Analysis from Israel

There’s really only one suitable Zionist response to last week’s UN Security Council resolution on the settlements: massive settlement construction. That’s the appropriate response for more than one reason, but I’ll focus here on the most obvious one: The resolution proves conclusively that Israel gets no credit for showing restraint on this issue, so there’s no earthly reason why it should continue suffering the costs of restraint.

As I’ve written repeatedly in the past, data from Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics shows that there has been less settlement construction under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu than under any of his predecessors. Nor is this a matter of partisan dispute: The left-wing daily Haaretz, a virulent opponent of both Netanyahu and the settlements, used the same data to reach the same conclusion last year.

Moreover, fully three-quarters of the growth in the settlements’ population under Netanyahu has been in the major blocs, which every serious international peace proposal for decades has concluded will remain Israeli under any Israeli-Palestinian deal. Again, this isn’t a matter of partisan dispute; that three-quarters figure comes from Shaul Arieli, a veteran peace activist who is also a virulent opponent of Netanyahu and the settlements.

Finally, almost all the growth in the settler population under Netanyahu has stemmed from natural increase – i.e. women having babies – rather than people actually moving to the settlements. The Haaretz report put the proportion at 74 percent; Arieli’s study, which is more recent, put it at almost 90 percent. Either way, the bottom line is that the only way Israel could have prevented this growth was by passing legislation requiring the forced sterilization of every woman in the settlements. Even the UN hasn’t demanded that yet.

For Netanyahu, this restraint has come at a real price. First, it caused him political damage, because it infuriated his voter base. The result, as I’ve noted before, is that by last month, he was facing an open revolt in his own party over the issue.

Second, it caused Israel strategic damage, because it kept the country from strengthening its hold over areas that most Israeli governments have considered essential for security under any future agreement. To take just one example, all Israeli premiers have deemed the E1 corridor, which links Jerusalem with the Ma’aleh Adumim settlement bloc, critical for Israel’s security – even Yitzhak Rabin, the patron saint of the peace process. Moreover, E1 in no way prevents the possibility of a contiguous Palestinian state, and has actually been assigned to Israel by every serious international peace plan ever proposed. Yet for years, Israel has refrained from building there out of deference to international public opinion, even as illegal Palestinian construction has mushroomed in this formerly empty area. The result is that it now has no “facts on the ground” to act as a counterweight to Palestinian claims. And since Palestinian claims always enjoy the international community’s automatic support, facts on the ground, in the form of large numbers of Israelis whom it’s

simply too difficult to evacuate, are Israel’s best guarantee of retaining areas it deems essential to its security.

Third, settlement restraint has caused major financial damage by exacerbating Israel’s massive housing crisis. As of last year, the price of an average apartment had soared to 146 average monthly salaries, more than double the ratio in most other countries, and up from just 43 in 2008; rents have risen correspondingly. In short, housing in Israel has simply become unaffordable for most people, and that’s a major threat to Israel’s future: People will neither remain in nor move to a country where they can’t even afford to put a roof over their head. Yet substantial building in the settlement blocs and eastern Jerusalem – where Netanyahu has also imposed an undeclared freeze in deference to the international community – could have alleviated the shortage responsible for this massive price rise. The settlement blocs are all within commuting distance of the center of the country, which is where the jobs are, and thus where people want to live; inside the Green Line, in contrast, there are few empty areas left in the country’s narrow waist. And in Jerusalem, the housing shortage is the main reason why the capital loses some 18,000 Jews every year.

Netanyahu was willing to absorb all this damage in the belief that international leaders, regardless of what they said publicly, would know the truth about the brakes he has put on settlement construction and support him when it mattered. But to most of the world, the facts have never mattered where Israel is concerned, and it turns out the same is true of the post-truth Obama Administration: Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes justified America’s support for the resolution (and support is the right word, because in this case, abstaining was no different than voting yes) with the spurious claim that the vote was motivated by an “acceleration of settlement activity” under Netanyahu.

