By David K. Shipler
Secretary of State John Kerry made the speech this week that he should have made three years ago, when it might have had an impact greater than to antagonize. In a well reasoned analysis of the harm being done by Israel’s practice of settling Jews on territory to be used for a Palestinian state, he warned that prospects for peace were being curtailed. He justified the US decision not to veto a UN Security Council resolution condemning settlements this way: “If we were to stand idly by and know that in doing so we are allowing a dangerous dynamic to take hold which promises greater conflict and instability to a region in which we have vital interests, we would be derelict in our own responsibilities.”
But standing idly by while settlements have been expanded is exactly what the United States has done for decades. It has never put its money where its mouth is. It has used plenty of words but no real leverage. It has never made Israel pay for this “dangerous dynamic.”
The most recent punishment, in fact, was President Obama’s award to Israel this fall of $38 billion in military aid, which, Kerry noted, “exceeds any military assistance package the United States has provided to any country, at any time, and that will invest in cutting-edge missile defense and sustain Israel’s qualitative military edge for years to come.” Israel gets more than half the entire military financing that the US provides to the entire world. For this, Obama gets denounced as anti-Israel by right-wing American Jews and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s extremist claque.
Words have weight in foreign affairs, no doubt. And every Republican and Democratic administration, through Presidents Carter, Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, Bush II, and Obama, has tried—and failed—to sway Israel through vehement words, criticizing the settlements in the contested territories as “obstacles to peace.” To that standard indictment has occasionally been added the charge that the settlements violate international law that governs the rules of war and occupation, as the recent UN resolution stated.
But no financial penalty has been imposed. In effect, because money is fungible, American aid goes into one pocket, freeing Israel to use funds from another pocket to subsidize settlements through housing loans, roads, power lines, water and sewer hookups, and security by the army.
What would have happened if the US, to halt this “dangerous dynamic” that conflicts with American “vital interests,” had said to Israel: OK, for every dollar you spend on settlements, you get a dollar less from American taxpayers—a kind of matching grant in reverse. And if that doesn’t work, you’ll get two dollars less for every dollar you spend. There would have been a political firestorm in the US, of course. Israel would have felt cornered and threatened—the opposite of the sense of security it needs to be conciliatory and take the risks for peace.
On the other hand, in more moderate Israeli governments, years before zealous settlers themselves gained cabinet seats, a more sober calculation might have prevailed, enough to slow or stop the expansionism, thereby leaving the door open to the option of a two-state solution.
We’ll never know. Donald Trump has made clear, through his statements and appointments, that he intends to slam that door shut. To the extent that he understands what he’s doing, and unless he changes his mind between tweets, he will be a champion of Jewish settlements on the West Bank that will chop up territory so that no contiguous land can be assembled for a Palestinian state. He will thereby make official US rhetoric coincide with actual practice, which will at least give American policy consistency and integrity, albeit in the wrong direction.
His son-in-law, Jared Kushner, whom Trump has toyed with naming to some post involving Middle East issues, supports settlements, to which his family has reportedly given donations. Trump’s prospective ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, not only endorses their expansion but has declared his opposition to a Palestinian state. He denounces liberal American Jews who favor such a state as “kapos,” the Jewish prisoners coopted into collaboration by the Nazis. (Friedman seems oddly blind to the genuine anti-Semitism among so many of Trump’s supporters.)
The territories in question were captured by Israel during the Six-Day War of 1967. The West Bank remains under a mixture of Israeli occupation and nominal, incompetent Palestinian civilian authority, and that’s where the settlement activity now occurs.
The Gaza Strip, by contrast, was relinquished by Israel in 2005 to Palestinian rule that has proved disastrous. From that densely populated, impoverished slice of desert along the Mediterranean, Hamas has rocketed Israeli towns, built tunnels to smuggle in weapons from Egyptian-controlled Sinai and smuggle fighters into Israel. The bitter experience has instilled a legitimate fear in Israel that a similar withdrawal from the West Bank, which is much closer to population centers, would open the territory to radical Palestinian movements devoted to terrorism.
Kerry made clear that settlements did not cause the conflict and weren’t solely responsible for the failure of peace negotiations, which he and Obama tried hard to revive. But Kerry also documented the pointed, deliberate placing of settlements to balkanize the West Bank and cut Palestinian populations off from one another.
“They’re often located on private Palestinian land and strategically placed in locations that make two states impossible,” he explained. “The more outposts that are built, the more the settlements expand, the less possible it is to create a contiguous state. So in the end, a settlement is not just the land that it’s on, it’s also what the location does to the movement of people, what it does to the ability of a road to connect people, one community to another, what it does to the sense of statehood that is chipped away with each new construction. No one thinking seriously about peace can ignore the reality of what the settlements pose to that peace.”
And what have Kerry and Obama and their American predecessors done about this? Talk. Hurl words. Stab with rhetoric. Fight with their hands tied behind their backs. To use Kerry’s phrase, they have been “derelict in [their] own responsibilities.”