In the days after the 1967 war, when Israel was celebrating its great victory, an Israeli I know warned that triumph could lead to disaster. Capture of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip, he said, would tempt Israel to settle those territories. That would mean colonialism, with all its arrogance and inhumanity. It would undermine the character of Israel.
And it came to pass. The settlement process, carried on for more than three decades, has been sustained by colonial methods: suppressing the local population, seizing land, giving settlers superior legal status. The consequences have been as my Israeli friend foresaw, corrupting. Now the attempt to extend Israel’s dominion threatens its hard-won asset of international legitimacy.
From the day of its rebirth as a state in 1948 Israel had to struggle for acceptance. The Arab world refused to recognize the state or even, for a long time, to call it by its name. Anwar Sadat’s visit in 1977 meant so much to Israelis because it represented acceptance. Then, in 1993, the Oslo Agreement brought recognition of Israel’s legitimacy by the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Palestinian negotiators at Oslo assumed that Israel would gradually abandon the settlements and withdraw to something very like its pre-1967 borders. But Oslo left those steps to further negotiation, and they did not happen. The settlement process continued unchecked after Oslo. (Peace Now reported this March that an aerial survey of the West Bank showed thirty-four new settlement sites built in the last year.) More than 200,000 settlers now live in the West Bank. Settlements, some of them really small cities, and special highways for the settlers have effectively cut the West Bank into cantons separated by Israeli military forces and checkpoints.
At Camp David in 2000 Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered to withdraw from (by different estimates) between 86 and 91 percent of the West Bank; but his proposal would have left in place barrier settlements and roads that divide the territory. Yasser Arafat said no. Many of us who long for a peaceful end to the conflict thought Arafat’s refusal even to explore Barak’s offer was a terrible mistake. But in the Palestinians’ view, seven years after Oslo they were justifiably skeptical of Israel’s willingness ever to give up effective dominion over the occupied territories—ever to allow a genuine Palestinian state free of Israeli barriers.
After Camp David the conflict rose to new levels of bloodshed and destruction. Palestinians carried out appalling acts of terrorism. Hamas’s suicide bombers and then elements of Arafat’s Fatah targeted civilians in cafés and pizzerias. Israel retaliated with what in time became its biggest military operation since it invaded Lebanon twenty years ago.
Israeli voters, frightened by terror, brought to power in February 2001 the man who through decades had demonstrated his belief that the answer to Palestinian aspirations is force, Ariel Sharon. Under Sharon as prime minister, Israeli…
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