John Kerry and the UN are Right about Israeli Settlements

by Benjamin Studebaker

The UN Security Council has passed Resolution 2334 by a vote of 14 to zero, with the United States choosing to abstain rather than exercise its veto. The resolution condemns Israel’s construction of settlements within the occupied Palestinian territories. The language is uncharacteristically blunt:

the establishment by Israel of settlements in the Palestinian territory occupied since 1967, including East Jerusalem, has no legal validity and constitutes a flagrant violation under international law and a major obstacle to the achievement of the two-State solution and a just, lasting and comprehensive peace

The 14 member states who voted in favor of the resolution include the remaining permanent members (Britain, France, Russia, and China) and all of the current non-permanent members (Angola, Egypt, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, Senegal, Spain, Ukraine, Uruguay, and Venezuela). Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claims the resolution is “skewed against Israel” and Donald Trump agreed, tweeting:

But both Trump and Netanyahu are mistaken–not only is Resolution 2334 not skewed against Israel, it is in Israel’s interest to abide by the resolution and abandon its settlements. Here’s why.

The Israelis and Palestinians recognize themselves as distinct peoples with overlapping claims to the same territory. There are two broad ways to resolve that kind of dispute:

  1. The One State Solution: Eliminate the distinction between the two peoples, making them into one united people.
  2. The Two State Solution: Resolve the territorial dispute, allocating different land to each of the peoples so that they are not claiming the same land via a partition.

For a long time, the international community has pursued versions of the two state solution, but it has always been difficult to find a territorial split which both peoples will accept. The more settlements Israel has in the West Bank, the harder it is to negotiate a two state solution–the settlements eat into the territory that Palestine needs to have a viable state, and encourage these unattractive solutions in which the Palestinian state is split into little bits and significant parts of the West Bank have to be ceded.  This is why the resolution explicitly considers the settlements to be an obstacle to peace, as Secretary of State John Kerry reiterated:

If we had vetoed this resolution … the United States would have been giving license to further, unfettered settlement construction that we fundamentally oppose. It is not this resolution that is isolating Israel. It is the permanent policy of [Israeli] settlement construction that risks making peace impossible.

If the choice is one state, Israel can either be Jewish or democratic. It cannot be both.

This last line is the crux of the problem–if Israel continues to build settlements, it will have settlements on so much territory that a viable Palestinian state will be impossible. The only solution would be to annex the Palestinian territories into Israel. Once that happens, we have two peoples which regard themselves as totally distinct from one another living under one state. This kind of situation is only workable if we have a binational state which successfully constructs an overriding national identity which fuses these people together on some level. It’s hard to do, but we have examples–Belgium has long unified its French-speaking Walloons and its Dutch-speaking Flemings around its monarch and its federal system which attempts to show both peoples equal concern. When Germany was unified, it used German nationalism to transcend regional distinctions among the previously independent German peoples, eventually causing them to recognize one another as part of the same German nation.

The trouble is that Israel is a Jewish state, and as long as Israel remains Jewish, it cannot show equal concern to the Muslim Palestinians. This is why Kerry views democracy and Judaism as incompatible under a one state solution–a Jewish state is intrinsically excluding to Muslims just as a Walloon state would be intrinsically excluding to the Flemings. To keep Israel meaningfully Jewish under these conditions would require a great deal. Either Israel would need to retain the Palestinian population but prevent it from challenging Israel’s Jewish character–meaning the Palestinians would have to be systematically disempowered and marginalized–or Israel would need to get rid of the Palestinians, either by displacing them or killing them. Both courses of action would be morally repugnant and would invite international condemnation.

Assuming Israel is unwilling to commit genocide, the one state solution would see Israel become increasingly isolated, just as Apartheid South Africa was. The Palestinians would likely continually resist the Israeli state, both through violent and peaceful means. Eventually Israel might be subject to international sanctions and pressured into treating the Palestinians as equal citizens, and that would force Israel to renounce its Jewish character and become a binational state like Belgium. Israel’s most steadfast supporters–those who condemn the resolution and condemn Kerry’s speech–do not want Israel to be like Belgium. They support Israel because it is a Jewish state and they want it to remain a Jewish state. Yet the course of action they’re proposing can only lead to the renunciation of Israel’s Jewish character in favor of a secular state which accommodates both populations, or some terrible crime against the Palestinian people.

So we are faced with a dilemma–given that they do not want Israel to become like Belgium, either Netanyahu and his defenders do not understand the implications of a one state solution, or they are open to the possibility that Israel might commit terrible crimes to preserve its Jewish character. Either prospect should disturb us–either Israel is run by foolish men, or vicious ones. Kerry and the UN see and understand this dilemma, and it is for this reason that they are being so tough with Israel–they hope that Israel’s leaders are merely foolish, that if they are shaken hard enough they might yet be brought to their senses for the good of themselves and the political project they serve. But it’s sadly also possible that some of Israel’s leaders have stopped caring about what happens to the Palestinians and decided they are determined to have all of the land, at any human cost. That’s dangerous, and Donald Trump is wrong to indulge it.