Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is very, very cross about last Friday’s United Nations Security Council resolution condemning the creation of illegal Jewish settlements all over the occupied West Bank and in East Jerusalem.
He called in the ambassadors of all the Western countries that voted for the resolution to tell them off: Britain, France, Spain, even New Zealand. He also had the US ambassador on the carpet, although Washington merely abstained in the Security Council vote. But, Netanyahu said, Donald Trump’s incoming administration has promised to fight “an all-out war” against the resolution.
The resolution is only words, of course, but they are words that have not found their way into any UN Security Council resolution since 1979, because the United States always used its veto to kill any resolution that contained them. Words that describe the settlements as having “no legal validity” and constituting a “flagrant violation under international law and a major obstacle to the achievement of the two-state solution.”
This is a restatement of a truth that was once almost universally accepted even in Israel. When Israel’s astonishing victory in the 1967 war put the entire remaining area that had been granted to the Palestinians by the UN partition agreement of 1948 under Israeli control, most Israelis initially saw it as an opportunity for peace.
Israel now had a powerful bargaining card. If the Arabs wanted their lost territories back, they would have to sign peace treaties with Israel – and probably agree to demilitarise those territories into the bargain.
To a generation of Israelis who had lived in permanent, existential fear of losing a war, that looked like a good bargain. But even then a minority of Israelis wanted to keep the conquered territories forever and repopulate them with Jewish settlers.
Some of these expansionists were motivated by religion, others by security concerns, but they all understood that the way to thwart any give-away of these territories was to fill them with Jewish settlers.
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The settler movement began slowly: 15 years after the conquest there were still only 100,000 Jews living in the occupied territories, but the number had doubled to 200,000 by 1990, and doubled again to 400,000 by 2002. It is now at least 600,000, and may be as high as 750,000.
If the settler population continues to grow at the current rate, there could be as many as a million Jews in the occupied territories by 2030. At that point, the long-term prospect of a Jewish majority heaves above the horizon. And that is what the current confrontation between President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is really about.
Netanyahu avoids any actual peace talks with the Palestinians because a peace deal (if it could be achieved) would mean the end of the settlement project. He can’t say that out loud, of course, but it is the openly expressed view of the settler leaders whose support has been essential to Netanyahu’s various coalition governments.
This is why Netanyahu has to lie all the time, and it drives Obama crazy. In a conversation caught on an open mike in 2011, France’s then-president Nicolas Sarkozy told Obama: “I can't stand him (Netanyahu). He's a liar.” And Obama replied, "You're tired of him? What about me? I have to deal with him every day.”
But Obama’s decision to abstain on the Security Council vote condemning Israeli settlement policy in the Palestinian occupied territories was not just a childish last slap at Netanyahu. Obama has a fundamentally different view of what constitutes long-term security for Israel – one that he shares with most other outside observers, but a shrinking proportion of Israelis.
Long-term does mean long-term. It cannot be assumed that Arab states will always be relatively poor and incompetently led, and that Israel will always be the unchallengeable military superpower of the region. So, in the view of Obama and other outsiders, Israel’s long-term security still depends on making a fair and lasting peace with its Arab neighbours – including the Palestinians.
The settlements fatally undermine the prospects for such a deal. For a growing number of Israelis, that is irrelevant, because they have a fundamentally demonic view of the Arabs and do not believe that a lasting peace with them is possible. In which case, of course, Israel might as well grab all of East Jerusalem and the West Bank.
The Jewish settlements are indeed illegal under the Fourth Geneva Convention, and there is not a single government outside Israel that believes they are legitimate. But the recent Security Council resolution will have no effect on Israeli policy, nor will the state of Israel suffer grave consequences as a result.
President-elect Donald Trump will stop any further such resolutions with the US veto, although he is unlikely to be able to undo this one. And we will all have to wait a long time to know whether it is the perspective of Netanyahu and Trump, or that of Obama and almost all other world leaders, that ultimately defines Israel’s future.