A House Divided
Anyone who has visited both Israel and the occupied territories (Yehuda and Shomron in Israeli religious-Zionist parlance) can see the degree of difference between the Tel Aviv bubble and the wild frontier of the West Bank. The liberal denizens of Tel Aviv live their lives as if the settlements do not exist and the religious pioneers of the Israeli frontier continue building unabated, spurred along by government subsidies and IDF protection. Israel’s society is more divided than ever. But instead of repeating empty platitudes about the beauty of Israel’s complexity, we must come to terms with the reality that a house divided creates; two fundamental ideas for what Israel’s future should look like, tied together and running in opposite directions.
One of those ideas, that of two states between the river and the sea, a Palestinian state and an Israeli state coexisting side-by-side, is clinically dead. The Israeli Left was at first complicit in the extension of settlement building in the West Bank, spurred on by nationalist fervor and historical romanticism. But as the reality of Jewish power and occupation became clear to the Left, they began their late and tepid response; it would prove too little, too late. The gears were in motion and would be oiled with the blood of Yitzchak Rabin; no peace, no compromise, no hope. In 1968, less than a year after Israel’s stunning victory, Yeshayahu Leibowitz, religious philosopher and scientist, would predict with eerie accuracy the future of the Israeli occupation:
“…Rule over the occupied territories would have social repercussions…A state ruling a hostile population of 1.5 to 2 million foreigners would necessarily become a secret-police state, with all that this implies for education, free speech and democratic institutions. The corruption characteristic of every colonial regime would also prevail in the state of Israel. The administration would have to suppress Arab insurgency on the one hand and acquire Arab Quislings on the other. There is also good reason to fear that the Israel Defense Forces, which has been until now a people’s army, would, as a result of being transformed into an army of occupation, degenerate, and its commanders, who will have become military governors, resemble their colleagues in other nations…”
Leibowitz proved to be right on all counts. The Israeli occupation will turn 50 next year. Some pessimists will despondently tell you, “Nothing has changed in the last 50 years.” This, however, is too hopeful a view. Indeed, quite a lot has changed.
To outsiders who have never seen the West Bank settlements, they may seem a bit romantic. In a way, the Israeli settlement project does have a mystical, almost surreal element to it; the picture etched in my mind of what the settlements were, before I had ever seen one with my eyes, was of suntanned and belabored Zionist pioneers, working the land of Israel until God shows his face once again. But that picture is far from the truth.
The truth is that the settlement project is an organized, well-funded, and powerful movement. There are settlements that are no more than outposts on hills; a few trailers hitched together before the Israel Defense Forces can uproot them. But many of the settlements are cities with paved roads, beautiful houses, schools, sanitation departments, police forces, and gymnasiums lovingly dedicated by wealthy foreign donors. Israeli citizens have plenty of incentive to move to the West Bank; open spaces and backyards and beautiful scenery which they aren’t likely to get in the Coastal Metropolis. Factor in the religious motivations for settling the West Bank and the fact that the settlements receive more government money than any other community in Israel, and a picture starts to replace the previous imaginary fiction; settlement building was and is a government project, official and powerful, and it is not innocuous. It is destructive and disruptive. The romantic picture that foreigners may have of Jewish settling of the West Bank is a convenient fiction.
The good news is we don’t have to worry over the settlement project dictating the future of Israel and the Palestinians. The bad news is that it already has. Years of anxiety and hand-wringing over the future of the Occupied Territories and the fate of the two-state solution are over; the future is now. It has come speedily in our days, bm’haira b’yamainu. The two-state solution is no longer practical or inevitable. If you don’t believe me, look at a map:
Years of anxiety and hand-wringing over the future of the Occupied Territories and the fate of the two-state solution are over. The future is now. It has come speedily in our days, bm’haira b’yamainu.
The dark and light orange areas are settlements and their municipal boundaries. This map is from 2002. Since then, building has continued almost without pause, with the exception of a ten-month moratorium that wasn’t really a moratorium on anything except breaking new ground; it didn’t cover existing build sites. Currently, there are 400,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank. Any agreed-upon “land-swap” between the governments of Palestine and Israel would necessarily exclude some, if not a significant portion of, the Israeli settlements. Palestine could never give up all the settlement blocs to Israel; the settlement project has metastasized, spreading its tendrils throughout the West Bank, snaking through major thoroughfares and effectively dividing the West Bank into unrecognizable jigsaw pieces. A Palestinian state within boundaries like that would not be a state at all. To use Israeli jargon, those 2016 borders would be indefensible. So for a two-state solution to happen, some settlements would have to be forcibly evacuated (assuming Palestinians don’t want messianic-religious-nationalist Israeli citizens living in enclaves among them and Jewish settlers don’t want to live under a black, red, and green flag).
There’s only one problem; who is going to make them leave?
