One of the American Jewish Committee’s leading experts on Israel’s relationship with American Jewry told some 50 members of the organization’s two New Jersey chapters that every Israeli settlement on the West Bank “pushes Israel one step further away from a two-state solution.”
Speaking by closed circuit from AJC’s New York headquarters to audiences watching in the organization’s Central Region in Princeton and Metro Region in Millburn, Steven Bayme, director of the Contemporary Jewish Life department of the AJC and the Koppelman Institute on American Jewish-Israeli Relations, said that Israel must “keep the moral high ground” of advocating a two-state solution, and “refrain from actions that make a two-state solution more problematic.”
Citing Palestinian “rejectionism” and their insistence on the “right of return” to lands vacated after Israel’s War of Independence in 1948, Bayme said “it is hard to be sanguine about a Palestinian state when there have been so many opportunities to create one and it simply has not materialized.”
In a recitation of history since Israel recaptured West Bank territories in the Six Day War in 1967, he said the settlements have been approved and supported by both Labor and Likud governments, beginning in 1968 under Labor Prime Minister Levi Eshkol. He noted, however, that the parties differed on their respective approaches to the settlements.
“Labor always insisted that settlements be outside of Arab-populated areas on the West Bank,” Bayme said. “But the Likud argues Jews have a right to settle anywhere in the historical Jewish homeland, including Arab-populated areas.”
Bayme noted that “settlers often reach out to local Arab leaders forging friendly, even close, personal ties; nonetheless, contrasting historical narratives and national aspirations frequently manifest themselves in tension-filled relations between these two groupings.”
But, he added, “the case for persuasive pro-Israel advocacy rests upon Israel’s declared commitment to a two-state solution, which represents the fairest and sole realistic solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict, but which Palestinian leaders consistently have rejected or failed to embrace.”
Bayme was especially critical of the so-called “outpost settlements,” unauthorized settlements created in defiance of Israeli law by younger settlers who have never seen a West Bank without an Israeli presence.
“The thought of Israeli retreat is total anathema to them,” he said. “They have grown up in an environment where the only thing they are hearing is ‘This land is our land because God gave it to us.’”
These outpost settlers have, according to Bayme, created a culture of lawlessness.
“One of their key expressions has been the notion of ‘price tags’ or violent retaliation on an Arab village for Palestinian attacks on settlers,” he said, calling such acts “lawlessness par excellence.”
“They are not attacking the people who committed the crime to begin with; they are attacking people who simply happen to be living in the area.”
Regarding the history of American presidents’ attitudes toward settlement building, he said that since Richard Nixon they all have been opposed, at least until now. President Donald Trump, said Bayme, is sending out “contradictory signals” by nominating pro-settlement attorney David Friedman as the American ambassador to Israel, then urging Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to “hold off” on new construction. He said some observers are speculating that Trump is trying to aid Netanyahu against “more extreme elements on his political right” who favor vigorous settlement building.
Speaking about the quiet but increasing support Israel is garnering in several Arab states, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan, Bayme said Trump may be thinking that “the way to resolve the conflict is with outside Arab powers…but there is a lot of room for skepticism here.” Israel’s strategy, he said, should be to make a consistent argument that “the reason there is no Palestinian state is not because of any reticence or because of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. The reason is Palestinian rejectionism.”
He called on AJC “to reaffirm our commitment” to a two-state solution “as the only realistic way out of this horrible war that has been going on for almost 100 years.” Bayme said a two-state solution is under attack from those on the right, who believe a one-state solution would give Israel sovereignty over the entire West Bank. On the left, a one-state solution would mean delegitimizing Israel’s Jewish character.
Bayme was asked whether a newly passed regulation bill by the Knesset, which has been criticized as an attempt to legalize seizure of Palestinian land, would put pro-Israel advocates in a difficult position. He responded that it will be up to the courts to decide whether the measure is legal, but AJC does not believe it to be a good idea as it implies that Israel is not interested in pursuing a two-state solution. He said the Jewish communities in the United States and Israel need to ask themselves whether settlement construction makes a two-state solution seem ever more remote.
“That question is the weak link in pro-Israel advocacy.”
Not everyone who listened to Bayme agreed with his stance on settlements.
“I don’t understand why settlements are considered such a big negative,” said Gene Brodsky of Elizabeth. He pointed out that the West Bank is divided into three sections, A, B, and C, with settlements limited to the Israeli-controlled Section C, where only three percent of the Palestinians reside. “How is that such a big impediment?” he asked.
Others, like Larry Greenberg of Millburn, were in sync with Bayme’s take.
“The prospects for peace are pretty dim right now. Israel should not be giving away future opportunities for peace,” said Greenberg. Israel, he said, “can do more to remind people what settlements must remain for security reasons and those which are outside the settlement blocs.”
Zachary Narrett of Glen Ridge said that Israel needs to seize the moral high ground by keeping alive the possibility of a two-state solution, “the only realistic way to address Israel’s strategic dilemmas and to reach out to the Arab world.”