POLITICAL observations & opinions

* Robert K. Lifton: expanding Israel’s West Bank settlements is not in Israel’s best interest

Posted by Lew Weinstein on June 7, 2009

NOTE: read a short summary of Mr. Lifton’s main points at …

* Israel should separate itself from the West bank settlements

LMW … I have known Mr. Lifton since the early 1990s. I have repeatedly found his analyses of the Middle Eastern situation to be uniquely well reasoned.

Mr. Lifton holds an B.B.A. degree from the School of Business Administration, City University of New York. He graduated Magna Cum Laude and was elected to the honorary society Beta Gamma Sigma. In 1951 he received an L.L.B. degree from Yale Law School, where he was a member of the Order of the Coif and Note Editor of the Yale Law Journal. He was admitted to the New York Bar in 1952. In 1988 he became President of the American Jewish Congress, an association of Jewish Americans organized to defend Jewish interests at home and abroad through public policy advocacy. He is a Founder and served as Chairman of the Israel Policy Forum, a group which combines the policy development and publications of a think tank, with the educational programming and advocacy initiatives of a lobby. Mr. Lifton has been a longtime member of the Council on Foreign Relations, an independent, nonpartisan membership organization which seeks to better understand the world and the foreign policy choices facing the United States and other countries. Mr. Lifton has been engaged in a broad range of  entrepreneurial activities.

Here is Occasional Letter #70 in a series written by Robert K. Lifton …

Dear Friend,

This is the first new Letter I have written to you since my Letter # 69 written in April 2007. Last week I e-mailed a copy of that Letter to you to make a few points.

  • First, how very little progress had been made in dealing with problems in the Middle East  – particularly the Israeli-Palestinian issues – in over two years.
  • Second, the Letter suggested a direct linkage between dealing with Iran and the Israel-Palestinian issues which President Obama recognized in his recent meeting with Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu despite Netanyahu’s efforts to keep the two matters separate.
  • Third, the Letter suggested a new diplomatic approach that would connect Iran’s cessation of nuclear development with Israel’s resolution of its relationship the Palestinians.

In the last three weeks we have seen a flurry of activity around the problems gripping the Middle East: first, the meetings of President Obama with Prime Minister Netanyahu and then with Palestinian President Abbas and most recently President Obama’s visit to the Middle East and his inspired speech in Cairo.

In this Letter I would like to focus on one theme that was a central element in the discussions at all of those forums, namely the Israeli settlements.

Israel showing Gaza & the West Bank

Israel showing Gaza & the West Bank

Simply put, in my view the present broad based, highly populated status of the settlements combined with the policy of the Netanyahu government that would result in further growth of the settler population does not only hold out the possibility for serious dispute between the US and Israeli administrations.

  • More important, I believe that it has the potential to threaten the very essence of Israel as a Jewish state. Thus, it has fundamental implications that not only affect the people of Israel but Jews throughout the world who have looked at Israel as the ultimate safety net for the Jewish people.

To explain my perspective, let me share with you some personal history. In 1988 I became President of the American Jewish Congress. Shortly before that the leadership of the American Jewish Congress undertook a mission to the Middle East to educate ourselves and form a basis for our policies regarding Israel and the Palestinians. At that time, Yitzhak Shamir, head of the Likud Party, was Prime Minister of Israel and one of the rising stars of the party was Benyamin (Bibi) Netanyahu who served as Israel’s Ambassador the United Nations.  Both Shamir, Netanyahu and their party were identified with the belief in a biblically inspired “Greater Israel” which would ultimately encompass all of the Occupied Territories,  (a term some on the far right did not like  preferring to call them “disputed territories.”) namely, the West bank and Gaza.

Israel should separate itself from the occupied territories

After days of meetings with people holding a broad range of views, the American Jewish Congress leadership came to a conclusion that set it apart from the rest of the major Jewish organizations: that Israel should separate itself from the Territories.

  • The underpinning for that view was the demographic studies reflecting the anticipated much faster growth of the Palestinian population both in Israel and in the Territories compared with the anticipated growth of the Jewish population in Israel.
  • Thus, if Israel were to incorporate the Territories as part of a Greater Israel, ultimately a majority of its population would be Palestinian. In that case, it would
    • either have to end its position as a Jewish State
    • or disenfranchise the Palestinian population and no longer continue as a democratic state.

The Settlement Issue

With that perspective, let’s look at the issues relating to the settlements.

  • Over the period of years since Israel’s victory in the 1967 War, settlement activity was supported by both the conservative Likud and liberal Labor parties based on two rationales. Some supported settlements as part of a program for expanding Israel to encompass the Territories inspired by the Greater Israel theme.
  • Thus, religious settlers today base their claim to West Bank land on the biblical heritage of the Jewish people.
  • Others supported settlements as part of the security system required to protect Israel from Arab attack.
  • This was the argument offered by General, later Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon who over the years showed many of us detailed maps of the areas where Israel needed settlements in place to protect against vulnerabilities to attack.  Others argued that, in any event, the term settlements was not properly applicable to developments in areas around Jerusalem which belonged to Israel and would never be turned over to the Palestinians.
  • Whatever the rationale, settlements kept on expanding to the point where according to the New York Times, over the last 40 years, about 58,800 housing units have been built with Government approval in the West Bank and an additional 46,500 homes have obtained Defense Ministry approval within the existing master plans.
  • At present, the Israeli population in the West Bank, not including East Jerusalem, approaches 300,000 living in about 120 settlements spread through parts of the West Bank. The settlement population is comprised of people motivated by strong religious beliefs as well as many who moved there taking advantage of government subsidy programs that enabled them to have comfortable housing in suburban areas at lower prices than comparable housing in Israel.

Settlements and the US-Israel Relationship

The subject of settlement expansion has been the focus of a number of US Administrations.