The number of religious soldiers in the IDF has been steadily increasing. With the rise of Da’ti Le’umi, Israel’s religious-nationalist sect, and increasing accommodation on the part of the IDF administration for religious soldiers, serving in the IDF has become not only a national duty, but a religious one. The number of Orthodox commanders and religious programs geared toward them has been on a steady, if not meteoric, rise. After the nightmare that was the disengagement from Gaza, it is hard to believe that another disengagement is really possible. The question becomes, when some future Prime Minister makes the call to disengage from some of the settlements in the West Bank, who will answer it? Will religious commanders carry out their duty? Will religious soldiers follow their commanders’ orders? It is not hard to imagine a mass movement of conscientious objectors, refusing to participate in the uprooting of Jews from the West Bank. And when agents of the secular state, the young men and women of the IDF, come to uproot these Jews, will the settlers follow? Will they protest like they did in Gush Katif? Or will they trade in orange wristbands for rocks and bats?
In Israel, it is often said that the traditional right-left political spectrum cannot be used to explain the policy space, because their political cleavages are not based on economics and general policy, but specifically what to do with the shtachim, the territories. This is not a debate between high taxes or low taxes, big government or small government, interventionist policies or isolationist policies; this is a fight for the very soul of Israel. It is a fight for identity, it is a fight for authenticity. It is a war for the very future of the state of Israel. This cannot be emphasized enough. For fifty years, Israeli society has either been ignorant of or complicit in the occupation and the settlement project, and it has led to national unity. Why? Because they refused to come to terms with the one thing that could tear the country apart. But now, the two-state solution is effectively dead, and there is nothing left for the Left to hold on to. The societies of Tel Aviv and Beit El have become so different from one another that they might as well not be speaking the same language. Tel Avivians are walking leisurely toward the beaches, while their fellow Jewish citizens are running toward the hills of the West Bank, eager to break ground in God’s Country.
When the IDF says that Jewish terrorists burned a Palestinian infant to death and spray-painted “Long live the Messiah” on the house he was mutilated in, and young Jewish men stab the picture of this infant at a wedding, it is clear that something, somewhere, has gone wrong; that somewhere, Herzl’s dream became a nightmare. But Jewish violence toward Palestinians has always existed in the course of the occupation, whether it is general, everyday humiliation, property confiscation or destruction, harassment, stone-throwing, or outright murder. However, the instances of these actions go under-reported in Israeli society. But the images of the wedding of terror confronted Israelis, particularly the Tel Aviv-Ramat Gan bubble, with the reality of the occupation, with the reality of ethnic conflict. In truth, they no more recognized these Jewish boys celebrating at a wedding than they do a Palestinian in a keffiyah. Tel Avivians are almost entirely divorced from the conflict, except when terror comes to the Central Bus Station or the Hagana Train Station. The Hilltop Youth of the West Bank, meanwhile, have grown up in the midst of a terrible, violent, hopeless, ethnic and religious conflict with no sign of its abatement. They have suffered and have induced suffering. Can you expect them to submit to the orders of the Kirya, the IDF central command? Can you expect them to submit to the whims of secular Tel Aviv? And if they will not, what does that say for the future?
Indeed, what of the future? What will the future of Israel look like? The odds of a peaceful settlement are slim to none. Issac Herzog, Labor party head and Opposition leader, has lost hope. Yair Lapid never had any. The foundation of Israel’s left and center-left have broken under the weight of the settlement project. Naftali Bennet and Ayelet Shaked and others like them have won the battle, if not the war.
The way I see it, there are few possibilities. If the Israelis sign a future peace deal with the Palestinians (and I mean a real peace deal, The Deal to End All Deals), then the settlements outside of the agreed-upon land swaps (which could be the the Karnei Shomron bloc, the Beit El Bloc, or even the Ariel bloc; it could theoretically be any settlement too far outside the Green Line) would either have to be forcibly evacuated or submit to Palestinian rule. They could not operate as independent autonomous enclaves within the Palestinian state; it seems entirely unrealistic and impractical, and unfair to ask of a hypothetical, new, and weak Palestinian state. I do not see Jewish settlers, who have built their entire ideology on religious-nationalism, submitting to the rule of a foreign state. If you doubt me, I invite you to explain to me how they would do so. I think the denizens of Itamar would rather take up arms than leave their hilltop, or submit to rule under a Palestinian state.
Let me not mince words; a two-state solution will end in violence or division or both. If a two-state solution is forced upon the settlers, they will not submit to the State. We will see the Jewish nation repeat its tragic history once again; a State of Israel and a State of Judah, separated more by their differences than they are brought together by their brotherhood.
Another option is, regrettably, disappointingly, a one-state solution. The mechanics of such a state are unknown to me. Peace activists from the settlements seem to very much like this idea; I am entirely unconvinced of its practicality. One thing is certain though; the two-state solution is no longer practical. If it is forced upon the settlers, they will not accept it, and we will see the death of both Israel As We Know It and the future Palestinian state.
Both of these possibilities are impractical and unlikable in their own ways, but their inevitability is a product of our own shortsightedness. I would like to believe that this has a happy ending but, then again, so has every actor in the history of this conflict. We in the West have been hanging on to the idea of two states, while Jewish ideologues have marched forward to bring about a redemptive messiah. Palestinians have been drugged on the hopes of a future Palestinian state while their leaders rob them blind. All of us have been deceived by our hopes for a happy ending, that once we round the corner, everything will be okay.
Well, now we’re here, almost 50 years on, and where is this happy ending? There doesn’t seem to be one.