On Sunday, Israel’s Channel 12 reported that Defense Minister Benny Gantz is going to convene the Civil Administration Planning Committee, which is the body in charge of approving new construction in the West Bank. Gantz wants to move forward with new construction in areas that have long been identified as major settlement blocs, such as Gush Etzion and Ma’ale Adumim, and also in areas that until recently were not viewed as such, including Beit El, Nokdim, and the South Hebron Hills. While it may seem like a distant memory, it was only four short months ago that Gantz justified entering into a unity coalition with Prime Minister Netanyahu by claiming a single-minded desire to combat the coronavirus crisis. Yet as Israel’s handling of coronavirus has deteriorated to the point that it now leads the world in new infections per capita, Gantz is rather busying himself with new settlement construction in places large and small, west and east of the security barrier, all because he thinks he will derive some political benefit from it.
While this only confirms what most already suspected – namely, that Gantz is a politician no different than the rest, despite his repeated encomiums to “Israel before all” – it is also a clear window into how settlements are generally treated and discussed. When Gantz was spending a year running against Netanyahu, he was fairly consistent in how he spoke about the West Bank and the Jewish communities there, hewing to the view that separation from the Palestinians is in Israel’s best interests and thus it makes sense to focus only on strengthening settlements in places with a clear Jewish majority. In other words, strengthen the blocs that can be easily kept by Israel without creating territorial arrangements that look like a West Bank jigsaw puzzle, and maintain the current status quo everywhere else. Now that Gantz sees friction between Netanyahu and settler leaders as a result of annexation being pulled back at the UAE’s behest, he views it as an opportunity to capitalize politically by becoming a champion of any and all settlements and driving a wedge between Netanyahu and part of his base. This is run of the mill behavior, and it also puts Gantz firmly in the long and seemingly unending column of people who do not address the settlement issue clearly or honestly.
It is impossible to divine what Gantz actually thinks. Perhaps he believes, as used to be the Israeli consensus and as he himself used to voice, that Israel needs to expend its political and monetary capital on existing Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem and the approximately 4% of the West Bank contiguous to Israel proper that contains nearly 80% of Israelis living beyond the Green Line. Perhaps he believes that Israel should never evacuate even one of its citizens or withdraw from any settlement in the future no matter the circumstances, a position now claimed by Netanyahu and endorsed in the Trump plan and one that Gantz seems inevitably on a collision course to publicly embrace whether or not he actually deems it sound policy. But whatever he believes, he is no more committed to having an honest position than is Netanyahu. One extolls the virtue of settling the entire land of Israel and the necessity of never withdrawing from even one inch, and spends over a year incessantly promising to turn this vision into a reality through annexation, all the while quietly implementing a construction freeze and then suspending annexation in the pursuit of a different goal. The other discovers a newfound talent for pandering to settlers and pretending that a house in Shilo is the same as a house in Beitar Illit while at the same time promising to do nothing that will destabilize the Palestinian Authority or complicate relations with Jordan, pretending that fitting a square peg into a round hole is what he has always believed. Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia.
Neither is willing to own up to the obvious: that settlements everywhere and forever comes with tradeoffs. That insisting that no Israeli will ever have to leave his or her home makes it impossible to separate from the Palestinians or to implement a two-state outcome, putting Israel demonstrably on the path to a one state future of some sort. That having pockets of Israeli communities dotted throughout the West Bank is a security nightmare, either because you bloodlessly view Israeli civilian men, women, and children as cannon fodder halting the advance of soldiers in the event of a military conflict over territory or because you understand just how stretched thin the IDF will be in having to protect hundreds of thousands of Israelis spread across a vast and disconnected area amidst a population of millions that does not want them there. That the Trump plan’s map of disconnected enclaves is an absurd way of attempting to maintain Israeli sovereignty in places where it makes no logistical or security sense. Neither Netanyahu or Gantz is willing to plainly state that these tradeoffs exist, and that despite them, advocating for a policy of making this already complicated situation even more so is worth the costs, which is not a position I support but is a perfectly legitimate one to hold. Instead, both of these putative leaders nod and wink to both sides, not wanting to offend anyone or be straight with their citizens.
This state of affairs is not limited to Israel and our Israeli friends. The American Jewish community has long embraced the idea that while settlements are problematic, they are not the core problem of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I believed that too, and without going down the rabbit hole of searching through hundreds of thousands of words’ worth of articles, I am certain I have written as such multiple times. And when it was Israeli policy, with a strong push from the United States, that nearly every large settlement would eventually be incorporated into Israel through land swaps but that smaller ones and more isolated ones beyond a certain perimeter would eventually have to be ceded, that belief made sense. In a world, however, in which Israeli leaders pledge that not one brick of one settlement will ever be dismantled, no matter how isolated or far flung, and that not one Israeli will ever be asked to move, even with compensation, that belief is no longer sustainable. Continuing to assert it is willful obfuscation, since it is not just a matter of the Palestinians recognizing Israel’s legitimacy or right to have a Jewish state in the Jewish historical homeland; even if that was the view of every Palestinian on earth, permanent settlements everywhere would still prevent the conflict from being resolved in a way that the Palestinians can and will accept.
Settlements were not the core problem of the conflict because they were temporary and subject to negotiation, and thus did not have to be an immovable stumbling block in resolving it. But if your position has evolved along the same trajectory as Netanyahu’s, this is no longer true. An American Jewish community that insists that every single present and future settlement must remain where they are and that it is inherently immoral under any circumstance to contemplate making any Israelis leave their homes, and praises the Trump plan as finally introducing a realistic two-state vision into the discourse, can only spout the old line about settlements if it does so as fiction. There is an absolute contradiction between separation into two entities and keeping every settlement in place until the end of time. Those who are honest about this will acknowledge that these things are inherently contradictory and adopt one of three positions: maintain the traditional posture on settlements as the only path toward a viable two-state outcome, support a one-state outcome because the fact of settlements renders two states no longer possible, or argue that the hurdles posed by confederation are more easily overcome than the hurdles posed by dealing with settlements.
What is not possible, however, is to pretend that everyone can have their settlement cake and eat it too. And we can all thank Netanyahu, Gantz, and the Trump plan for that.