President Obama has taken the dramatic step of dropping the longstanding policy of the United States to support Israel, in favor of the cause of Palestine. The complete absence of any intimation that such a reversal of alliance was imminent adds to the surprise. Throughout his presidency, Obama has been careful to reassure Israel and the Jews that he had their interests at heart, or as he expressed it, that he had Israel’s back. This now looks like deliberate obfuscation. His true thoughts are a puzzle, and may always be, but there are clues: For example, he made no attempt to hide the hostility he feels towards the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. To change Middle East policy in his final days in office suggests that he wanted to hurt Israel in this way but knew he could not have gotten away with it earlier in his presidency.
The switch was carried out through the United Nations with surreptitious skill: no forewarning, no opportunity for objection. The main thrust of Security Council Resolution 2334 is to assert that Israeli settlements on the West Bank “lack legal validity.” Waging a tireless campaign to establish that Israel is some sort of Western colony imposed on Palestine and therefore has no legitimacy, the United Nations has been known to adopt 20 anti-Israeli resolutions in a single day, so in a sense, one more is irrelevant and boring, like all obsessions. But in another sense, a small democracy is under attack from undemocratic powers in a way reminiscent of the 1930s. Normally the United States uses its Security Council veto to preserve the world’s mental health and peace. This time around, the United States abstained, which signifies approval.
As I understand it, the status or sovereignty of the West Bank, and consequently the right of Israel to build settlements there, is altogether contentious, and I happily leave the fine-print disputing to the international lawyers. I also look forward to an explanation of “legal validity,” a contrivance apparently midway between legal and illegal, and a good example of the ingenuity that the United Nations and its agencies hope will convert prejudice into everyday fact. UNESCO, for instance, the U.N.’s cultural arm, lately passed a resolution that the Wailing Wall, surviving from the destruction of King Herod’s Temple in Jerusalem and central ever since to Jewish worship, is actually an Islamic monument. Saudi Arabia, where under penalty of public flogging women are forbidden to drive a car, has been elected and reelected to the United Nations Human Rights Council.
On the face of it, the issue of these settlements is pretty trivial, involving the housing arrangements of fewer than half a million people. What hides behind it, however, is the historic and deeply emotional ordinance that has always driven Muslim conquest and possession, namely that land once possessed by the House of Islam must be possessed by it forever. This is the Muslim equivalent of the Brezhnev Doctrine, which specified that a Communist country could never again revert to capitalism. The recapture of Spain and India, Serbia and Hungary, is for the long term; the ejection of Israel from Palestine is a religious obligation of the here and now.
In the days preceding the Six-Day War of June 1967, Arab leaders including Ahmed Shukeiry, then the head of the Palestine Liberation Organization, announced that the moment had come “to throw the Jews into the sea,” to quote a favorite phrase of theirs. The West Bank was then under the rule of King Hussein of Jordan. Through the proper channels, the Israelis urged him not to engage in any fighting, above all to restrain the artillery that was starting to shell West Jerusalem. The decision to do battle cost Hussein the West Bank and handed responsibility for its Palestinian inhabitants over to Israel. The settlement issue is first and foremost the legacy of a single individual, this miscalculating king.
The confused and confusing actions and interactions of Israelis and Palestinians after the Six-Day War was the subject of The Face of Defeat, the book I published in 1974. It was safe to visit and ask questions everywhere, no matter how remote the place. The Israeli security agent who often escorted me had grown up among Palestinians, and he was armed only with a walking stick. A traditional tribal society was in the hands of elders — sophisticated, worldly men doing their best in an emergency that none of them could have imagined. For Arabs, the seat of emotion is in the liver, and the national poet, a lady from a prominent family, had written fierce lines about eating the liver of an Israeli. When someone in a crowded room in Nablus mentioned that the poetess was rumored to be having secret assignations in a Tel Aviv hotel with General Moshe Dayan, then Israel’s minister of defense, who claimed to be waiting for a telephone call to plan a peace conference, the laughter was loud and long. Another escort during my researches was an Israeli Arab from Nazareth. Here were people apart, bilingual, with one foot in Arab culture and the other in Israeli culture. Among Arab Israelis now are diplomats, army officers, a prize-winning nuclear scientist, poets and novelists, and the judge who sentenced a former president of Israel to prison for sexually abusing a woman on his staff.
The settlement movement began soon after the war, when an intransigent rabbi moved into the West Bank town of Hebron. Some 40 years previously, the Jews there had been massacred, and the rabbi was making a point. The settlers are a mixed bunch, mostly young couples with families, and either religious Jews or secular Zionists, in both cases written off in the media as dangerous fanatics. The decision to allow settlement beyond the national borders was taken by Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin, both of them ostensibly men of the Left. Yasser Arafat, chubby in appearance but ruthless in character, had made himself the virtual dictator of the Palestinians. The choice before him was either a peace process or a campaign of terror. Shifting between these alternatives, he militarized the community so effectively that policymakers concluded that Israelis and Palestinians are unable to live together, and therefore they had each better have a state.
Israel is already a nation-state with the rule of law to ensure diversity and power-sharing. The latest census shows that Israeli Arabs number 1.7 million, about 20 percent of the population. Islamists such as Sheikh Raed Salah have attempted without much success to prevent the slow but steady integration that gives Arabs and Jews the common identity of Israeli. In the Muslim Middle East, ethnic or sectarian identity takes the place of the state; power-sharing is an unknown quantity. The principle is each to his own, in a continuous collision of identities fulfilled with whatever degree of brutality is required in self-defense — the Alawites in Syria or the Shiites of Iraq offer daily proof of it.
To complicate matters, a secular Palestinian identity on the West Bank under Mahmoud Abbas, and an Islamist Palestinian identity under Khaled Meshaal and Ismail Haniya, both of Hamas, in Gaza, are in a condition of civil war that is the opposite of statehood. Hamas calls for Israel to revert to being a Muslim state with no more Jews in it, while Abbas, currently head of the PLO on the West Bank, says, “In a final resolution, we would not see the presence of a single Israeli — soldier or civilian — on our lands” (which presumably means the West Bank, Gaza, and Israel itself). Racism is the sole operative agreement between these rivals. In these circumstances, John Kerry’s opinion that “the two-state solution is the only way to achieve a just and lasting peace” is a fantasy with no discernable attachment to the real world.
“Forget negotiating,” writes Khaled Abu Toameh, one of the best-informed and most courageous Palestinian journalists, because Resolution 2334 is “a true defeat to the peace process.” In an article that is a cry of despair, he singles out Palestinians who believe they now have a green light to use violence against Israel. Another public-spirited dissident, Bassam Tawil, draws attention to Palestinian corruption. Israeli settlements, he says, at least respect laws and regulations, while in many Palestinian-run areas of the West Bank there are large-scale housing developments undertaken by Palestinians whose contempt for law and building and safety regulations exposes those who live there to financial and physical risk.
Whether or not they like it, Obama and Kerry have put themselves in the odious position of being accomplices to tyranny. They also instruct Jews on where to live, what sort of a state Israel has to be, and what conduct they expect of it. That is not an enviable legacy. Perhaps it would have been safer, or at any rate better protected from malicious criticism, not to have built settlements that give rise to political posturing. But after all, large numbers of Arabs are living reasonable lives in Israel, and correspondingly large numbers of Jews should be able to lead reasonable lives in an Arab land. Boldly progressive, that would be a two-state solution worth having.