Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Further Comments on Gas Masks and Settlements

In a recent post, I cited David Harris, the executive director off the American Jewish Committee, as saying, "I have a son who lives in Israel, not on the Upper West Side, and he lives with a gas mask..." The implication, of course, is, How dare an American criticize Israel from the safe distance of New York, when Israelis are the ones living in daily peril?  Apropos of this, the following story:

When I was leaving Israel in the summer of 2001, a guy I had hired to help me pack came across a small cardboard box in my closet. "What's that?" I asked. It was my gas mask. "Well, you won't be needing that!" he said. We had a good chuckle. It didn't seem so funny a couple of months later, in September of 2001.

While it's true that Israel faces a level of existential threat unknown to other countries, that doesn't mean that living there is like being in an Army outpost in Afghanistan. Add together terrorism, street crime, and traffic accidents, and I think it's about as dangerous as the U.S. And if you're hit by a car, there won't be a lot of hassle about whether you have medical insurance.

The reason Israelis now have gas masks is that they were subjected to missile attacks by Saddam Hussein during the first Gulf war. Saddam did this, presumably, to increase his popularity with the Arab street, particularly in the countries that were fighting him. What would undercut  this as a political strategy would be reaching some kind of agreement with the Palestinians. Israelis tend to focus on how much the Arabs hate them, and a peace agreement will not move them from hate to love. More like from hate to indifference. I don't think there's much enthusiasm for being more pro-Palestinian than the Palestinians.

And, of course, all this is irrelevant to the issue of the settlements, whose contribution to Israel's security is zero, if not negative. Here's my take on the Israeli politics of the settlements, and I'm eager to be corrected by someone who knows more than me:

Most Israelis don't care much about the settlements, and don't like the occupation much either. However, Israelis, understandably, place a high value on national unity (where "national" is understood as meaning "among Jews.") The settlers are a small but significant minority who have made it clear that they are willing to resort to violence rather than see Israel leave the West Bank (or, if you prefer, Judea and Samaria). One of them was responsible for the assassination of the prime minister in 1995, an event deeply traumatic to Israelis. Therefore, Israelis prefer to leave the settlement issue untouched, however costly that may be in the long run. [Update: When I say "settlers" I'm not referring to every Israeli living in the West Bank, but rather to members of the settler movement.]

It would make me sound like an arrogant, meddling American to say that Israelis need U.S. pressure on the settlements to save them from themselves. So I won't say it, even though it's true.

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