The Unsettling Settlers
“Israel’s Settlers Are Here to Stay,” Danny Dayan’s recent New York Times op-ed (July 25), has provoked a revealing kerfluffle among self-appointed monitors of Israel’s moral demise.
It quickly elicited Seth Mandel’s Commentary critique of Dayan’s “Wrongheaded Proposal” (July 26); a swipe from Thomas Friedman warning (yet again) of the danger posed by settlements for “Israel’s future as a Jewish democracy” (July 31); Zvika Krieger’s lengthy Atlantic diatribe against “Dani Dayan’s War” (August 3); and an error-riddled Times interview with Dayan by Jodi Rudoren (August 17), its novice Jerusalem bureau chief.
Dayan, chairman of the Yesha Council of Jewish Communities in Judea and Samaria, performed a remarkable feat. Not only did he sound eminently reasonable, even moderate (especially for a “settler,” generally presumed to be a menacing zealot); but uniting Commentary and The New York Times, on Israel no less, surely is deserving of attention.
Dayan, a secular Israeli, did not rest his claim for settlement legitimacy on biblical sources of divine promise, nor on international law (about which he is, regrettably, conspicuously silent). Rather, he asserted: “Israel legitimately seized the disputed territories of Judea and Samaria in self-defense.” Therefore, its “moral claim” is “unassailable.” Presumably, had Jordan not attacked the Jewish State forty-five years ago during the Six Day War, Israel would have no legitimate claim on its biblical homeland.
Dayan’s analysis of the settlements as permanent communities rests largely on demography. There are more than 350,000 Israeli settlers; their growth rate is 5 per cent. Their continued Jewish presence “in all of Judea and Samaria” is, therefore, “an irreversible fact.” He might have mentioned, for comparative purposes, that the Israeli percentage of the total West Bank population is roughly the same as the percentage of Israeli Arabs living within Israel’s recognized pre-1967 borders.
In his subsequent Times interview, Dayan offered a more spiritual justification for settlements. “You cannot maintain a Jewish soul of a community if you detach it from history,” he said, cautioning that “If Israel detaches itself from Hebron and Bet El and Shilo, it will become an empty society.”
He also presented an explicit and challenging vision of the future, which has incurred the wrath of resolute defenders of the currently conventional “two-state solution.” In their scenario, most settlements will be shut down, most settlers will leave – by force if necessary – and, with minor land swaps, Israel will retreat to its pre-1967 “Auschwitz” borders (as Abba Eban described them). A Palestinian state will be planted between its eastern border and the Jordan River.
Dayan imagines a different two-state solution some time in the indeterminate future. Jordan, which already has a Palestinian majority population, will become the Palestinian state, with West Bank Palestinians (who were, indeed, Jordanians until 1967) as its citizens. Jordan and Israel would jointly govern the West Bank, with “shared responsibilities for two peoples between two states.” Jewish settlements would remain in place. More precisely stated, with a lot of unmentioned history to support his claim, Jordan is “Palestine.”
For a proposal that has been lacerated as “immoral,” “unreal,” and “terrifying” – and, on the J Street website, as “delusional,” “morally bankrupt,” and “fanatical” – Dayan’s vision is merely a moderate restatement of what the League of Nations decided ninety years ago.
With the Ottoman Empire in tatters after World War I, the League, citing “the historical connection of the Jewish people with Palestine,” recognized it as the site of “the Jewish National Home.” The right of “close settlement of Jews on the land” was assured.
Palestine was partitioned in 1922, at the instigation of British Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill, to provide Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia with his own kingdom on the East Bank of Palestine (re-named Trans-Jordan and then Jordan). The right of Jews to “close settlement” west of the Jordan River was retained. Never rescinded, it remains the international legal authorization for more than one hundred Jewish settlements.
Dayan’s critics seem ignorant of, or oblivious to, Jewish settlement rights under international law. In the Atlantic, Krieger, senior vice president of The S. Daniel Center for Middle East Peace, castigated him for trying to revive the “‘Jordan is Palestine’ meme.” But it is not merely a “meme”; it is an accurate statement of what international law long ago provided and still protects.
Mandel, assistant editor of Commentary, seemed most concerned that Dayan’s ideas are “detrimental to the American foreign policy doctrine [i.e. national self-determination] that results in such steadfast American support for Israel.” His apprehension reflects the continuing concern of many American Jews, ever since Louis D. Brandeis asserted the compatibility of Zionism and Americanism a century ago, lest support for Israel be seen to compromise their loyalty to the United States.
Mandel mistakenly attributes to Dayan an insinuation that “Palestinians should be a permanently stateless people.” To the contrary: under Dayan’s proposal Jordan would – and geographically, demographically, historically and legally should – be the site of their national home. Mandel incurred appropriately sharp criticism from Commentary readers for undermining Israel’s legitimate claims. Like Dayan’s other critics, he fails to grasp that Jewish settlements, according to ninety years of international law, are legal.
Indeed, the recent report of the Levy Commission, comprising two former Israeli judges (including one from the Supreme Court) and an international law expert, properly concluded that the State of Israel is not an occupying power in Judea and Samaria. They recognized that Jews have had the internationally guaranteed legal right to “close settlement” west of the Jordan River ever since 1922.
Inevitably, Dayan was too moderate for religious Zionist settlers, for whom biblical imperatives are paramount, and far too zealous for Jewish liberals, who tremble lest they be judged guilty by association with such “obstacles to peace” and nests of zealots as they are convinced the settlements represent. But Palestinians have hardly been tumbling over each other since the Six Day War to reach a peace agreement with Israel based on the conventional two-state solution. Indeed, given their incessant refusals, it just may be time to take them at their word and consider alternatives.
It is worth noting that the largest and most reviled Jewish “settlement” in the Middle East, with its very right to exist incessantly challenged by Palestinians and their legions of allies, remains the State of Israel. But settlement in the Land of Israel, the promised homeland of the Jewish people, is what Zionism has always been about and why, after nineteen centuries, there finally is a reborn Jewish state.
Jerold S. Auerbach is the author, most recently, of Against the Grain: A Historian’s Journey, published by Quid Pro Books.