  • One of the more explosive moments arose when Israel was seeking loan guarantees from the United States and President George H.W. Bush together with his Secretary of State James Baker attempted to use the leverage of the guarantees to force cessation of settlement activity. This resulted in pressure from the organized Jewish community against that effort and even unfair mischaracterization of President Bush as anti-Semitic.
  • In the ensuing years, Presidents have stayed away from creating arguments with Israel on the subject, mostly referring to settlement activity as “unhelpful.”
  • However, after the meeting between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu, the President made clear that the US position is to call for a freeze on all new settlement expansion.
  • Part of being a good friend is being honest,” he (President Obama) said, “there have been times where we are not as honest as we should be about the fact that the current direction, the current trajectory, in the region is profoundly negative….”
  • For his part, Mr. Netanyahu has said that while Israel would not allow new settlements, and would take down some illegal settlements, building within the confines of existing settlements must be allowed to continue. “Israel “cannot freeze life in the settlements.” Halting construction, he argued, is “unreasonable.”
  • Moreover, senior Israeli officials complain that Mr. Obama is not following what they call a clear understanding with the Bush administration when they signed onto the so-called road map for a two state solution in 2003.
  • Although the road map provided that Israel agrees to “freeze all settlement activity (including natural growth of settlements”) they contend that understanding nevertheless allowed Israel to build settlement housing within the boundaries of certain settlement blocks as long as no new land was expropriated, no special economic incentives were offered to move to settlements and no new settlements were built. Some American officials from that time challenge that contention.

And so the disagreement is in the open and Mr. Netanyahu has to face tough choices between alienating his right wing constituency or the President of the United States.

Israel - a tiny speck in the Middle East

Israel - a tiny speck in the Middle East

The Difficult Course for Israel – Dismantling Settlements

There is a frightening reality facing Israel, given the broad settlement activity that has already taken place that would be further compounded by any additional settlement expansion.

  • That reality is the enormous difficulty of dismantling settlements in the event the parties reached a resolution of their conflict that called for turning areas back to the Palestinians free of settlements.
  • We have seen how tenaciously some of the settlers are holding on to their homes, particularly religious settlers, that even trying to move a very small number required calling in the army to exert physical force.
  • Any effort at large scale dismantling would generate major internal conflicts that could tear the nation apart, particularly, as religious and secular elements took opposing sides.
  • Perhaps this is in part what Mr. Netanyahu recognizes as he dodges openly accepting a two state solution but rather talks about helping the Palestinians “economically” and “not wanting to control” the Palestinians.

The Threat to Israel – No Two State Solution

The premise of all the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians as seen by the United States and the rest of the world is that in the end as President Obama stated in his Cairo address  “the only resolution is for the aspirations of both sides to be met through two states, where Israelis and Palestinians each live in peace and security.”

  • We tend to forget that a two state solution is a relatively new concept created in large part by Yasser Arafat who inspired his people to believe that they should and could have a state of their own and then in the Oslo peace process and thereafter acknowledged that such a state would exist with an Israeli state.
  • Before him the Palestinian aspiration was to return to the land they left, believing that somehow Israel would simply disappear. Frankly, I always felt that Arafat did a great service to Israel in influencing the Palestinians and the rest of the world to adopt a two-state solution.

Absent that concept there would be two other scenarios.

  • One scenario, which is totally unrealistic but that some Israelis – maybe even including Mr. Netanyahu – still believe, is that Israel would continue to control the territories for an indefinite time as they “help” the Palestinians grow to the point where they are ready for statehood.
  • The other scenario is that the territories and their inhabitants join together with Israel and its inhabitants in a single state.

In recent times, some Palestinians have begun to reject the idea of two states and call instead for the two people to live together in one state.  As reflected in my opening discussion, that would be a disastrous scenario for Israel.

  • It could not maintain itself as a Jewish state without disenfranchising the faster growing Palestinian population.
  • But such action would open the door to accusations of apartheid with the probable consequences of world wide opprobrium of a kind that South Africa faced until it allowed its larger native population political control.

There are those who will cavil about one or another portion of President Obama’s speech, depending on their political positions.

For Israelis, and those Jews throughout the world who are dedicated to seeing Israel continue as a Jewish, democratic state, however, President Obama’s advocacy of a two state solution and a cessation to settlement activity must be seen as a boon that serves Israel’s very best interests.




One Response to “* Robert K. Lifton: expanding Israel’s West Bank settlements is not in Israel’s best interest”

  1. bruce said

    Looks like Barack Obama has figured out that one of the main obstacles to mideast peace are the illegal Jewish settlements.The West Bank and Gaza Ghetto are Occupied Territories according to international law,The Geneva Convention,countless UN resolutions Israel has continuously ignored.
    It is important to note that these Illegal settlements are exclusively Jewish,built on stolen private land,and are connected by roads that are also exclusive.The IDF supports the whole ROTTEN system and is let loose on the Non Jewish captive Palestinian populace corralled in Israel designed walled reservations.The Aim is to make the lives of these Non Jews so insufferable as to drive them off their lands and bring in Jewish Israelis.
    Now if you build an Apartheid society not too many would argue it’s not wrong,but the Israeli model is Funded buy things like tax free Israel Bonds and other slippery financial instruments with origins MOSTLY in these United States.
    Furthermore,Israel receives over $10 million a day in US DOLLARS that we know of.Unique in the annals of US foreign aid:US “CASH” is deposited in the Israeli treasury at the beginning of each year,and the US taxpayer pays the interest on that Borrowed money.Israel invests in turn that New money and collects interest.How sweet ‘Tis.
    According to the Christian Science Monitor,the cost of Israel to the American TAXpayer has been over $1.3 TRILLION since 1973

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