It is deeply depressing to see the hopes for peace dimming further as Israel continues to expand its settlements in the Palestinian territories, against the better judgment and repeated warnings of virtually the entire world.
Yet it is not at all surprising. Under the leadership of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — who could soon eclipse David Ben-Gurion as the country's longest serving prime minister — a succession of right-wing coalition governments has in recent years effectively reversed Israel's support for a two-state solution to the century-old conflict. The most visible symbol of that tragic flip-flop has been the surge in Israeli settlement on the West Bank and the expansion of "Jewish neighborhoods" in East Jerusalem. Settlements now house hundreds of thousands of Israelis, often behind barricades and fortifications. These developments are not only provocative, but by their very geography they subdivide the Palestinian territories and make the ultimate goal of a contiguous, independent Palestinian state alongside Israel increasingly unattainable.
Settlement expansion is nothing new, but in recent weeks the situation has again deteriorated. In mid-November, the Israeli government sought to legalize a group of illegal settlement "outposts" that had been built without approval on privately owned Palestinian land. Then last week, the United Nations Security Council voted to condemn Israeli settlement activity as a "flagrant violation" of international law. In a stunning move, the United States — usually Israel's staunchest ally — declined to veto the resolution, allowing it to pass. But instead of reconsidering or backing down under world pressure, officials in Israel said Monday that they would proceed with thousands of new units, including 5,600 that have been proposed for the disputed eastern part of Jerusalem. "Israel does not turn the other cheek," Netanyahu declared defiantly on Monday.
Why is this such bad news? Because despite its bad rap, the two-state solution remains the best hope for peace in the region, and settlement expansion remains one of the biggest obstacles to its success. It is tragic that the occupation — and the death, misery and instability that go with it — continues 50 years after the territories were seized by Israel in the Six Day War, and though the prospects for an agreement seem inauspicious at the moment, the negotiation process needs to be nurtured rather than undermined.
Into this mess stumbles America's new president-elect, who has eagerly aligned himself with the irresponsible Netanyahu government. Before even taking office, Donald J. Trump has proposed a controversial bankruptcy lawyer named David Friedman to be U.S. ambassador to Israel even though Friedman has expressed skepticism about the two-state solution and is an outspoken supporter of West Bank settlement. Trump has also vowed to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a potentially inflammatory step presidents have repeatedly declined to take because the city's status is still in dispute. As for last week's Security Council resolution, Trump had called for a veto and, when the U.S. instead abstained, he tweeted ominously that "things will be different after Jan. 20."
Frankly, no one loves the nearly moribund two-state solution these days — not the left or the right, not the Jews or the Palestinians. But what alternative is there? Permanent Israeli military occupation — and the permanent intifada that would inevitably go with it? A single-state solution in which Israelis and Palestinians live side by side and Israel ceases to be a Jewish state? Are these scenarios practicable? Are they desirable? Trump should think hard about the region's future before upending U.S. policy or taking provocative action.
Israelis offer plenty of justifications for the occupation and the settlements. They often claim that their opponents are virulent anti-Semites who won't be mollified with territory, and no doubt some are. They point to rockets and other violence by Hamas and other radical groups, and of course such threats exist. Israelis also argue that many Palestinians have not adequately rejected the politics of hatred, martyrdom and violence, and indeed many have not.
None of that is encouraging. Nor is the Israeli response of walls, collective punishment, arrests and settlement expansion. Yet until someone offers a better suggestion, there is no realistic alternative to good-faith negotiations aimed at creating an independent Palestinian state alongside a safe and secure Israel. At the moment, the prospects for peace are dim, but in the years ahead they must be revived rather than crushed.
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