Paul Pillar

The Tragic Right Turn

I once attended a speech by Golda Meir during a visit she made to the United States in the 1970s shortly after stepping down as prime minister of Israel. In talking about the advantages in resources the Arab states had over Israel, she jokingly blamed Moses.  Too bad, said Meir, that after leading his people across the miraculously parted Red Sea, he did not turn right—to where the oil was—but instead turned left. In fact a bigger wrong turn, which has caused modern Israelites more grief than anything Moses did, could be described as a turn to the right. That was the embarkation, after the 1967 Middle East War, on a program of colonizing the newly conquered portions of Palestine, notwithstanding the fact that another population already lived there, that there was no legal basis for the colonization, and that as a result the colonization became a major reason for Israel to remain isolated, beleaguered, and in a state of hostility with its neighbors.

Anyone who reads Ethan Bronner's article in Thursday's New York Times will have a hard time disagreeing with the proposition that the latest phase in the colonization is driving more nails in the coffin of a two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians. Bronner reports that in the three months since Israel ended a freeze on settlement construction, a settlement-building “boom” has begun. Even worse, the most rapid construction has been in the core of the West Bank, well away from the borders of 1967 and not part of the already heavily settled portions of the West Bank that would likely be given to Israel as part of any two-state agreement. Such construction is the most concrete (literally and figuratively) indication, to the Palestinians and to everyone else, of a lack of Israeli good will regarding a two-state solution. It both demonstrates and contributes to the growing impossibility of such a solution. And even if, despite all this, some sort of Israeli-Palestinian deal could still be struck, it would mean enormous resistance from an ever-growing body of settlers, disproportionately representative of the fanatical right, who would be on the Palestinian side of a negotiated line and would face evacuation. Given the solicitousness to the right on so many other issues, it is problematic to say the least that the Israeli government of the day would have the will or the capability to overcome such resistance.

Israelis are certainly not the only people to let military conquest go to their heads in such a way. It briefly happened to the United States during the Korean War after Douglas MacArthur's brilliant landing at Inchon routed North Korean forces and raised the prospect of using force to reunite Korea—but instead led to China's intervention, a new retreat, a costly effort to check the Chinese assault, and stalemate. One still has to wonder, however, about Israeli calculations regarding colonization of the West Bank, which was not the result of quick, impromptu decision-making such as occurred during MacArthur's offensive but instead a process that has now gone on for over four decades, in the face of the obvious and undeniable presence of Palestinian residents. Probably many Israelis simply closed their eyes to the uglier aspects of the resulting apartheid system. Others had ideas about how East Bank Jordan could become the Palestinian state. How that would sit either with displaced West Bankers or with Bedouin East Bankers was never explained. Some American neoconservatives who have aided and abetted such thinking came up with a variant that involved a motivation for launching a war in Iraq. It was the “everybody move over one” idea. Jordan would become a Palestinian state, and a Hashemite monarch would be re-installed in Baghdad. The insanity of all of this is breathtaking.

Although the settlement process is driving nails into the coffin of the peace process, the United States and other outsiders have to proceed on the assumption that the patient is not yet dead. If nothing else, the United States needs to separate itself as much as possible from Israel's self-destructive behavior and thereby limit the damage to its own integrity, interests, and power, both hard and soft.