There may be no such thing as second acts in American life but Israel is a different story. Bibi Netanyahu, if polls are to be believed, will once again become Prime Minister. The White House may rue the results, as will European capitols, and, of course, those in the Arab world, but will a Likud victory really be such a departure? Not with respect to Israeli sentiments. They continue to grow regardless of who’s in power.
The most recent report on settlement activity by the Israeli NGO Peace Now is stark. Settlement activity, according to the organization, is burgeoning. Over 1,200 structures were built in the West Bank in 2007, an increase of sixty percent from the previous year. Moreover, the number of government tenders for new housing units in West Bank settlements rose by eight-fold between 2007-2008. Outposts like mobile homes, tin shacks, and other permanent structures that are illegal under Israeli law also grew. Peace Now claims that construction took place in 74 of 99 of the outposts. None were removed.
It’s a similar story in East Jerusalem. In 2008, the Israeli government issued tenders to build 1,184 new housing units in the predominately Arab part of the city compared with 793 in 2007. Approval for many of these came after the US-hosted peace conference in Annapolis during which Israel and the Palestinians agreed to implement the 2003 roadmap. Under the plan, Israel was to freeze all settlement activity and vacate those settlements constructed after March 2001. The report is not bad news to some. Dani Dayan, a leader of one settler movement, praised Peace Now for “investing the funds they receive from European [governments] in documenting the most important Zionist endeavor of our generation, the settlement of Judea and Samaria.”
The settlements are a scourge on the Palestinians, whose lives are made untenable by the structures (small cities, in some cases) and the network of byroads built to support them. But the 285,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank and additional 185,000 in East Jerusalem also represent an existential threat to Israel, as they put a two-state solution further out of reach. Time isn’t on the Jewish State’s side. The Palestinians, who will soon outnumber Jews living between the Jordan and Mediterranean, are likely to eventually call for a unitary state if the alternative appears unworkable. The implications are obvious. Such are the stakes.
Paradoxically, a broad consensus exists in Israel that the settlements represent a threat. Indeed, a onetime architect of their expansion, Prime Minister Olmert, now speaks candidly about their removal, saying that Israel must withdraw from “nearly all, if not all, of the [occupied] territories…without this, there will be no peace.” Yet such candor has not been matched with action. The same goes for Olmert’s immediate predecessors, left and right, who have all presided over ever-expanding settlement construction. Israel, it seems, is at the mercy of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, horrified by what it has created but unable to stop it. Which is why a Netanyahu victory might be a good thing.
Gideon Levy makes this very point. The Ha’aretz columnist sees the prospect of a Netanyahu victory as bringing down the curtain on “the great fraud—the best show in town—the lie of ‘negotiations’ and the injustice of the ‘peace process.’ Israel constantly claimed these acts proved the nation was focused on peace and the end of the occupation. All the while, it did everything it could to further entrench the occupation [including by expanding settlements] and distance any chance of a potential agreement.” It’s a blistering assessment. But Levy is optimistic.
The “lifting of the veil” through the electoral vindication of a view of “almost complete distrust of Arabs and the chance of reaching peace with them, mixed with condescension and dehumanization,“ will, when coupled with the inevitable collapse of a mendacious Palestinian Authority, lead to a crisis. Only then will the world, principally the US, intervene in a forceful way and demand concessions from both sides. The election of so-called moderates, who are no better and often worse than Netanyahu, only delays the inevitable. Levy’s read is grim, but if he’s right, one can safely assume that Dani Dayan and his fellow settler zealots are praying that Netanyahu goes down to defeat.