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Amos Elon’s Warning on Israel’s Settlements

nytRobert Mackey, The Lede – New York Times Blog, 26 May 2009

In an essay trying to answer the question, “Israelis & Palestinians: What Went Wrong?” published in The New York Review of Books in 2002, Amos Elon, the Israeli journalist and historian who died on Monday, began with this anecdote:

In a letter he wrote shortly before his death in 1904, at the early age of forty-four, Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, admonished his successor: “Macht keine Dummheiten während ich tot bin.” (Don’t make any stupid mistakes while I’m dead.)

Mr. Elon’s rich, textured, concise overview of the century of struggle in the Middle East that followed Herzl’s death is worth reading in its entirety, but it is not hard to discern from it what this historian of Israel saw as the biggest mistake made by modern Israeli governments: the settlements on occupied Palestinian territory that were in the headlines on the last day of Mr. Elon’s life.

Last week in Washington, President Barack Obama said after his meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that, “Settlements have to be stopped in order for us to move forward.”

Here, according to Mr. Elon’s 2002 essay [Israelis & Palestinians: What Went Wrong?, NYR, 49/20 19 December 2002], is why he saw the Israeli settlements as such a mistake:

Today there are 200,000 settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip—their number has been allowed to almost double since the Oslo agreement of 1993. With 200,000 more settlers on former Jordanian territory in East Jerusalem, the total number has now reached 400,000. The settlement project continues to grow even now. Imagine the effect on the peace process in Northern Ireland if the British government continued moving thousands of Protestants from Scotland into Ulster and settling them, at government expense, on land confiscated from Irish Catholics. […]

With few exceptions, the settlements have not made Israel more “secure” as was sometimes claimed; they have made Israel less secure. They have greatly extended the country’s lines of defense. They impose a crushing burden of protecting widely dispersed settlements deep inside densely populated Palestinian territories, where ever larger numbers of Palestinians are increasingly infuriated by the inevitable controls, curfews, and violence, as well as by humiliation imposed on them by insensitive or undisciplined recruits and army reservists. […]

It is not difficult to imagine what the settlers’ lobby means in a country with notoriously narrow parliamentary majorities. Though 70 percent of Israeli voters say in the polls that they support abandoning some of the settlements, 400,000 settlers and their right-wing and Orthodox supporters within Israel proper now control at least half the national vote. They pose a constant threat of civil war if their interests are not fully respected. At their core is a group of fanatical nationalists and religious fundamentalists who believe they know exactly what God and Abraham said to each other in the Bronze Age. […]

The vast settlement project after 1967, aside from being grossly unjust, has been self-defeating and politically ruinous. “We’ve fed the heart on fantasies,/the heart’s grown brutal on the fare,” as William B. Yeats put it almost a century ago in a similar dead-end situation in Ireland. The settlement project has not provided more security but less. It may yet, I tremble at the thought, lead to results far more terrible than those we are now witnessing.

Rest of Robert Mackey’s article

Amos Elon’s 2002 article Israelis & Palestinians: What Went Wrong? NYR, 49/20 19 December 2002

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