Unnatural Growth and the Folly of Tony Judt

In my latest piece for Zeek magazine, I take on the absurd argument for granting exceptions for “natural growth” in a settlement freeze. I also discuss what it will take for President Obama to take such a freeze and make it something significant in the long term. This is crucial, because there is a serious danger that all a freeze will be is a brief stoppage in construction, causing a lot of tension between the US and Israel, expending a great deal of political capital and

Areas of settlement jurisdiction, courtesy of BTselem

Areas of settlement jurisdiction, courtesy of B'Tselem. Area within the municipal boundary Area within the borders of the Regional Councils

ending up with little gain.

But I want to mention one more point. In today’s New York Times, British historian Tony Judt, who has come under frequent criticism for his support for a single state solution in Israel-Palestine, has an op-ed arguing that Israel will not remove any settlements, ever and a freeze is in fact a defeat for American efforts for peace.

I don’t want to spend much time deconstructing Judt’s argument. He’s made some interesting ones in the past, but this one is pretty weak. The op-ed betrays a lack of understanding of modern Israel (Judt seems stuck in an image of Israel that is nearly 50 years out of date), and of the settlement issue. Judt uses Ma’ale Adumim as emblematic of settlements and why they will not be removed.

And here is the point. Ma’ale Adumim, like Ariel and the Gush Etzion region are the built-up “blocs” that are generally referred to as possibly remaining in Israeli hands in the event of a peace deal. Gush Etzion is both the most likely to remain Israeli and the least problematic geographically. Ariel and Ma’ale Adumim both extend well into the West Bank and it will take some creativity to figure out how to reconcile a contiguous and viable Palestinian state with those settlements becoming part of Israel.

It may not work. There may be more tough choices around those two settlement blocs. But there are more than 100 other settlements legally sanctioned by Israel (and another 100 that are not), and all of them are understood to be removable by most Israelis. Judt’s defeatism is badly misplaced, all too emblematic of the left today and actually constitutes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The Zeek article explores the steps that need to come on the heels of the freeze in order to make it useful. These matters can be discussed. But surrender to the forces that oppose peace without even trying to struggle to support the current American direction, as Judt suggests and as Noam Chomsky has often posited since Obama’s inauguration, is unacceptable.

It’s true that after 16 years of administrations repeatedly called “the most ‘pro-Israel’ ever” the left doesn’t quite know what to do with itself. It doesn’t know how to support a president who is actually trying to resolve the conflict in a workable, sustainable and practical way. The bankruptcy is evident in Judt’s inability to articulate any suggestions for what he would see as positive movement. The left is perpetually stuck in a choice between the roles of aggrieved victim and self-righteous outsider.

But it’s high time the left learned how to operate in a more constructive vein, one which seeks to accomplish more than making activists feel good about their own nobility in the face of oppression. Because time for resolving this conflict is running out, and the Obama administration may be our last opportunity to see the United States play the role of honest broker and powerful friend who can actually bring matters to a close. He needs all the support he can get, and the left needs to wake up and start giving it to him.

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3 Responses to “Unnatural Growth and the Folly of Tony Judt”

  1. Will Ware Says:

    If Obama would condition financial and military aid to Israel on creating a viable, contiguous state. meaning removal of a large number of settlers, not just halting construction, then we would be getting somewhere.

    Alas, Obama is tootlessly winking at the right-wing as they keep those bulldozers moving.

    Recent events in the West Bank, with Hamas preparing a military takeover, will just about kill any hope for a two state negotiation. One can only wonder how much Mossad and the IDF are egging this on.

    Nothing but a fierce rejection of expansion and further ethnic cleansing in Israel by Obama will bring results. Don’t hold your breath.

    Real democracies do not deny basic human rights to those in the lands they control. The left is right to call for a one state solution in a secular Israel. Theocracies- Islamic, Jewish, Bushite Christian, Hindu- they are all inherently evil.

  2. Dennis Brasky Says:

    I fear that you are heading in the same direction that much of the US left has gone vis a vis the “progressive” Obama administration. Was his prostration before AIPAC last summer pledging support for a united Jerusalem under Israeli control progressive? What about his deafening silence in the face of the slaughter of Gaza and the current Israeli refusal to allow supplies in? (I’ll put aside for now his adding 30,000 troops to Afghanistan, drone bombings of Pakistan resulting in 2 million refugees, bailing out Wall Street to the tune of almost $15 trillion and violating US and international law by not investigating torture practices during the last administration).

    His entire foreign and domestic policy is marked by extreme timidity, constantly looking over his shoulder for what the right wing might say. We on the left must take some responsibility for this. Had we not chosen the role of Obama cheerleaders, but instead built our movements independently of the Democratic Party, there might be a strong left voice today, pressuring Obama and calling him out on every about face he makes (capitulating on FISA, releasing torture photos and videos, unlimited detention). The segment of the ruling class represented by the Walts and Mearshimers understands that the four decades – long US blank check of support for illegal settlements greatly undermines the position of Palestinian moderates like Abbas and something has to be done to rectify this situation. Yet, that unquestioned support has created a Frankenstein monster, in terms of the fascist settler movement and the power of the Israel Lobby. I see no evidence that Obama would have the political audacity to take these forces on. The man is a calculating careerist politician through and through – he’s simply not going to risk re-election in 2012. His supporters will spin this cowardice by saying that he needs “to save his political capital for all the wonderful things he plans to accomplish” – Bill Clinton deja vu.

    We need to build a movement that speaks the whole truth – that the settlements, paid for by US taxpayers – are ILLEGAL and must be turned over to the Palestinians for their future state, and that as long as Israel chooses to flout international law, a worldwide movement of boycott, divestment and sanctions is justified. The United States should use its leverage over Israel. President Obama has requested $2.775 billion in military aid for Israel in his FY2010 budget request, which now is in front of the Appropriations Subcommittees on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs. We must oppose this.

    We should take any and every half-hearted statement of Obama’s concerning “freezing” “new” settlements, and extend them into demanding complete divestment and withdrawal, and urge a healthy dose of skepticism towards his intentions. If we continue to puff him up as a “progressive” and he falls far short, our credibility suffers.

    Dennis Brasky

  3. Jim Haber Says:

    I hope I’m not as out of touch as the author makes the “left” sound. I didn’t see in these pieces any mention of something that I have heard Stephen Zunes and maybe Joel Beinin (and others) make which is that the US framework is not the one that fundamentally should be alluded to. That the US never legally should have been allowed to replace UN processes with the illusory “road map” which continues to dominate the discourse on the peace process and the settlement issue in particular.

    I agree with Judt and that a freeze is just putting off any progress and I don’t see that changing.

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