguing for years that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been building settlements mostly in the major settlement blocs, while severely constraining settlement growth beyond them. Since the blocs are likely to remain part of Israel in any future peace agreement, Abrams has insisted, Netanyahu’s settlement construction does not jeopardize the possibility of a two-state solution. Abrams has gone so far as to attack Obama administration officials for “knee-jerk condemnations” of Netanyahu over his settlement policies.

But now, in an article for Foreign Affairs that he co-wrote with Uri Sadot, Abrams is going back on his words. After admitting that it is “remarkably difficult to discern what is going on outside the blocs,” Abrams states that according to his most recent calculations, there were 73,000 settlers living outside the security fence in 2009 and 93,000 in 2015. If the new Netanyahu government continues to settle at this rate, there will be 115,000 settlers outside the blocs by the end of the government’s term.

The implications of this growth, Abrams writes, is that it will be exceedingly difficult and costly to make a two-state solution happen under these circumstances. Yet, even while pointing out the problems, it should be noted, Abrams still did not bring himself to call on Netanyahu to freeze settlement construction. Instead, he offered a bizarre proposal that some Jews remain as “resident aliens” of a future Palestinian state, while acknowledging that implementing such a plan would be immensely problematic.

Abrams’ about-face demonstrates the fallacy of the right-wing argument, frequently heard both in Israel and the United States, that settlement activity is simply not a problem. During Netanyahu’s tenure, the right-wingers say, the settlements haven't expanded that rapidly, and, in any case, those that are being built are located in areas that will remain part of Israel under the terms of any eventual peace treaty. But, as Abrams admits, neither of these propositions is true.

The question that emerges from Abram’s lengthy article is why he sees the settlement question as especially important now.

Abrams keeps coming back to settlements, I suggest, because he senses something that he never directly states: common values are what bind America to Israel even more than strategic interests. And when settlement policy runs amuck, destroying the possibility of a two-state solution and assuring endless occupation, it threatens the alliance with America on which Israel’s existence depends. And all of this is true even if a two-state solution is not possible in the foreseeable future.

Israel, confronting an intractable Palestinian foe, need not deliver a peace agreement, but she does need to keep the option of such an agreement alive by limiting her settlement activity. Abrams knows this, and thus desperately contends that Netanyahu remain open to two states, even while the thrust of Abrams' own argument suggests exactly the opposite.

While Abrams offers little reason for hope, it would be a mistake to despair. Among American Jews, there are some reasonable voices promoting moderation, sanity and good sense on these questions. The Israel Policy Forum, for example, has just issued a Statement of Principles that is impressive and centrist. It argues for a two-state approach that could unite American Jews and win support from both major political parties.

Israel's commitment to a two-state solution has implications for the crisis over Iran, too. The United States is promoting a profoundly problematic deal with Iran, but in any conceivable scenario, the grave security threats posed by Iran — and Hezbollah — will require direct military and political support from America over the long-term. The best way for Israel to assure such support is to stop building outside the settlement blocs, demonstrate a commitment to the two-state solution, and offer support for American efforts to advance Israeli-Palestinian peace.

I, for one, have not given up completely on the possibility that Netanyahu will surprise us. Elliott Abrams, after all, is a man of the right, and as good a friend as Netanyahu has in America’s political/scholarly establishment. Abrams dances around and pulls his punches, but his message comes through nonetheless.

It's now Netanyahu's turn to recognize the problem of settlements and come up with a plan that keeps the two-state option on the table. Perhaps, just perhaps, given the urgency of the matter and the sympathetic source, this time the prime minister will decide to listen.

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie served as president of the Union for Reform Judaism from 1996 to 2012. He is now a writer, lecturer and teacher in Westfield, New Jersey. 

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