To be a Jewish critic of Israeli policy in the West Bank is to be accused by your fellow Jews, endlessly, of naivete. “You don’t understand,” you’re told again and again. “It’s not just the settlements that Palestinians oppose. They don’t want a Jewish state within any borders.”
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I wish those critics were wrong. But they’re not. Palestinians may consider the settlements a particularly egregious manifestation of Zionist oppression. But every Palestinian I know considers political Zionism itself—the very idea of a state that offers special representation to Jews—a racist ideology built upon ethnic cleansing. In that sense, when Jewish hawks say Palestinians oppose not only Israeli control over Hebron, but Israeli control over Tel Aviv, they’re absolutely right.
So why keep criticizing the settlements? Because there’s a difference between what people believe in their hearts and what they will accept on the ground. That’s certainly true among Jews. Consider Tzipi Livni, who was raised to believe in Greater Israel, a Jewish state that controls the entire West Bank (and perhaps the Jordan River’s East Bank as well). “You can tell from the passionate way Tzipi still sings the Betar songs today,” a family friend noted a few years back, “just how much the love of Greater Israel is ingrained in her.” Yet Livni is willing to abandon the dream that still inspires her because she believes that, in reality, pursuing it will cause her people suffering and pain.
The same is true for many Palestinians. It’s one thing to believe, morally, that the state of Israel is illegitimate within any borders. It’s another to keep fighting to destroy it within any borders when that fight is likely to condemn your children to lives of stateless misery.
The critical question isn’t whether Palestinians want Israel to exist. They overwhelmingly don’t. It’s whether Palestinians believe that if they swallow the bitter pill of accepting Israel’s existence they’ll get their own state in return. That’s why settlements matter. Because by eating away at the territory on which Palestinians might build a state, they convince Palestinians that accepting Israel’s existence within the 1967 lines does them no good. Settlements empower Hamas and other militant groups, which claim there’s no point in accepting Israel’s existence because abandoning Palestinian dreams doesn’t improve Palestinian reality. Jews should understand that argument, because it’s the same one Naftali Bennett makes to Tzipi Livni: Why abandon our dream of total control of the land when doing so won’t make the other side accept our sovereignty in any part of it?
I wish today’s Jewish hawks were as honest as their intellectual forefather, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the founder of revisionist Zionism. Jabotinsky didn’t expect Palestinians to welcome a Jewish state. “Every native population,” he wrote, “regards its lands as its national home, of which it is the sole master, and it wants to retain that mastery always.” The Zionist challenge, Jabotinsky argued, was not to convince Palestinians of the justness of the Zionist cause, something Jews themselves would not admit were the situation reversed. It was to convince Palestinians that the Zionist project could not be defeated by force.
More than 60 years after Israel’s birth, that goal has been substantially achieved. Israel is far stronger, economically and militarily, than its Palestinian, Arab and Muslim adversaries. The Palestine Liberation Organization, after decades of struggling to undo Israel’s creation, formally accepted Israel’s right to exist in the Oslo Accords in 1993. And for all its mistakes and crimes in the two decades since, the PLO has not rescinded that recognition. Indeed, Mahmoud Abbas acknowledges it more squarely than Yasser Arafat did. The entire Arab League has now offered three times—in 2002, 2007 and 2013—to accept Israel’s existence if Israel returns to the 1967 lines and finds a “just” and “agreed upon” solution to the plight of Palestinian refugees. A majority of Palestinians, according to the well-respected Palestinian pollster, Khalil Shikaki, support the two state solution.
Israel has not changed Palestinian hearts but it has changed what many Palestinians consider possible. The grave danger today is that Israel’s settlement policies are undoing that historic achievement. By pursuing territorially maximalist policies in the West Bank, Israel is encouraging Palestinians to pursue a territorial maximalism of their own.
The more you recognize the depth of Palestinian opposition to Zionism, the more you recognize that splitting British mandatory Palestine 78 to 22 percent between a Jewish and Palestinian state represents an astonishing Zionist accomplishment and a historic Palestinian defeat. It is a defeat that some Palestinians are today willing to swallow in order to spare their children the humiliation of growing up under military law, without passports and the right to vote, under the domination of a foreign army. To be a Zionist and refuse that deal, you must believe that once permanently denied a viable state of their own, Palestinians will either embrace their disenfranchisement or lose their will to fight it. Now that’s naïve.