European Sanctions Against Israel Can Work—Just Not These Ones

Self-proclaimed left-wing settler Samuel Lebens takes issue with the E.U.'s new guidelines on Israeli settlements—but not for the reasons you might think.


My friend Hannah Weisfeld recently wrote a characteristically balanced yet passionate article for Open Zion about Israel’s response to the European Union’s new guidelines, which were designed to freeze settlements out of any Israeli agreements with Europe and her member states.

In a sense, it’s easy for our detractors to caricature both Hannah and myself. Hannah is a high-profile voice in the world of progressive Zionism, as she has had the courage, the leadership, and the vision, to spearhead and lead Yachad, the United Kingdom’s version, in some respects, of J Street. Her detractors can and often do paint her as a traitor—as an enemy of Israel in disguise, and more. Despite the balanced tone of her words, she will be interpreted by many to always be on Europe’s side and, therefore, against Israel.

This is unfair to her, and untrue. She’s always on Israel’s side, it’s just that she sometimes thinks, and often for good reason, that to be on Israel’s side is to oppose Israel’s self-destructive government. I, on the other hand, am much less active, shying away, in recent years, from any sort of public leadership. And yet, through some of my online writings here and at Haaretz, people have come to know me as a self-proclaimed left-wing settler. So I’m also easy to caricature as an apologist for aggressive Israeli expansionism. And just as Hannah will be accused of reverting to type in her reaction to the E.U.’s new guidelines, so will my words be read as reverting to type.

Predictably, I’m not in favor of these new guidelines. But people should do us the credit of listening to our arguments. Hannah is right, I think, to see a lamentable pattern in Israel’s response to the E.U. Israel, as she notes, is almost instinctively programmed never to listen to the content of European criticism, even if it’s well-grounded and well-intentioned. Instead the Israeli government and her supporters shoot from the hip, make references to the Holocaust, and write the E.U. off without really listening.

But Hannah makes two arguments on Europe’s behalf that, in my opinion, don’t stand up. First, she argues that Europe can be seen as trying to save Israel from herself, based on a genuinely held opinion that "settlements might be an Israeli-made problem to finding a resolution to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians." And if this is Europe’s motivation, she argues that Europe is in good company, given Yuval Diskin’s recent op-ed suggesting "that the nails of the coffin of the two-state solution were being sunk a little deeper with each new settler over the green-line."

Second, she argues that the E.U. is well within its rights to want to ensure that the millions of dollars’ worth of European money pouring into Israel "is being spent in accordance with European foreign policy, which dictates [that the] settlements are illegal."

I think that neither of these arguments actually justifies the new guidelines, and that other arguments show the guidelines to be counterproductive.

There are settlements and there are settlements. Some of the settlements were built by the orphans of Jews who owned the land legally before 1948, and were slaughtered there trying to defend their homes. Do you think that the Palestinian orphans of Deir Yassin would have been within their rights to resettle their town had the Arab armies won the Six Day War? If you do, then you should think that the Jewish orphans of Gush Etzion had that same right.

Some of the settlements—a dangerous and vocal minority, to be sure—are populated by extremists who seek to provoke and terrorize local Palestinians. Some of the settlements are illegal by Israeli law, and yet still are protected by the IDF and supplied by Israeli utility firms.

Some of the settlements, on the other hand, have been routinely ceded to Israel in rounds of negotiations. Most of the settlements are populated by non-religious or non-Zionist settlers, who live there for non-ideological reasons. And, in 1967, Israel didn’t decide to invade Jordan because it wanted to occupy the West Bank—it went to war to defend itself against annihilation. It then found itself as an occupying force with no clear way of extricating itself safely.

Furthermore, the authors of Resolution 242 made it clear that they edited the text of the resolution, recognizing that the Green Line would be an unworkable permanent border and that Israel shouldn’t have to withdraw from all of the territory conquered in 1967, even if the French translation of the resolution never reflected that fact.

For all of those reasons, calling the settlements an "Israeli-made problem to finding a resolution to the conflict" seems to be insufficiently discriminating. And though I’m opposed, in principle, to settlement expansion before we sign an agreement with the Palestinians, it simply isn’t true that all expansion is equivalent.

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Expansion into E1 would be a disaster, scuppering all chances of a two-state solution. Expansion of the main blocs towards Israel, away from Palestine, prejudices negotiations and is ill-advised—but is certainly less problematic. And building in existing settlements makes future disengagement harder, but is certainly less problematic from a territorial point of view. So it can’t simply be said that "the nails of the coffin of the two-state solution were being sunk a little deeper with each new settler over the green-line." I think the situation is more complicated than that.

Furthermore, for all of these reasons, the European view that all of the settlements are illegal is also insufficiently discriminating. And though they undoubtedly have a right to spend their money as they please, their desire to treat the Green Line as a magic line that accurately demarcates where Israel proper ends and problematic Israel begins, is just blind to the complexity of the situation on the ground.

Instead what the new guidelines threaten to do is the following: alienate all of those settlers, the majority, who would likely stay in Israel even after a two-state solution, with mutually agreed border swaps; write off potentially powerful supporters of a two-state solution who are actually heavily invested, whether they currently realize it or not, in the success of negotiations; provide fuel for the very popular Israeli belief that Europe hates us, and even wants us to give back settlements like Gilo, that almost all Israelis see as part of Israel proper; and dictate terms to the participants of the peace process, undermining not just Israel, but also the Palestinians.

Despite these arguments, and despite what people will say, I’m not an apologist for expansionism. I’m against settlement expansion and against the occupation. I want Israel to do all that it can to get to the table and seal an equitable deal as soon as possible. I even think that the threat of European sanctions against Israel could be used effectively.

But not these sanctions for all of the reasons I mentioned above. Why not real sanctions, with real teeth, but more effectively targeted? Tell the Israelis that you’ll strip all of their funding if they don’t immediately pull down the numerous outposts that are illegal even under Israeli law. Most Israelis would actually support such a move, and would welcome the pressure against a government in which the extremist settlers enjoy disproportionate clout.

I’m not asking the international community to give Israel a free ride. I’m asking them to think harder about a complex situation before wading in.