The Economist has a recent piece that argues Israel is not in control of its own destiny, because it won’t dismantle settlements and withdraw from the West Bank. I think the piece is full of flaws.
The logic is confusing. The argument is that Israel “refuses to give up its empire.” If Israel explicitly decides not to withdraw (a policy which the Economist attributes to the Benjamin Netanyahu government), though, then it is in control of its actions.
As part of this claim, the article asserts that at the same time Israel is “unable to sustain its imperial ambitions in the West Bank.” I think this is simply untrue. The primary concern for two-staters like myself is that Israel is, in fact, exerting a creeping sovereignty over the West Bank that is making the two state solution that much more difficult to achieve.
It is doing so by expanding Israeli infrastructure into the West Bank (roads, electrical grids, plumbing). Settlers (whether ideological or quality-of-life) are well integrated into all of the institutions responsible for policy toward the West Bank, including the Civil Administration (in charge of governance there), the military, the state bureaucracy, the Knesset, the judiciary, and the government. Israeli law is increasingly applied to the region.
Israel has also taken control of the timing and parameters of peace talks with the Palestinians. It has successfully fended off the Obama Administration’s focus on settlements, and ensured a US veto at the United Nations where the Palestinians looked for international recognition for their own independent state. At the same time Israel has simply had to sit back and let the Palestinians undermine their own cause by President Mahmoud Abbas’s own plodding indecision and the failure of the two main factions (Fatah and Hamas) to enact a unified front. The rocket attacks continuing to come out of Gaza only underline its ability to point to a lack of partners on the Palestinian side.
The Economist article assumes the logical confusion is cleared up in the explanation: which is that Israel didn’t really mean to become an empire by incorporating the West Bank into its legal and material sovereignty.
It claims that “[f]or over a decade, the tone of Israeli politics has been a mix of panic, despair, hysteria and resignation.” Perhaps at some moments. But at a minimum, these tones have been supplemented—if not totally displaced—by an assertive, aggressive campaign tone by the right and by Likud especially that, in the wake of the Second Intifada, the Palestinians can’t be trusted and so there’s no point to any further concessions. The experiences of Lebanon after 2000 and Gaza after 2005 are easy indicators for such arguments. This is not panic or resignation, but confidence and determination.
The piece asserts that Benjamin Netanyahu bears the greatest responsibility for the current situation. There is no doubt that Bibi has done little to advance the peace process, and he doesn’t seem to be genuinely interested in one. But the evidence put forward is that Bibi tolerated or pushed settlement activity and the implication that he turned to violence and force whenever progress seemed likely.
But taking a single snapshot of the scene (Bibi’s tenures as prime minister) is misleading. It ignores the fact that settlement activity has a very long history, and considerable support even among those in the center and left of Israeli politics.
The Labor Party, for example, as an amalgamation of parties on the left has always had factions within it dedicated to territorial maximalization. And the expansion of settlements and the settler population has been a continuous process, cutting across both Labor and Likud governments.
According to data from the Foundation for Middle East Peace, the settler population in the West Bank and East Jerusalem was 227,600 in 1991, the last year of the Shamir government. By 1996, when Bibi first came to power (with Israel governed by Labor in the meantime), the population had leaped to 303,100. By the time Ehud Barak of Labor came to power in 1999, the number was 347,223. When Bibi came back to office in 2009, settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem numbered about 479,600. It’s harder to get more recent data, but current estimates are around 500,000 or so. In other words, the largest increases in settler population occurred on non-Bibi watches.
Of course, settler population isn’t the same as expansion of settlement buildings and land (which the Netanyahu government has most certainly continued and expanded on); but it is one indicator. According to Peace Now, the settler population has been on a continuous upward trajectory since the 1970s, with a steep incline throughout the entire 1990s and 2000s.
The article then goes on to note that “Israelis have psychologically displaced the source of their anxiety onto … Iran.” Putting aside the difficulty of applying psychoanalytical constructs to entire societies, such an argument removes all moral agency and responsibility from Israel, displacing its purposeful actions onto vague yet uncontrollable mental and emotional processes. It also ignores the fact that the hard evidence points out that (Jewish) Israelis simply don’t care enough about the West Bank, or the settlements, or the suffering of Palestinians there, to think about it. Israelis don’t even seem to know where the Green Line actually is.
There’s no need to make elaborate arguments about why Israel hasn’t ended its occupation of the West Bank. Even putting aside the issue of Palestinian actions, responsibilities, and lack of effort, the explanation is simple: Israel is just not interested in doing so.