Opinion | For Israel: A Blank Check or Tangled Strings?

By | Dec 08, 2023
Featured, Latest, Opinion
The entrance of Neve Daniel, an Israeli settlement in the West Bank, as seen from nearby Palestinian farmland. Photo credit: Tricky H via Wikimedia CC BY-SA 4.0

This is an awkward time to attach conditions to the generous military aid that the United States provides to Israel. But it should be considered, not only to curb civilian casualties in Gaza, as some Democratic senators wish, but also to curb Jewish settlements in the West Bank, which have long poisoned prospects for Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation.

With the exception of the Trump White House, which supported settlements, Republican and Democratic administrations have declared Israel’s settlement policy an obstacle to peace. Yet the United States has never used the leverage of the purse to restrain the practice. Since the Oslo Accords of 1993, the number of Israeli residents on the West Bank has soared from 110,000 to more than 500,000, with the number of settlements rising from 128 to about 300, now scattered throughout Palestinian areas.

American officials have done little more than complain and wring their hands as Israelis have populated territory that might have formed a Palestinian state, constructing government-subsidized developments whose townhouses, schools, synagogues, orchards, factories and swimming pools have an aura of permanence that belies the term “settlements.” They are satellite cities and sweeping suburbs. They have created such a crazy-quilt of jurisdictions that piecing together territory for Palestinian sovereignty would now require the departure of tens of thousands of Israeli Jews.

Moreover, a thuggish minority of Israeli settlers have tormented their Palestinian neighbors through home invasions and vandalism, destruction of olive groves and even murder, with impunity. They are religio-nationalist zealots operating in a freewheeling environment of self-righteous extremism. This is not new, just more widespread and unrestrained. It has been going on for at least 40 years, recently escalating to a level attracting international attention as settlers try to terrify Palestinians into fleeing—with some success. At least 11 Arab communities have been emptied so far this year, according to the West Bank Protection Consortium, a monitoring group of nongovernmental organizations funded by ten European countries.

The problem may seem purely political and humanitarian, but it has military consequences for Israel. What happens on the West Bank resonates in Gaza, where Hamas ruled and armed itself for the gruesome slaughters and kidnappings of October 7. The Palestinian prisoners whose release Hamas is obtaining in exchange for hostages are virtually all West Bank residents, arrested by Israeli forces there and often held without charge or trial. By remote control, Israeli settlers and soldiers in the West Bank seem to have contributed to radicalization in Gaza, at least to some degree.

Furthermore, the more settlers, the more targets of Palestinian violence, and the more military assets are needed in the West Bank to protect them. Army resources are drawn from elsewhere, including the border with Gaza, whose high-tech monitoring proved no match for the thousands of Hamas fighters who pierced the security fence in some 30 places and ran freely for hours killing Israelis before Israeli troops arrived.

So, if strings were to be tied to U.S. aid, they should lead to West Bank settlements as well as to Palestinians’ suffering under Israel’s fierce military tactics. Reining in settlements might meet less political opposition at this moment of struggle.

Israel’s immense retaliatory assault on the Gaza Strip has been unprecedented, but so was the sadistic, intimate terrorism perpetrated by Hamas. Virtually all Israelis have lost their sense of sanctuary, even in the private depths of their own houses. Some 250,000 Israelis have fled their towns and kibbutzim near the northern and southern borders. The call-up of reservists is sapping Israel’s economy. Unsurprisingly, the hard-right government is bent on obliterating the military and political capacity of Hamas, whose Islamist-nationalist covenant calls for obliterating the Jewish state.

Into this contest of mutual obliteration step 26 senators, led by Chris Van Hollen, Democrat of Maryland, who are implicitly tying strings to aid, including the $14.3 billion requested by President Biden, by urging Israel to reduce civilian casualties in Gaza and crack down on vigilante settlers in the West Bank. “We continue to support additional assistance to Israel in the aftermath of the brutal Hamas attacks,” they said in a statement, “but we are all in agreement that this assistance must be consistent with our interests and values and used in a manner that adheres to international humanitarian law, the law of armed conflict, and U.S. law. We need to find a better path toward helping Israel achieve legitimate military and security objectives. U.S. assistance has never come in the form of a blank check—regardless of the recipient.”

