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Solving Israel's Settlement Problem

Solving Israel's Settlement Problem

Israel has a settlement problem. Her settlement policy is underattack from every direction. My guess, based on recent leaks from hisoffice, is that the Prime Minister is fully aware of this. Thesettlement movement, of course, denies that a problem exists.

American Jewish leaders in most cases know the truth but simplyavert their eyes, endlessly repeating the mantra that "settlement is notthe problem." And they are right that it is not THE problem, but it certainly is A problem, and a serious one at that.

The issue is not the hostility of Israel's enemies but the distressof her friends. With the Middle East in upheaval and Israel moredependent than ever on the support of friendly states, she cannot afford a disastrous settlement policy that alienates her allies and endangersher future.

Why is Israel's settlement policy disastrous? Because as long asshe has not defined her borders, any building beyond the 1967 borders isseen as a settlement. Without a declaration from Israel of what shesees her borders to be, the general assumption is that her realintention is retain the territories indefinitely. The result is thateven construction in a major settlement block - in a place that everyoneknows would remain part of Israel in a negotiated settlement - meetsresistance from all quarters. On the other hand, if Israel were to saywhere she would like her borders to be, and if she would coordinate herposition with the United States, building to the west of those borderscould be accepted by the Americans and potentially by others.

Declaring borders does not have to mean declaring finalborders. Borders should become final only in a negotiated settlementwith the Palestinians; adjustments could be made when such an agreementis signed. Until then, Israel would be committing herself totransitional arrangements only. The advantages of such arrangements aremany. They demonstrate that Israeli proclamations about a two-statesolution are real and not rhetorical; they clarify the status ofsettlers on both sides of the temporary borders; they combat the growingfeeling that Israel is incapable of putting a serious peace plan on thetable; and, as noted, they make it possible for Israel to continuebuilding in some parts of Eretz Yisrael, but not all.

Settlers will oppose such a plan on many grounds, including theclaim that there is a religious obligation to retain the territories inthe biblically-defined Land of Israel. This is mostly a smoke screen formaintaining the status quo. In any case, the borders of the Land ofIsrael are not defined with any precision in the Torah; there arepassages that suggest that such borders take in virtually the entireMiddle East, and there are passages that suggest Israel should be a tinycountry not much bigger than Rhode Island. Basing Israel's settlementpolicy on "Biblical borders" is an absurdity.

I am not suggesting that Israel should withdraw unilaterally fromsettlements on the other side of her declared borders. Only when thePalestinians demonstrate that they are ready for peace should suchconcessions be considered. But it obviously makes no sense to doadditional building in areas that you will eventually evacuate. Andstating where you want your borders to be is not a unilateralconcession; indeed, it is not a concession at all. It is an act ofcommonsense that will win Israel support at a time when she desperatelyneeds it, will reverse the tide of growing anti-Israel feeling on thecampuses and elsewhere, and will put the ball in the Palestinians'court--challenging them to return to the negotiating table and to getserious about peace.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie is President Emeritus of the Union for Reform Judaism.

Originally published on

Published: 3/10/2011

Categories: Israel, Israel and her Neighbors, Reform Judaism
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