Settlements That Settle Nothing

By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, June 15, 2004

Fortunately for Jeffrey Goldberg, he not only once lived in Israel but served in its army. Without those credentials he almost certainly would be denounced as an anti-Semite or a self-hating Jew. After all, Goldberg had the consummate gall and utter chutzpah to say the obvious: Israel's West Bank and Gaza settlements have to go.

Actually, Goldberg went even further. In nearly 16,000 words in the May 31 issue of the New Yorker, this Washington-based journalist wrote that in some ways, the Jewish zealots who have established settlements in the heart of overwhelmingly Palestinian areas are as great -- or greater -- a danger to Israel as their counterparts among the Islamic extremists, Hamas and Islamic Jihad. His article was titled "Among The Settlers; Will They Destroy Israel?"

For raising that question, he has come under unaccustomed attack. Goldberg has spent the past several years reporting and writing about Islamic radicalism and the threat it posed. This made him the darling of the neocons. But now he's asking similar questions about Jewish zealotry, and for that his integrity, if not his very sanity, has been questioned by the usual American guardians of Israeli security. Among the slings and arrows sent his way was one from Andrea Levin, the head of a media watchdog group, published in the English-language Jerusalem Post. She called Goldberg's piece "distorted and sloppy with facts." I read it quite differently: on the nose.

But what really matters is not this or that fact -- although I could find nothing wrong in Goldberg's piece -- but his overall point. It is that not only has Israel gotten itself into a demographic and geographic trap with its settlements in Palestinian lands, but it has allowed the most reactionary, belligerent and racist elements in Judaism to establish some of the most provocative settlements. God might want these settlements, as the settlers themselves insist, but it is conscripts, mostly secular Jews, who have to guard them.

For American Jews to keep quiet about these settlements does Israel no favor. After all, in the long run the settlements are unsustainable -- difficult to defend militarily, impossible to defend legally. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has pledged to remove settlements from the Gaza Strip, but that still leaves the West Bank, with more than 2 million Palestinians -- and only about 200,000 Israeli settlers. The government seems to consider most of these settlements a permanent part of Israel. That's exactly the way some Israelis saw the Gaza Strip. But Israel is pulling out -- not because it wants to but because it has to. The same will eventually happen in large parts of the West Bank. The longer Israel waits to deal with those settlements -- not all, mind you, but most -- the deeper it sinks into a quagmire. Goldberg has it right: These settlements, as much as Islamic radicalism, threaten Israel. The latter feeds off the former.

The observation is not original to either me or Goldberg. He quotes Michael Tarazi, a Harvard-trained Palestinian American who makes essentially the same point about the settlements. "The longer they are out there, the more Israel will appear to the world to be essentially an apartheid state," Tarazi said. Anyone who has seen how the settlements are protected and maintained, the weird road network for instance, can appreciate Tarazi's point.

Much of Goldberg's article is spent on Jewish religious settlers. But he talked to Palestinians, too. What they have to say is hardly encouraging, often downright frightening, and usually sad. But the issue for me is not what is good for the Palestinians -- I wish them a state of their own and also all the happiness in the world -- but what is good for Israel. Getting rid of the settlements would be good for the Palestinians. But it would also be good for Israel.

Some of what the Jewish settlers told Goldberg is disturbing. Many of them have a contemptuous, virtually racist, view of their Arab neighbors. They are wedded to the literal word of the Bible while much of Judaism is not, and while they by no means share the Islamic radicals' yen for martyrdom -- and they do not approve of the killing of innocents -- they are quite willing to die for their beliefs. Okay. But it is the nature of these things that they will take others with them. Not okay.

Goldberg has written a good article about some ugly facts -- and done so with a reporter's keen eye, but also with a Zionist's loving heart. It should be read by anyone interested in Israel. See for yourself.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company

This article also appeared in the New York Daily News on Monday, June 15, 2004, and in the Miami Herald on Tuesday, June 16, 2004.