Israel's Overreaction?

Is Israel planning suicide? I ask this because in the wake of the United Nations’ decision on the status of Palestine (an overwhelming level of support by an overwhelming number of nations that no one needed psychic powers to predict), Benjamin Netanyahu, the country’s prime minister, decided to retaliate.

Excuse me: Netanyahu’s plans for retaliation were likely formed before the vote occurred, and announced only after. Specifically, the prime minister plans to build 3,000 new homes between Jerusalem and a West Bank settlement in order to prevent the creation of a contiguous Palestinian state.

These are settlements that are considered illegal under international law, and if you are wondering why it is that Ehud Barak, Israel’s defense minister, decided to resign more than a week ago, I think it isn’t simply, as Time magazine suggested, he felt humiliated by Hamas. Part of the reason may be because he knew exactly what his boss had in mind once the UN vote count was tallied.

About 500,000 Jews live in around 100 illegal settlements built since the occupation of the West Bank, and any future attempt to evict settlers by a more enlightened Israeli administration will likely result in civil war: Jew against Jew, an unthinkable scenario, as Netanyahu well knows. But not an improbable one. Netanyahu, in other words, is making certain that those settlements, new as well as old, are permanent, and that peace will prove every bit as impossible as their dismantling.

And to what end the endless hostilities? Why would Israel—on top of creating yet more settlements—intensify the anger and resentment of its neighbors by seizing $120 million in tax revenues it collects on behalf of the Palestinian Authority? And then hand that sum over to the Israeli electric company? What exactly is achieved by these measures?

To be sure, the UN vote very likely gives Palestinians access to the International Criminal Court, which could lead to certain interesting cases regarding those settlements as well as other matters—among them, the mysterious death of Yasir Arafat. But personally, I doubt the Arafat autopsy these many years later will yield any Israeli fingerprints: by the time Arafat died, his reputation was shot, and he was beyond bothering with, at least as far as the Israelis were concerned. And I also wonder if Israel will succumb for one second to an outside court ruling on what it considers its own business.

In other words, the UN vote was not only predictable: it wasn’t all that helpful to Palestinians—or hostile to Israel. Palestinians now enjoy, as the BBC has pointed out, the exact same status as the Vatican. Their economic situation remains what it has been: largely deplorable. Their Arab friends remain what they ever were: fair weather, often useless. Their best chances for a prosperous, democratic future rest in large part on their relationship with Israel. They always have.

If Israel were smart, it would seize the moment. Now is the time for settling differences. For settling settlements. For settling down and negotiating in earnest.

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