Is Sovereignty Irrelevant?
The controversy over whether Israel can, or should, extend sovereignty over Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) and the Jordan Valley has been momentarily overshadowed. The coronavirus resurgence and the nightly gathering of thousands of left-wing protesters outside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Jerusalem home have claimed priority. With predictable mob misbehavior (see Seattle and Portland), they are demanding his resignation for mishandling the virus and his corruption as “Crime Minister.” Bracketed with President Donald Trump’s popularity plunge for his botching of the virus, there are indications that the sovereignty issue, at least for now, will be set aside. Does it matter?
Following the Six Day War, the return of Jews to Hebron four decades after the destruction of its centuries-old Jewish community launched the settlement movement. Since then dozens, then hundreds, eventually thousands and now hundreds of thousands of Israeli “settlers” have chosen to inhabit their biblical homeland.
Amid 132 settlements, according to recent tabulation, six are populated by more than 10,000 Israelis. Among them, Beitar Illit is located in the Gush Etzion settlement bloc just south of Jerusalem (destroyed by the Arab Legion during Israel’s War of Independence). The Orthodox settlement of Modi’in Illit, between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, was built on the excavated location of a Second Temple-era site. Ma’ale Adumim, between Jerusalem and Jericho (and mentioned in the Book of Joshua), is a populous residential community with an easy commute to Tel Aviv. Across the Green Line boundary east of Tel Aviv, Ariel has a university, sixteen synagogues, and shopping centers. Considerably smaller, with an easy downhill walk to Hebron, is Kiryat Arba (“town of four”), mentioned in the Bible as the place where Abraham’s wife Sarah died.
Then there is the Jordan River Valley, where twenty-seven settlements are inhabited by 9,000 Israelis. Although they are distant from Israel’s main population centers, they form a crucial early-warning barrier against terrorist attackers or Arab invaders from the east. According to the Oslo Accords, 90% of the Valley, with the exception of Jericho, is under Israeli control. As Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin declared in his final speech before his assassination, “The security border for the defense of the State of Israel will be in the Jordan Valley.”
Last September, Prime Minister Netanyahu, identifying it as Israel’s “essential safety belt in the east,” announced his intention to apply Israeli sovereignty there. Nor was this merely a Likud territorial grab. The opposition Blue and White party, soon to join a coalition government, announced its pleasure that Netanyahu was “adopting [its] plan for recognizing the Jordan Valley.” According to a recent poll, nearly 80% of Israelis support retaining that territory under any peace agreement.
This suggests that whether or not President Trump proclaims his approval for the Israeli sovereignty plan is largely irrelevant.
Already exercising de facto sovereignty over these settlement communities, there is not the remotest possibility that Israel would relinquish any — let alone all — of them under any agreement with the Palestinians. Why, then, should sovereignty be an issue since it is already secured? And why should President Trump’s silence (or even refusal) matter? He has other problems on his mind, like his increasingly dubious reelection.
Netanyahu is no less vulnerable to replacement as the pandemic spikes once again and the possibility of new elections looms. He would be foolish to insist that the application of sovereignty depends on approval by the United States. It does not. The decision is Israel’s — for now, Netanyahu’s — to make. And the question, given his previous cave-in to President Barack Obama by agreeing to freeze settlement construction, is whether he has the determination to preserve and defend Jewish history in Israel’s biblical homeland.
Where settlements currently exist, the rainbow of sovereignty — measured by Israel’s determination to protect settlers no less than other Israelis — hovers nearby. When Prime Minister Menachem Begin was asked by The New York Times whether he intended to annex the West Bank, he sharply responded: “You can annex foreign territory. You cannot annex your own country.” Last month Danny Danon, Israel’s Ambassador to the UN, reiterated: “The continued use of the term ‘annexation’ — which, intentionally or otherwise, effectively denies the Jewish people the right to exercise sovereignty over our homeland … is egregious.”
President Trump’s support for sovereignty would be welcome. But the decision is for Benjamin Netanyahu to make. Jewish history will judge him accordingly.
Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of Print to Fit: The New York Times, Zionism and Israel 1896-2016, selected by Ruth Wisse and Martin Kramer for Mosaic as a Best Book for 2019.