Rabbi Eric Yoffie writes that Israel’s cabinet decision to increase settlements undermines efforts to make Israel’s case to a sceptical global public.
Perhaps there could be a more foolish, ill-timed, and self-destructive decision than the one made by Israel’s cabinet this week, but it is hard to imagine what it might be.
Israel’s enemies in the Middle East and throughout the world are rejoicing. If you really despise the Jewish state, nothing makes you happier than a move by Israeli leaders to expand settlements. The move, in this case, was a decision by the cabinet to appropriate 1000 acres of West Bank land for settlement building in the Etzion settlement bloc, near Bethlehem. The land has been designated as “state land,” even though ownership is claimed by local Palestinians.
What happened after the decision was, of course, completely predictable. European governments were infuriated, and the hands of those already pushing for a total economic boycott of the West Bank were strengthened. And Israel’s most important ally, the United States of America, rarely inclined toward public criticism of Israel, issued a condemnation of its own.
Nothing unites the world against Israel like settlement building. And while there is never a good time to build settlements in the territories, the timing in this case was astoundingly bad, even for tone-deaf Israeli politicians more concerned with immediate political advantage than with Israel’s standing in the world.
Israel’s staunchest supporters are among those who are wondering how such a decision could possibly be made at this time. With the war in Gaza just concluded, Israel’s friends in the West are now immersed in the task of making Israel’s case to a skeptical public. Israel’s struggle against Hamas was a just war, imposed on Israeli leadership by more than a decade of relentless rocket fire. This barrage of rockets ended any semblance of normal life for more than a million people. To be sure, the death of every Palestinian innocent is a tragedy that rends the heart, but that does not make Israel’s cause any less just or her case for responding to constant attacks any less compelling. Israel, in my view, did not act too quickly or too harshly; if anything, she acted too hesitantly and reluctantly, when a more prompt and targeted response might have been both more effective and more humane.
But, alas, while the responsibility of Hamas for this conflict should be abundantly clear, it has not proven to be so. Europeans, impacted by a struggling economy, an emerging political radicalism, and above all countless media images of dead Palestinian civilians, have allowed ugly anti-Israel sentiments to surface. And even in America, especially among the young, support for Israel has declined.
In short, there is no denying that Israel is vulnerable right now. Even though Hamas connived to promote rather than prevent the death of its own people, ours is a media age, and the pictures of destruction in Gaza are hard to overcome. And so Israel’s supporters set out to patiently build the case for her position. And in response, what does Israel’s cabinet do? It announces new settlements, thereby undercutting all the carefully marshalled arguments for a justice-seeking Israeli government motivated by principles and high ideals.
Israel, I am quick to say, has no responsibility to make my life as an Israel supporter easy. Israel needs to look after her own security and interests. But the problem I have is that building settlements in Gush Etzion does not add to Israel’s security in any conceivable way; it does not protect her citizens from rocket fire or guard them from terrorists. In fact, by undermining her political standing and weakening her regional alliances, it does just the opposite. Why then would the government make such a decision? The only possible reason is to appease the restive settler parties; and while local politics exist everywhere, this is, by any reasonable standard, simply too high a price to pay.
Of course, even absent support from a single significant ally or friend, the Jewish world does not lack for those who rush forward with excuses for settlement building. The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs argued in its statement that it “became clear” in recent negotiations that Israel would keep Gush Etzion and the other settlement blocs, a point confirmed by the 2004 letter from President Bush to Prime Minister Sharon and statements made in 2011 by President Obama. But while Israel can make a case for keeping the settlement blocs, she cannot do so if she refuses, as she has done, to define with precision what the settlement blocs are. To lay claim to settlement blocs without delineating their borders permits the government to settle practically anywhere. And to suggest that Presidents Bush and Obama saw their statements as offering approval for settlement expansion is truly absurd, as every American statement over the last decade indicates.
We in the Jewish community need to stop denying reality. Settlement building is a disaster. To be sure, Zionist principles and democratic values dictate an end to settlement expansion. But all that aside, practical reasons are enough. At a time when the war with Hamas is unfinished, Iran pursues nuclear weapons, and Syria and Iraq are engaged in a bloody civil war, Israel has enough challenges to meet without the endless complications that flow from building more settlements. A little common sense, please. Israel’s government needs to reverse its decision of last week and stop expanding settlements once and for all.
Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie served as president of the Union for Reform Judaism from 1996 to 2012. He is now a writer and lecturer living in Westfield, New Jersey.