This looks like a shot across the bow.

But Israel is good at ducking. Periodically, as American administrations extracted promises to “freeze” settlements while peace talks were underway, Israel’s governments evaded the pledge by merely expanding existing settlements rather than building new ones. Authorities have winked as small groups of Israelis have put house trailers illegally on West Bank hilltops as embryonic settlements, unauthorized at first and then often legitimized.

That’s how it all began, in fact. Shortly after the West Bank city of Hebron was captured in the 1967 war, several nationalist Jews led by Rabbi Moshe Levinger checked into the Park Hotel in the city’s center, owned by Fahd Kawasmeh, the future pro-P.L.O. mayor.

Hebron, believed to be the burial place of the prophet Abraham, had been home to a small community of devout Jews for centuries, a presence interrupted by Arab attacks in 1929 and 1936. Now, in the flush of the 1967 victory, Levinger’s group was determined to reconnect to those roots. The Labor government, facing inflammatory tensions with the Palestinian population, tried to get the Jews to leave, but they refused until offered a site on the city’s outskirts.

There, a makeshift encampment grew into a substantial suburb of apartment buildings with the biblical name Kiryat Arba. It is a centerpiece of the settlement movement’s dogmatic extremists. Later, Levinger, his American-born wife and his followers also established residence in central Hebron, which remains a hotbed of Arab-Jewish friction.

Gradually over the decades, the amalgam of religious and nationalist drives have moved closer and closer to the center of power. No settlers were in the cabinet of Prime Minister Menachem Begin, despite his passionate pursuit of Jewish settlement in Judea and Samaria, the biblical names the Israeli right uses for the West Bank. Today, two hard-right settlers have key positions: Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir. Smotrich urges discrimination against Arabs and permanent Israeli control of the West Bank. Ben-Gvir, an admirer of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane’s call for stripping citizenship from Arab residents of Israel, supports their segregation in public spaces.

The extremes don’t represent the whole, however. Most Israeli settlers are probably drawn more by subsidies and lifestyle than by religio-nationalist zealotry. Many might leave willingly if given adequate financial incentives, which Washington could provide as a carrot if a peace plan were possible.

On the other hand, there’s the stick. The Biden administration has announced that any settlers involved in the attacks who are not American citizens would be denied visas to the United States. But that’s not enough. Israel has been America’s largest aid recipient, at more than $260 billion total, plus additional funds for the Iron Dome and other weapons systems. Technically, American aid isn’t used directly to build the settlements’ roads, wells, electrical grids or housing. But money is fungible, and it’s worth asking what impact, over the years, the United States might have had by deducting, say, $2.00 of economic or military assistance for every dollar Israel spent on settlements. An unlikely scenario, to be sure, given Washington’s intense pro-Israel politics.

Yet it’s due for consideration. The aim would not be to cut aid, of course, but to influence Israeli behavior. Given the hard ideology of most Israeli governments in recent decades, pitted against the acute need for assistance, that would have posed a tough choice for Jerusalem. Even today, with the country’s booming economy making it less dependent, it would be a wakeup call. With the Gaza war and West Bank clashes raging, the settlement problem has grown visible enough to invite the U.S. to squeeze Israel with some tough love.

David K. Shipler is a former Jerusalem bureau chief for The New York Times and the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Arab and Jew: Wounded Spirits in a Promised Land. His latest book is a collection of poetry, The Wind is Invisible.

Top image: The entrance of Neve Daniel, an Israeli settlement in the West Bank, as seen from nearby Palestinian farmland. Photo credit: Tricky H via Wikimedia CC BY-SA 4.0

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