Several friends who watched my bloggingheads conversation with David Frum last week wrote to me about one particular segment, where Frum insisted that settlements were no obstacle to a peace agreement because…
If people move one way, they can move another way. I just – the idea that these are kind of geologic facts – we’re talking about loading up a moving van. Had there been, had there been a deal, there’s nothing easier. I mean you’ve seen these settlements, they’re ramshackle things, they’re trailer parks…
Even if they’ve built the Emerald City of Oz in one particular place, again, people move, people are incredibly mobile…
When I heard this, I was amused by how strong Frum’s assertions were and how weak his knowledge was of the subject. I was also struck by the act of projection: He imagined settlers as being suburbanites ready to move at a moment’s notice, for a good job offer, perhaps.
But as Matt Duss wrote to me, Frum isn’t alone in arguing that settlements are essentially conditional statements, retracted more easily than a candidate’s gaffe. Says Matt:
His blithe assertion that all it would take to remove the settlements was a few “moving vans” is an argument that I’ve heard from many “reasonable” conservatives: The settlements are not a big problem because they are not permanent, they can and will be moved in the event of a final agreement.
And he adds,
This seems to me a deeply cynical argument… I’m not a fan of the settlement enterprise, but I do recognize that these are individuals and families and neighborhoods who have built strong ties over the years, and the removal of the settlements would mean the breakup of these communities.
Matt is right. And notice how this discussion overturns stereotyped roles. Frum, and other conservatives who make the same argument, haven’t an inkling of the role of neighborhood, religious congregation, school-based community, or connection to place — in short, old-fashioned small-town values that conservatives supposedly respect — in people’s lives. Matt, the progressive, is intensely aware of those ties. He understands that if settlements were meant as conditional from the outset, the settlers have been cruelly used. (Matt has blogged convincingly on the subject here.) And whether they were originally meant as conditional or not, removing them will be traumatic.
And therefore, since giving them up is a serious option, allowing more people to move there is irresponsible – toward the settlers themselves, along with the rest of the country.
I should add, though: Settlement backers in Israel don’t normally argue that settlement is reversible. I can’t claim to have heard every defense of settlements ever made, but this is a defense I hear almost entirely abroad (with one exception, which I’ll get too).
Perhaps the reversibility argument was an invention of foreign defenders of Israeli policy. More likely, it has been provided to them by Israeli officials – in which case the the officials have treated their foreign supporters as useful idiots.
Settlements, in Israeli debate, have always been regarded as “facts on the ground” – physical statements of policy, of intent to keep a particular piece of land under permanent Israeli rule. The debate on where settlements should be built has been intense precisely because it’s an argument over whether Israel should maintain permanent rule over some or all of the occupied territories.
In official documents, I’ve never seen anything to indicate that a civilian settlement was built with the idea in mind that it was conditional or reversible.
The one exception was the way that the state presented settlement to the Supreme Court. In the 1978 Beit El case, the government justified requisitioning Palestinian-owned land to build a settlement on the grounds that the act of settlement was inherently conditional and temporary, and could come to an end when the military occupation of the area ended as a result of diplomacy. This, however, is only an example of a wider problem: the state misrepresenting its intentions to the Court. (See my post last year on Road 443 for another example.)
And yet, in the back of their minds, in some hidden corner, everyone involved in building settlements has known that they are conditional: They were and are a political project intended to produce an outcome — permanent Israeli rule of occupied territory. The possibility has always existed that despite all the attempts at permanence, a government will be elected that will decide to give up land. The gambit could fail. The officials planning settlement were therefore using the settlers as pawns. To the extent that settlers have understood the gambit, they’ve been partners who accepted the chance that their communities might one day be broken up.
None of this, however, justifies the damage done by leaving the settlements in place or by continuing to build them. If Israel has to choose between the settlers’ roots in their communities and the democratic future of the country as a whole — and it must choose — a democratic future comes first. Those responsible for the settlement project are also responsible for the pain of evacuation, which will involve much more than pulling up moving vans.