Doing Israel No Favors

June 9, 2009 12:08 p.m.

Mort Zuckerman, owner and publisher of US News & World Report, has a lengthy opinion piece out in the magazine entitled: “Obama Should Not Abandon Israel in His Effort to Court Muslims.”

The title summarizes the premise, which is that while Obama has reasons to court Muslims he is endangering or threatening Israel in order to do it. The core flaw to the reasoning though is that getting out of the West Bank doesn’t endanger Israel. It’s actually critical to the country’s future well-being, even its survival.

There are a few core points to note in this regard. People who argue that the Palestinians and other Arab states are either unwilling or unable to make peace buy into a basic fallacy — namely that ‘giving up’ the West Bank is a sacrifice that must be reciprocated by some meaningful and confirmable sacrifice on the other side. In other words, land for peace, as the phrase goes.

But are several levels of problem with his formulation. First, strategic considerations. It used to be argued that Israel couldn’t surrender the West Bank because without it, the country would lack ‘strategic depth.’ In other words, the country’s ‘waistline’ would be too narrow and an invader from the east could easily cut the country in half. But hardly anyone makes this argument any more. And for good reason: successive Israeli generals and members of the country’s security establishment say this isn’t true.

Next, the settlements themselves, particularly the outlying ones sometimes called ‘political’ settlements are a security liability in themselves since they’re isolated population centers that must be defended in any conflict and occupation duty tends to degrade an army’s war-fighting capacity.

But these pale in comparison to the real heart of the matter. Israel doesn’t have enough Jewish citizens to make Jews the clear majority in both Israel proper and the Occupied Territories. Therefore, whatever the morality or international law of the matter, holding the Occupied Territories permanently puts Israel on a course to one of two options: becoming a binational state in which Jews make up half or less of the population or a non-democratic state which probably cannot survive under the norms governing first world countries in the 21st century.

Let’s be clear what that means: a country that permanently holds territories with residents who lack citizenship, the vote and many of the rights of the citizens of the country in question. You can throw around inflammatory words like ‘apartheid’ which I don’t think is appropriate or apt because of the very different origins of the two situations. But it strikes me as naive to believe that such a situation can be maintained permanently without growing international pressure and isolation that will strangle the country.

What this logic tells me is that getting out of the West Bank isn’t a prize to be exchanged for peace if and when you can find a leader on the Palestinian side who you have perfect trust in. Getting out of the West Bank is quite simply necessary to the survival of Israel as a Jewish state. So ideally you get out in exchange for a durable peace. And you try to do it in the smartest and most orderly manner. But you get out regardless. And realizing the necessity of leaving means, at a minimum, as a first step, stopping doing things that make it harder, perhaps nearly impossible, to leave. And the first thing on that list is continuing to build new settlements and infrastructure which creates a growing constituency to stay in the settlements forever.

There’s nothing remotely original about this argument. It’s the same inexorable logic that has led former ‘Greater Israel’ advocates like Tzipi Livni and Ehud Olmert to come to more or less the same conclusion.

And let me note, to be emphatically clear, that there are many other reasons for Israel to leave the West Bank — the prospect of a durable peace, which I think is probably achievable, its contribution to regional stability which is a real advantage to the US, the rights of the Palestinians to their own self-determination, etc. etc. etc. But I’ve focused on this point because at the end of the day it is undeniably in Israel’s interest to leave the West Bank.

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