One of the most intriguing findings in the sweeping Pew survey of Israel released last week was a sharp rise in the proportion of Israeli Jews who said settlements are beneficial to Israeli security. As recently as 2013, the survey noted, a plurality of Israeli Jews (35 percent) accepted the global consensus that settlements harm Israel’s security. But in the new poll, an even larger plurality deemed settlements beneficial to Israel’s security – 42 percent, up from 31 percent in 2013. Only 30 percent deemed settlements detrimental, while 25 percent said they make no difference to Israeli security. This shift in public opinion reflects both a growing conviction that Israel’s security requires the Israel Defense Forces to remain in at least part of the West Bank, and a growing recognition that settlements are the anchor keeping the IDF from leaving.
Three significant events occurred between the earlier poll, conducted in March-April 2013, and the latest one, conducted from October 2014 to May 2015: the Gaza war of summer 2014, the virtual collapse of UN peacekeeping forces on the Golan Heights, and the failed Israeli-Palestinian talks led by Secretary of State John Kerry. All had a major impact on how Israelis understood their own security.
The war solidified an Israeli consensus that the unilateral pullout from Gaza was disastrous, with even opposition leader Isaac Herzog admitting that “from a security perspective, the disengagement was a mistake.” There were two reasons for this. First, despite two previous wars with Hamas since the 2005 disengagement, Israeli casualties in both were low enough that on balance, the pullout seemed to have saved soldiers’ lives. This time, military casualties were so high (66 soldiers killed) that, as I explained in detail here, keeping the IDF in Gaza would actually have cost fewer lives than leaving did. Second, while Hamas had bombarded Israel with thousands of rockets and mortars ever since the pullout, it had previously mainly targeted the south. During the 2014 war, sustained rocket fire for the first time hit the center of the country, where most Israelis live.
In short, what this war proved was that, far from being deterred by previous wars, Hamas had only grown stronger and more dangerous from war to war. By contrast, in the West Bank, the surge in terror that had followed Israel’s handover of part of the territory to the Palestinians in the mid-1990s had given way to a sharp, steady decline in terror since 2002, when the IDF retook security control of the territory to stop a deadly wave of suicide bombings. The lesson couldn’t have been clearer: Terror soared when the IDF ceded control to the Palestinians and dropped when the IDF regained it.
The virtual collapse of UN peacekeeping operations on the Golan in mid-2014 solidified another Israeli consensus: International forces can’t substitute for the IDF, either. In truth, this was already obvious from the performance of international forces in Lebanon. Following the Second Lebanon War of 2006, the IDF withdrew all its troops in favor of an international force that was supposed to prevent Hezbollah from rearming; instead, Hezbollah more than tripled its pre-war arsenal without this force lifting a finger to stop it. But Hezbollah’s rearming was visible only in statements by senior defense officials. The flight of UN peacekeepers as the Syrian civil war approached Israel’s border was visible on Israeli television screens, making its impact far more visceral.
The sight of these troops, which were supposed to keep Syrian forces away from the border, instead fleeing at the first sign of trouble made Israelis understand that international forces couldn’t be trusted to replace the IDF in the West Bank, either. Understandably, foreign soldiers aren’t willing to die in someone’s else war.
Finally, there was the Obama Administration’s behavior during both the Kerry talks and the subsequent Gaza war. Israelis knew Europe didn’t support their positions in talks with the Palestinians, but they’d previously trusted America to do so. Instead, during the Kerry talks, Washington adamantly opposed a long-term IDF presence in the Jordan Valley, something Israelis of almost all political stripes have long considered essential to Israel’s security. Earlier, Obama had repudiated President George Bush’s recognition of the major settlement blocs, which most Israelis also consider essential. Then, during the Gaza war, he completed the trifecta by backing Hamas’ negotiating demands and even halting arms shipments to Israel at the height of the fighting.
The cumulative effect of all these developments was to convince Israelis that U.S. support for its security was no longer a given. Indeed, in the latest Pew poll, an absolute majority of Israeli Jews (52 percent) said the U.S. wasn’t supportive enough of Israel. The contrast with the 2013 poll, despite the question’s very different wording, is stark: Back then, a whopping 82 percent of Israelis thought American policy either “favored Israel” or was at least “fair” to both sides of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Thus to sum up, Israelis no longer trust either the Palestinians or international forces to replace the IDF in the West Bank, but they also no longer trust Washington to shield Israel from international demands that the IDF leave. So how can they ensure that the IDF remains despite international pressure to withdraw? The only answer, as Israelis increasingly understand, is the settlements: The more Israeli residents a place has, the harder it is for the IDF to withdraw.
The IDF could quit Sinai relatively easily under the 1979 peace treaty with Egypt because only some 2,000 settlers had to be evacuated. It could unilaterally quit south Lebanon in 2000 with great ease because no Israelis lived there. It could unilaterally quit Gaza in 2005 with relative ease because only 8,000 settlers had to be uprooted. On the flip side, most international peace plans acknowledge the impossibility of forcing Israel completely back to the 1967 lines in the West Bank, solely because uprooting hundreds of thousands of Israelis from East Jerusalem and the major settlement blocs is too difficult. Yet even there, the world is demanding 1:1 land swaps from within Israel proper, meaning that even in pre-1967 Israel, the only guarantee of international support for Israeli control over any given area is the presence of civilian communities.
In short, where there aren’t enough Israelis, the IDF leaves. And where there are enough Israelis, the IDF stays. Thus having concluded that the IDF must stay in at least part of the West Bank, Israelis have increasingly concluded that the settlements, by keeping the IDF there, perform an essential service for Israel’s security.
Most Israelis aren’t ideologically committed to the settlements. But as long as the world rejects positions that Israelis consider essential to their security, their support will only grow for the one thing that has proven effective in averting IDF withdrawals – large concentrations of much-maligned civilian settlers.
Originally published in Commentary on March 14, 2016