Terror at a Jersusalem train station. 

Israel Chooses Settlements Over Friends

Jeffrey Goldberg is a columnist for Bloomberg View writing about the Middle East, U.S. foreign policy and national affairs. He is a national correspondent for the Atlantic, the author of "Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror" and a winner of the National Magazine Award for reporting. He has also covered the Middle East as a staff writer for the New Yorker.
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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government fervently believes that the Jewish settlements in the West Bank -- whose expansion it supports -- are irrelevant to its conflict with the Palestinians. Rather, the Israeli government thinks that the core of the conflict is located in what it sees as the Arab rejection of the Jewish people's right to a nation-state in even a part of the Jewish ancestral homeland.

Certain members of Netanyahu's cabinet have expressed to me the belief that their country is fated by history to forever be, in the words of the Jewish Bible, a nation that dwells alone. In other words, those world leaders who argue that settlement growth is an impediment to a two-state solution would simply find something else to complain about should Israel reverse the settlement project. Some members of Netanyahu's cabinet also believe that Western leaders who still express open support for Israel but criticize it on occasion for continuing to advance the settlement cause, are either dangerously naive, or outright malevolent.

Because it is apparently important for Israeli cabinet ministers to publicly vent their negative feelings about their country's closest ally, several have ramped up their criticism of U.S President Barack Obama's administration, which continues to object to Israeli building projects in territory it believes should be included in a future state of Palestine. These officials include the minister of defense, Moshe Ya'alon, who is completing a visit to the U.S. this week. Ya'alon's trip has gone reasonably well in part because he has not paid a visit to U.S Secretary of State John Kerry. Ya'alon attacked Kerry early this year, calling him "obsessive" and "messianic" for pursuing a two-state solution with the Palestinians, which Ya'alon believes to be an impossibility. Other cabinet ministers who have cast aspersions on the U.S.'s Middle East peace agenda include the minister of intelligence, Yuval Steinitz, who this week labeled as "ridiculous" the idea that Israel should withdraw from the West Bank.

The war of words between the Israeli and U.S. governments is steadily intensifying. Shortly after a cease-fire reached late this summer brought a pause to the ongoing, violent conflict between Israel and Hamas, the Israeli government appropriated almost 1,000 acres of West Bank land, prompting condemnatory statements from the Obama administration and other Israel-friendly governments. A few weeks ago, after Israel announced construction of a housing development in East Jerusalem, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest warned that the project would "distance Israel from even its closest allies" and "call into question Israel's ultimate commitment to a peaceful negotiated settlement with the Palestinians."

To Netanyahu, U.S. criticism of this latest building plan was proof that the Obama administration was aligning itself against "American values." He said on CBS's "Face the Nation:" "The idea that we'd have this ethnic purification as a condition for peace, I think it's anti-peace." This is a specious argument. The widespread view outside of Israel, and in Israel's center-left parties, is that East Jerusalem housing projects, of the sort being pursued regularly by Netanyahu's allies, are meant to preclude the emergence of a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem. Jerusalem is a city in which two populations are at each other's throats: witness a terrorist attack on a light rail station yesterday, which resulted in the death of a 3-month-old Jewish baby, and subsequent riots. Netanyahu's government is mainly interested in asserting Israeli control over territory that most of the rest of the world (and many Israelis) believes should be part of a Palestinian state.

The international impact of this continued expansion is becoming profound. Last week, after a non-binding British Parliament vote to recognize the non-existent-in-fact Palestinian state, a Conservative backbencher with pro-Israel credentials named Richard Ottaway, said the following:

I have stood by Israel through thick and thin, through the good years and the bad. I have sat down with Ministers and senior Israeli politicians and urged peaceful negotiations and a proportionate response to prevarication, and I thought that they were listening. But I realize now, in truth, looking back over the past 20 years, that Israel has been slowly drifting away from world public opinion. The annexation of the 950 acres of the West Bank just a few months ago has outraged me more than anything else in my political life, mainly because it makes me look a fool, and that is something that I resent.

Ottaway is not in the camp of Britons -- a large, anti-Semitism-tinged camp -- that hopes for the disappearance of Israel. He has been, by any definition, a friend. Like Israel's friends in the Obama administration, I predict that he will be ignored by the Netanyahu government.

The Netanyahu government's assumptions about the putative centrality of the settlements have some merit: Arab rejection of Israel does predate settlements. Over the past 80 or so years, the Arabs in Palestine have been presented with multiple opportunities to have a state of their own, and their leaders and representatives walked away from each chance. So Israelis are right to be suspicious of Palestinian intentions, in particular during weeks such as this one, when Palestinian leaders praised the man who killed the baby.

But all but the most myopic Israelis understand that settlements also convince even moderate-minded Palestinians that Israel is uninterested or incapable of pursuing a two-state solution. There are few better ways to ensure complete Arab rejection of Israel than to make the birth of a Palestinian state physically impossible.

Israeli leaders who believe that the West's impatient agitation for a Palestinian state may be dangerous could be correct as well. The Arab state system is collapsing across the Middle East, and extremism is rampant. Today might not be the best day to create another Arab state that would be susceptible to takeover by fundamentalists. But this doesn't absolve Israel from trying to create conditions in which a Palestinian state could one day emerge. This is what the criticism directed at Israel by its dwindling band of friends is all about: None of Israel's true friends believe that it should immediately, haphazardly remove its army from strategic areas of the West Bank. But there is a difference between occupation and settlement. Occupation is reversible. Settlement is not so easily reversed, which is exactly why those Israelis who seek permanent control of the West Bank and East Jerusalem work so hard to move as many Jewish Israelis as possible to disputed territory.

There is also merit to the idea that Israel is a nation forever condemned to be alone. As the former chief rabbi of Great Britain, Jonathan Sacks, recently wrote, "There are 102 nations in the world where Christians predominate, and there are 56 Islamic states. But a single Jewish state is deemed one too many." But as Sacks, in a conversation with me last week, also said, "A nation that tells itself that it will dwell alone will almost certainly find itself dwelling alone." Israeli leaders should be wary of self-fulfilling prophecies.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Jeffrey Goldberg at goldberg.atlantic@gmail.com

To contact the editor on this story:
Zara Kessler at zkessler@bloomberg.net