When morality, realism, and interests align: Extend the settlements freeze

With the expiration of the settlement freeze in Israel, the Netanyahu administration faces one of the greatest challenges of its tenure in office. That it is a challenge that comes primarily from within Israel reflects the fact that — as has been the case for some time now — the most acute struggles associated with ...

JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images
JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images
JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images

With the expiration of the settlement freeze in Israel, the Netanyahu administration faces one of the greatest challenges of its tenure in office. That it is a challenge that comes primarily from within Israel reflects the fact that -- as has been the case for some time now -- the most acute struggles associated with achieving a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinian people are the internal battles within each group.  

Indeed, the Israeli-Palestinian stand-off is one of those instances in which the outcome is much better known than the path which will get us there. Sooner or later -- hopefully sooner -- there will be an independent Palestinian state. We even more or less know its borders and what must be done to secure them. 

For the Palestinians, the question will be can the current government negotiate effectively on behalf of all the Palestinian people? Will the more militant elements of Hamas support the outcomes negotiated on their behalf or will any agreement or near approach to any agreement produce greater division at just the moment where greater unity would provide the Palestinian people with the state and the security and the dignity to which they have long been entitled?

With the expiration of the settlement freeze in Israel, the Netanyahu administration faces one of the greatest challenges of its tenure in office. That it is a challenge that comes primarily from within Israel reflects the fact that — as has been the case for some time now — the most acute struggles associated with achieving a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinian people are the internal battles within each group.  

Indeed, the Israeli-Palestinian stand-off is one of those instances in which the outcome is much better known than the path which will get us there. Sooner or later — hopefully sooner — there will be an independent Palestinian state. We even more or less know its borders and what must be done to secure them. 

For the Palestinians, the question will be can the current government negotiate effectively on behalf of all the Palestinian people? Will the more militant elements of Hamas support the outcomes negotiated on their behalf or will any agreement or near approach to any agreement produce greater division at just the moment where greater unity would provide the Palestinian people with the state and the security and the dignity to which they have long been entitled?

On the Israeli side, there are several ways to look at the settlements question. On the one hand, there is the formal debate around it that pits Zionist zealots who seek to expand or more deeply entrench the Israeli state in disputed lands versus the very substantial portions of the Israeli populace who see the settlements as an unnecessary impediment to a peace process they would like to see progress.

Another way to view it is through the eyes of negotiators for whom succumbing to the pressure from the settlement advocates creates a new set of negotiating chips and a political screen behind which to maneuver. 

But an important, easy to overlook, vital to remember component of the debate is raised in an opinion column that appeared in the Jerusalem Post this past weekend by Donniel Hartman entitled "The future of Zionism depends on moral excellence."

Hartman, president of the Shalom Harman Institute in Jerusalem, makes the point that on the settlement issue, Israel is engaged in a negotiation with itself. "The question," he writes, "is not what (the Palestinians) and the international community will allow, but what we as a Jewish people want to put forth as a core aspect of our policy. The failure to understand this has led to undermining the strength of Zionism within Israeli society and to the kindling of Israel’s delegitimization also within the Jewish community around the world."

After considering the moral dimensions of this question, Hartman goes on to conclude:

Any settlement expansion with the exception of those in the areas of Jerusalem, the Etzion bloc, Ma’aleh Adumim and Ariel, undermines the authenticity of our commitment to bring the occupation to an end and is thus simply immoral. Why continue to expand in areas from which one is committed to withdraw? Continued expansion there is legitimately interpreted as giving lie to one’s commitment to bringing the occupation to an end."

Without getting into the neighborhood by neighborhood specifics in Hartman’s observation, the thrust is both clear and accurate. Netanyahu would not only be wise to heed the advice of the U.S. State Department to reinstate or at least effectively continue the settlement freeze, he would be wise to recognize that failing to do so morally compromises Israel in a way that can only weaken its position internationally and thus in its talks with the Palestinians.

Demography and the potential for the further dangerous escalation of tensions in the region that are exacerbated by the failure to resolve the Israel-Palestine conflict both argue that the clock is ticking for the interested parties and for the world. In a situation in which all parties understand the inevitable outcome and why it is the only just conclusion to the decades old dilemma and in which delaying the outcome has clear and horrific costs, the failure of political leaders to move toward that outcome as expeditiously as possible is also immoral.

But for those who are not moved by arguments of morality or who are so committed to the viability of the state of Israel that they subscribe to the pure realist ends-justifies-the-means argument, then they should simply realize that failing to reinstate the settlement freeze or, worse, by beginning work on new settlements, weakens Israel in ways that its enemies would find hard to equal. It further erodes international support for Israel, strengthens that for the Palestinians, and makes Israel directly responsible for further suffering by the Palestinians.

Personally, as an American Jew (who is not by any definition a Zionist), my interests in this are threefold — I seek first what is moral, next, what is best for the United States, and finally, if it is consistent with the first two, I hope for what is best is Israel. In this instance, all three are aligned. Now it is just to be determined whether the government of Israel realizes that fact.

David Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017. Twitter: @djrothkopf

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