Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has rejected President Obama's recent contention that the dream of a democratic Jewish state is incompatible with permanent occupation of the West Bank. Obama suggested in two recent speeches that peace negotiations should aim for a sovereign and non-militarized Palestinian state based on pre-1967 borders, with mutually agreed swaps. But in a speech Tuesday to Congress and in other recent comments, Netanyahu has insisted that a state drawn along those lines, which would exclude some existing Jewish settlements on the West Bank, would be "indefensible."
Netanyahu is not alone in maintaining that Jewish settlements on the West Bank are crucial to defending Israel. That view is deeply embedded in mainstream Israeli thinking, and many Americans accept it too. Republican presidential hopeful and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney recently accused Obama of throwing "Israel under the bus."
But Israel's military occupation of the West Bank does not, on balance, make it safer, and the disputed settlements are not essential to Israel's security.
The primary justification for establishing and maintaining settlements on the West Bank has been that the Jewish settlers serve as a necessary front-line warning system for foreign military invasions. History puts that notion to rest. In the first days of the 1973 war, as Syrian tanks rolled across the cease-fire lines on the Golan Heights, Israel rushed troops to remove the settlers from harm's way. This was understandable — the state could not simply abandon its citizens — but it exposed the civilian settlements as a defense liability.
If a foreign ground invasion by Jordanian or Iraqi forces was ever a genuine threat, that possibility seems extremely remote today. As Saddam Hussein demonstrated with his missiles during the Persian Gulf War, and Hezbollah made clear with rockets in the summer of 2006, threats to Israel are more likely to come from afar than from next door. Yet still, the state devotes precious resources and goodwill to the protection of Jewish settlers in the West Bank.
Many of the West Bank settlements were not initiated, and oftentimes not even condoned, by the Israeli government. They were established as renegade outposts by the messianic movement Gush Emunim, which aims to fulfill a biblical promise of Jewish dominion in a Greater Israel. In other words, Israel's political and religious fringe has often driven the military justifications and political backing for settlements.
The fate of the settlements is among the hardest choices facing Israel. Uprooting Jewish settlers or abandoning them inside a Palestinian state is a prospect no politician wants to undertake, and the settlers knew that would be the case. Some referred to themselves as "nails without heads," a reference to how difficult they would be to dislodge once in place. Netanyahu, with his strong conservative credentials, might be in the best position to tackle the issue, but first he would have to see it as in Israel's interest.
As the Arab Spring unfolds, it is becoming clear that Israel cannot continue to rely on tacit acceptance of its policies by the region's dictatorial regimes. It must instead earn the acceptance of the Arab populace. Though Israel is hardly guilty of all the accusations made on Arab street corners, it does have fences to mend, and an expeditious and respectful solution to the Palestinian problem would go a long way toward convincing the country's neighbors that it values democracy and justice. Ultimately, Israel has more to gain from partaking in the economic and political development of the region than from its forceful occupation of an unwilling people.
Netanyahu's position that a strong Jewish civilian presence in the West Bank is crucial to Israel's security is a myth. His thinking stands in sharp contrast to the vision outlined by Obama. One approach relies on military might, the other on peaceful coexistence (in an admittedly tough neighborhood). Since Roman times, dominion over Jerusalem has switched hands on average every 100 years. In that part of the world, military might is ephemeral. Yet Israel's vision consists of little else. Obama is doing his best to pull Israel out from under the bus.
Dan Simon is a major in the reserves in the Israeli air force and a former staff attorney for the Assn. for Civil Rights in Israel. He is now a professor of law and psychology at the Gould School of Law at USC.