Obama: Come Visit The Settlements

Samuel Lebens on how Obama should recognize that not all settlements are equal, and not all are bad for peace.

In response to Maysoon Zayid’s provocative, heartfelt and moving account of how she would like to lead President Obama on a tour of Israel and the West Bank, I want to envisage the equally unimaginable tour that I’d like Obama to take of the Israeli settlements.

In his first term, Obama made the settlements something of a cause celebre. But he picked the wrong battles: the expansion of Gilo and Ramat Shlomo. Gilo has two things going for it: (1) it lies well within the parameters of the "mutually agreed land-swaps" that are likely to occur as part of any tenable agreement; and (2) it's considered suburb of Jerusalem, rather than a settlement, by most of Israel’s population. The first point means that Obama’s staying quiet about Gilo wouldn’t have posed a danger for the prospects of a meaningful peace. The second point means that by raising his voice, Obama was going to alienate not just the Israeli right-wing, but even the Israeli center. Similarly, Ramat Shlomo is a Jewish suburb of Jerusalem that is highly likely to stay in Israeli hands. Its planned expansion doesn’t cut further into Palestinian territory. In fact, Ramat Shlomo is near the bottom of the list in terms of being a provocative settlement.

To the Palestinians Obama came off looking weak because he was ignored by Israel. To the Israelis he came off looking too harsh, and his popularity plummeted and continues to whimper.

I understand the urgent need for ending the occupation. I understand the need to encourage the Palestinians to the negotiating table. I support a freeze on settlement expansion. But, in his first term, before Netanyahu effectively beat him into a frustrated silence on the issue, Obama seemed to assume that every settlement and, by extension, every settler was a morally reprobate obstacle to peace. He drew no distinctions.

So, I’d love Obama to come to Gush Etzion, where I live, and meet the orphans of the massacre that took place here in 1948, in kibbutzim that were legally owned by Jews. When the land was reconquered they came to resettle it, much as the orphans of Deir Yassin would have done had the Arabs won the Six Day War. They’re not here to provoke anyone. Their settlement could easily be absorbed into Israel’s borders without threatening Palestinian territorial contiguity.

I’d want him to know what it is to put your children to sleep with the slaughter of Itamar on your mind; will your village be invaded tonight by murderers intent on killing your babies? The experience makes you think somewhat differently about security.

I’m not under any illusions or delusions about the settlements. I deplore the lawlessness that seems to be sweeping the West Bank with price-tags and land-grabs galore. I know that there are up to 50,000 settlers of a radical ideology, who will never compromise, who are motivated by racism and messianism. I know this. But that is barely 10 percent of the entire settler population. Do the demographics.

And I know that the settlements carry a moral burdern in terms of impact on the Palestinians, but again, not every settlement makes the same sort of impact. In short, not all settlements are alike. Despite media stereotypes most settlers are not nationalist-religious, but secular or ultra-orthodox. Some of the communities that have been built up here, over the years, flawed as all communities are, display many shades of beauty.

I would love Obama to come and to see this under-reported and little understood side of the settlements: the beautiful communities built up, not to provoke Palestinians, but because they were encouraged by Israeli governments in years gone by; encouraged to give Israel territorial depth to avert yet another devastating Arab invasion; economically compelled by low property prices; inspired to rebuild the homes of their slaughtered parents. I came here to be immersed in a beautiful Rabbinical-seminary town, around inspiring people with beautiful values.

I don’t want Obama to write us all off. Gilo and Ramat Shlomo are not the same as Kiriyat Arba, which isn’t the same as Yitzhar. These distinctions are important. Not least because the settlements close to the Green Line, that don’t threaten Palestinian contiguity, have two things going for them: (1) they are likely to be absorbed into Israel if there are mutually agreed land-swaps, and (2) their population are living in beautiful surroundings and therefore have something very real to lose.

If we negotiate now, and strengthen Fatah’s hand, we could reach a meaningful peace that saves many, if not most, of these settlement blocks. This would be in Fatah’s interest too, because if they can’t deliver a fair deal soon, their credibility will be completely dissolved on the Palestinian street. But if we wait until Fatah has run out of political capital, we will one day have no one to negotiate with other than Hamas. When that time comes, there will be no hope for any of the settlers to stay in their homes. We really have something to lose, and therefore, if Obama stops writing us off, we should be convinced to become his allies.

I am a huge admirer of President Obama. I admire his vision in his domestic affairs and the deeply Jewish values that seem to animate him. Often misrepresented, he is a true friend of Israel. But I want to see more nuance in his approach to the settlements, and, as I’ve argued elsewhere, I want him to come down much harder on Israel on certain issues too. I feel that if he understood us, he would realise that we’re the face of the Israel that he’s actually trying to save from its own stupidity. We’re the Israel that will be lost, quite literally, if we don’t embrace, more actively, the path of peace. And we’re an Israel that is, despite our flaws, very much worth saving. We need a great leader to wake us from our slumber and remind us that a two-state solution is urgently in our own interest. First he needs to win us over, and then he needs to shake us up. Given the beautiful speech he delivered on the tarmac of Ben Gurion Airport, perhaps that’s his plan. I hope so.