ON MONDAY, Israel allowed the moratorium on settlement construction to expire. The irony is that while Prime Minster Netanyahu has made a show of standing his ground as far as possible on the settlement issue, even the Israeli Right, or most of it at least, has given up on the original enterprise of settlement: the Greater Israel ideology.
From the start settlement was meant to prevent territorial partition and make Israel’s hold on the territories permanent. This vision had two kinds of supporters among Greater Israel ideologues: religious settlers, who have always demanded, and still do, immediate annexation; and the hawkish secular Right, which believed in eventual annexation. The difference is crucial. The secular Right is Zionist in the original sense: it believes in a Jewish democratic state, which depends on a decisive Jewish majority. Since annexation would mean, on this view, granting the Arab residents of the occupied territories full and equal political rights, the same rights that Arab citizens of Israel proper have, the move would depend on demography. Annexation would be possible only if Israel would still have a Jewish majority over the whole land, including the territories.
But this vision failed to materialize. Demography has developed in the opposite direction, with Arab birthrates in the territories far exceeding those of Israel’s citizens—both Arab and Jewish. Today, there is roughly the same number of Arabs and Jews over Greater Israel, or Greater Palestine. Therefore, there is bound to be an Arab majority in the future, if the territories are included. The bottom line is simple: annexation would mean that Israel will have to forsake Zionism, because without a Jewish majority the idea of a Jewish democratic state will stop making sense. Israel could then either be democratic but not Jewish, or else establish the rule of a Jewish minority over an Arab majority. The secular Israeli Right is not willing to do either.
Not so the religious settlers, who have never been, strictly speaking, Zionists in Herzl’s sense at all. Since the late 1970s their leadership has demanded that the territories be annexed without granting their Arab residents political rights. The difference between their view and that of mainstream Zionism is therefore an abyss. Zionism rested on the ideal of liberty and grounded its demands for a Jewish state on the universality of the right to self-determination. Israel’s Declaration of Independence says that it is “the natural right of the Jewish people to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations, in their own sovereign State.” It was clear from the start, as the Declaration also states, that Israel would “ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture.” For religious settlers Zionism is not about democratic self-determination; it is about the mystical reunion of Jews and their ancient Land. Their political creed belongs to the family of blood-and-soil nationalism movements. In their view, others—in this case non-Jews—are an alien element, a contaminant, within the organic unity of people and soil.
Religiously this ideology is backed by a messianic vision according to which redemption advances through “redeeming” land. Though their spiritual leaders would not use the term “apartheid,” they did not traditionally have a problem with its content: the land belongs to the Jews and the Jews alone, and others could be, at most, tolerated as resident aliens. It is a Zionism of land, not a Zionism of liberty.
The incompatibility of this vision with mainstream political Zionism came into focus gradually in the political arena, when it became clear that religious settlers would proceed regardless of demography. If they have their way, Zionism’s great achievement, one place under the sun where the Jews are not a minority, would be lost.
Why then does Netanyahu’s administration insist on renewing settlement construction? The reason is a combination of short-sighted security arguments, cynical political considerations, and conservative habits of mind. In terms of security, Netanyahu believes that the officially temporary occupation can be extended more or less indefinitely, and that this is the only way to keep terrorism in check; politically he wishes to appease his religious coalition partners, without which his government may collapse; and lastly, his conservative outlook still rests on the sense that the more Israel encroaches on the future territory of Palestine, the safer it would be.
This is a dangerous game to play. Because in the long run, it endangers Israel’s most vital interests. The longer the occupation lasts, the more Israel is perceived as a colonial power, bent the subjugation of another people. Further settlement seems to the world as proof of this, and the forces bent on delegitimizing the right of Jews to self-determination are gaining momentum. Even Israel’s allies are beginning to feel uncomfortable. Jews worldwide increasingly feel the need to put a distance between themselves and Zionism.
But what is worse is that eventually this encroachment on the future Palestine will not achieve Netanyahu’s goals—it will achieve the goal of religious settlers. If they have their way, their asphalt and concrete will prevent partition into two states and will drown the ship of Zionism in a Lebanon-like bi-national swamp. Religious settlers are therefore not just a clear and present danger to peace, or to peace talks, but an existential threat to Zionism itself. Supporting settlement is an anti-Zionist stance. The grounds for resisting the settlers’ enterprise are not only the right of Palestinians to self-determination but also the right of Jews to self-determination. Zionists and their allies must therefore oppose further settlement, for Israel’s, not just Palestine’s, sake.
Gadi Taub is an assistant professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and author of The Settlers and the Struggle Over the Meaning of Zionism (Yale University Press, 2010). He can be reached online through www.gaditaub.com.
Homepage image: A Jewish Settlement in Shomron, West Bank (Wikimedia Commons/2007)