“A Setback in the Israeli Parliament for Settlers,” announced my hard copy of The New York Times. (The online headline is more neutral.) At Benjamin Netanyahu’s urging, the Knesset yesterday rejected legislation legalizing five apartment buildings built on privately owned Palestinian land in the settlement of Beit El. Finally, those of us who fear the settlement enterprise will doom Israeli democracy have something to cheer about. Israel’s new coalition government is coming through. We can cease our constant kvetching and, for a change, offer full-throated praise.
Except that under Netanyahu’s plan, the five buildings, housing 30 families, will be physically relocated—literally lifted from their foundations in some wildly expensive feat of Israeli technological brilliance—and moved somewhere else in Beit El, a settlement halfway across the West Bank. Netanyahu also pledged to build new housing for 300 families in Beit El, ten times the number whose homes will be relocated. (This is not to mention 551 other new houses elsewhere in the West Bank.) And he added that, “There is no government that supports or will support, settlement more than my government.” Those aren’t idle words. In a recent interview, Talia Sasson, one of Israel’s leading experts on the settlements, told The Times of Israel that Netanyahu’s government “is taking the whole ‘bank’ of land in the West Bank and trying to take control of it, with all sorts of plans, with a clear aim: to prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state.”
To achieve this “setback” for the settler movement, Netanyahu had to threaten his own cabinet ministers with expulsion. Indeed, relocating those five apartment buildings might have proved impossible had he not recently brought Kadima into his government. As the Knesset acted, fifty settlers staged a hunger strike. Hundreds more protested, blocked roads and burned tires.
To put this in perspective, achieving a two-state solution would require Israel to relocate not 30 settler families numbering perhaps 150 people, but, in Sasson’s estimate, over 100,000. (Some might decide to live in a Palestinian state, and they should have that right, but it’s unlikely many would choose to). Instead of relocating 30 families from one neighborhood of Beit El to another, Israel would likely have to relocate the entire settlement to within the green line. And whatever positive precedent yesterday’s decision may set, that work is now harder for a very simple reason: Israel has just committed to make Beit El bigger.
So yes, it’s good to be optimistic, to applaud Israel’s parliament when it respects Israel’s Supreme Court, to give Bibi credit where credit is due. But to quote George W. Bush, there’s a danger in the “soft bigotry of low expectations.” Israel must do better than it did yesterday if it wants to save itself a democratic Jewish state, much better, no matter what The New York Times says.