It’s hard to say what impact the resolution will actually have, but there are at least two possible negative consequences. First, its declaration that the settlements are “a flagrant violation under international law” could spur the International Criminal Court, which is already considering a case against Israel over the settlements, to go ahead with it, by assuring prosecutor Fatou Bensouda that such action would enjoy widespread international support. Second, its demand that all states “distinguish, in their relevant dealings, between the territory of the State of Israel and the territories occupied since 1967” provides a tailwind for international boycotts and sanctions against Israel and Israeli companies, since Israel itself considers some of those territories – for example, the Western Wall – to be sovereign Israeli territory.

So if Israel is going to be accused of “accelerated settlement activity” and slapped with potentially serious consequences no matter how much restraint it shows, there’s no justification whatsoever for it to incur the very real costs of this restraint. Hence there’s only one sensible response to this resolution: Build, baby, build.

Originally published in The Jewish Press on December 28, 2016

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It’s Time to Prepare a Military Option on Iran

North Korea’s demonstration of a ballistic missile capable of reaching most of the United States prompted gloomy commentary in Israel about the failure to halt Pyongyang’s nuclear program and, by analogy, the seeming impossibility of stopping Iran’s nuclear program. As Haaretz commentator Anshel Pfeffer put it, Kim Jong-un “proved that a dictator who wants a nuclear weapon badly enough,” and is ruthless and determined enough, “will ultimately achieve it.” Yet the North Korean example proves no such thing because it says nothing about the efficacy of the one tactic America never tried: military action, or at least the credible threat thereof.

North Korea has proven, if anyone had still any doubts, that sanctions and negotiations alone can’t stop a determined dictator from acquiring nukes. In contrast, the jury’s still out on military action. It has only been tried twice, both times by Israel, in Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007. And it’s still too soon to say conclusively that it worked. But at least so far, neither country has nuclear weapons.

Moreover, many of the arguments against military action are fatuous. Take, for instance, the claim that military action is pointless once a country has the know-how to build a bomb, because “You can’t bomb a people’s knowledge out of existence,” as New York Times columnist Roger Cohen said of Iran. That’s true, but it’s completely irrelevant. Knowledge is only one of many components needed to build a bomb. Get rid of the others–like Iran’s heavy-water reactor, its stockpile of enriched uranium, and its centrifuges for enriching more–and no amount of knowledge will suffice to produce nuclear weapons.

Then there’s the argument that military action does nothing but buy time. That’s far from self-evident. Some countries might conclude that the effort of rebuilding their nuclear program only to be bombed again isn’t worth it. But even assuming that’s true, buying time has also been proven to be the most sanctions and negotiations can achieve (except in the rare cases where countries actually agree to give up their nuclear programs.

Thus the relevant question is which course of action buys more time, because the more time you buy, the better the chances of an unexpected development—say, regime change in Iran—that could lead to permanent success. Israel’s bombing of Iraq’s nuclear reactor, for instance, bought just enough time for Iraq to make a critical mistake nobody could have foreseen: the invasion of Kuwait in 1990, which led to the Gulf War and America’s subsequent imposition of an intrusive and effective nuclear inspection regime.

For two reasons, military action probably buys the most time. First, sanctions and negotiations leave much of a country’s nuclear infrastructure in place, whereas military action destroys it. Rebuilding from scratch always takes longer than expanding or improving existing infrastructure, especially if military action is combined with sanctions to impede the rebuilding process. Second, unlike military action, negotiations always require concessions, which can actually facilitate nuclear progress by allowing countries to do openly what they would otherwise have to do secretly. The Iran deal, for instance, allows Tehran to replace its old, slow centrifuges with fast new ones, so that when the deal ends—or earlier, if it follows the North Korean model and cheats—it will be able to enrich the uranium needed for a bomb 20 times faster than it could when the deal began.

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