Paul Pillar

Settlements versus Negotiations

I admire much of George Will's work.  He has an ability to cut cleanly and incisively to the core logic at the heart of many questions and to skewer mercilessly, but usually fairly, the illogic to be found on the other side of whatever issue he is addressing.  The one subject on which Will has had a big blind spot for years is Israel.  I have no idea why that is the case.  For whatever reason, whenever he addresses any topic related to Israel the sharp logic, and even basic respect for historical fact and for fairness, that characterize most of his work mysteriously desert him.  It is as if his columns on this subject were ghost-written by AIPAC, with Will coming in only at the final stage to copy-edit the prose to make it consistent with his writing style.

Several of Will's most recent columns, datelined Jerusalem, display this unfortunate pattern in spades.  A piece last week, for example, contained the statement that Israel has occupied the West Bank "legally under international law since repelling the 1967 aggression launched from there."  Now, 43 years is a long time in which memories can fade, and perhaps Will counted on enough memories to have faded enough that he can get away with a statement like that.  But for the record: Israel came to occupy the West Bank when its military forces conquered the territory during the Six-Day War in June 1967.  Israel launched the Six-Day War.  More specifically, amid a diplomatic crisis in which Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser expelled a United Nations observer force from the Sinai and announced a closing of the Strait of Tiran, the Israeli cabinet decided on June 4 to go to war.  Israeli forces began the war the following morning with a surprise attack on Egypt, with the war spreading by the next day to Egypt's allies Syria and Jordan.

The only bits of history that could possibly support the "aggression launched from there" formulation would seem to be some violent incidents perpetrated by the Palestinian group Fatah, which was known to operate in the West Bank, and the initial Israeli military preference to maintain a defensive posture toward Jordan and the West Bank while Israeli forces concentrated on fighting the Egyptians.  But the one real cross-border military operation between Israel and the West Bank in the months leading up to the Six-Day War was an Israeli assault the previous November involving more than 3,000 Israeli troops supported by tanks and aircraft and aimed at a village that was a Fatah stronghold.  The assault infuriated and dismayed Jordan's King Hussein, who had been holding secret talks with Israeli leaders about controlling terrorist violence and thought he had an understanding with the Israelis that they would not conduct anything like that large military operation.  The assault also convinced Hussein that the Israelis were determined to use more military force on the West Bank and that any war with Egypt would quickly envelop Jordan.

The Israeli fears and concerns at the time were genuine and understandable.  Nasser was spewing rhetoric about the illegitimacy of Israel that makes anything coming from Hamas today sound tame.  Moreover, unlike Hamas, he had an army that--despite what would become its humiliation in the subsequent war--had to be respected.   But to characterize the events of the time by referring to "the 1967 aggression launched from" the West Bank is, to put it mildly, to take liberties with history.  And regardless of the characterization of the events, the brinkmanship of a long-dead demagogic Egyptian president doesn't have much to do with what is in the interest of peace, stability, and fairness in the West Bank today.  Oh, and given that Will mentions international law: there isn't any conceivable interpretation of international law that justifies a conquering power taking land it has seized in war and using it for the well-being of its own citizens by settling them there, as Israel has done with over half a million of its citizens in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Will addresses settlements in another column today, which seems to be intended as an advance justification for the Netanyahu government ending later next month its moratorium on their construction.  Will's concluding point is that the Palestinian insistance on extending the moratorium is a foolish and unfair imposition of conditions.  His final sentence encapsulates the point and its intrinsic illogic: "The 'peace process' will be sustained by rewarding the Palestinian tactic of making the mere fact of negotiations contingent on Israeli concessions concerning matters that should be settled by negotiations." 

"...that should be settled by negotiations"--exactly.   And for one party unilaterally to create facts on the ground--not just facts, but facts that are so permanent and so extensive that they reduce negotiating options as they are created--is the antithesis of settling matters by negotiations.  The half million "facts" that Israel already has created have narrowed options enough for every knowledgable negotiator to agree that lines would have to be drawn for many of those half million to become, formally and legally through an agreement, part of Israel.  The creation of still more facts on that disputed ground will bring the situation ever closer to the point--which some observers think has already been passed--of precluding any two-state solution at all.

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