BOSTON — After 47 years of occupation, Israel is still eating away at the poison cake of the occupied territories, while the poison continues to leach out into the region.
Many Israelis, maybe most, would like to stop eating, but somehow they cannot find the will to do so. Leaders come and go, but the settlers keep getting their way and the settlements, which most of the world considers to be illegal, grow and grow like a cancerous tumor that threatens all who live in the neighborhood.
When President Barack Obama was new in office, one of his first campaigns was to end Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank. As I wrote then in this space, he went eyeball to eyeball with Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, and Obama blinked first and backed down, settling for only a temporary settlement halt.
Once Obama finally got Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas into the same room, however, the moratorium was about to run out. Once again Obama put pressure on Netanyahu to extend the moratorium to keep the talks going, and Abbas said he would walk out if it wasn’t.
Israel has to choose between building more settlements or peace, Abbas said. Netanyahu chose settlements.
Now the pressure is all on Abbas not to walk and Netanyahu can seem the paragon of sweet reason, saying let us keep talking to reach a true and lasting peace. It will be said, if the talks fail, that it was, after all the Palestinians who walked out — nothing to do with the Israelis. If Abbas does not walk, Netanyahu wins big time as he can say to the Americans: See, a settlement freeze was never necessary.
Game, set, and maybe match to Netanyahu who has skillfully outmaneuvered both the United States and the hapless Palestinians.
Abbas knows that if settlement activity keeps on, and the talks drag out, there will be no chance of a contiguous and free Palestine left. It is as if two housewives were arguing about who should have a cake while all the while one of them has possession and is eating it.
The arc of Israel’s fatal appetite for the occupied territories has proceeded in fits and starts. Back in the days of the British Mandate, Jews fighting for a Jewish homeland were split. The so-called “revisionist” wing of Zionism wanted a Greater Israel. A 1948 Life Magazine cover story on the conflict showed a map in “Irgun’s secret headquarters, ” displaying “Irgun’s ambitions — Palestine and Transjordan untied into a Jewish state” — meaning they would have what is now Jordan too.
The Irgun would later morph into today’s ruling Likud Party.
This dream was not realized, when David Ben Gurion, representing the majority of Zionist opinion, settled for only part of Palestine and none of Transjordan. Ironically, if the Arabs had not attacked they would have gotten a bigger share of the cake than when the fighting stopped.
When Israel conquered the West Bank, Gaza and the Golan Heights in 1967, revisionist hearts quickened. Jordan was off the table, but the new ideal became Israel from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River.
The Labor government, representing the Ben Gurion wing, at first decided not to settle for the West Bank and Gaza, waiting for the “telephone call from the Arabs” crying uncle, in which case the occupied territories could be handed back.
The telephone call never came, and over time the Israelis became intoxicated with their conquests. Settlements began at first only in places where Jews had been cruelly forced out, then more in places where Jews had never lived, and then more and more, to the point where settlements march across the Palestinian landscape outsized Crusader castles.
But the cake has proved indigestible, and for more than 40 years the occupied territories have seethed under Israeli rule, periodically erupting in violence.
Today public opinion has swung since I lived in Israel more than 30 years ago, and you might find a majority of Israelis saying they would give up the West Bank — Gaza has already been turned over to Palestinians — if only there was a way they could be secure from attack. The example of Gaza, a unilateral withdrawal that ended in Palestinian rockets on Israeli towns, embittered Israelis. Never mind that Gaza was never really let free, but kept as a sort of giant camp to be guarded by Israelis.
On the Palestinian side, the bitterness has hardened in some quarters and the advent of Hamas has turned what was a secular political struggle into something dangerously close to a religious one.
Gaza was never really the historic “Land of Israel,” but the West Bank is. And the fanaticism of some Israelis is extreme, as it always is when men claim that God favors them over all others.
Peace attempts have waxed and waned. Hope died when a Jewish fanatic assassinated Yitzhak Rabin, rose again when Ariel Sharon, architect of the settlements, finally saw the light and promised withdrawals, not only from Gaza but from the West Bank as well.
But fate stepped in with a massive stroke. No one else had the stature to do it.
Some say only a right-winger can persuade Israel to cough up its poisoned fare, and that may be so. But I would wager that Netanyahu is not the right-winger to do it, and that his whole chess game is to achieve a draw and maintain the status quo while settlements continue growing. Let them eat cake.
Meanwhile the settlers dance and sing and release blue and white balloons in their glee. For the truth of the matter is, that no matter how self-destructive the appetite, there is not, and has never been the political will to stop gorging.