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Edgar M. Bronfman Headshot

Stopping Construction, Building Peace

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These are not easy times for all of us who care deeply about Israel. It has become clear that the governments in Washington and Jerusalem are at loggerheads, primarily over the issue of settlements on the West Bank.

As someone who even during the Carter administration, 30 years ago, called publicly for a halt to settlement building on the part of Israel, I remain even more steadfast in my belief that settlements are inimical to the interests of peace, and therefore inimical to Israel's long-term interests and viability.

The expansion of settlements in the West Bank, as we all know, has been promoted by the religious Zionist right in Israel as a form of holy work, meant to hasten the return of the Messiah through the possession of the entire biblical Land of Israel. Governments all across the Israeli political spectrum have allowed this to continue for decades, due usually to political expediency and pressure.

Now it seems as if the international community, including the U.S. government, is requesting that Israel freeze construction on these settlements as part of a process aimed at restarting stalled peace talks.

It is time even the Israeli right, including the current Likud government under Benjamin Netanyahu, look to the precedents set by Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon on the issue of settlements.

After all, it was Menachem Begin who first embraced the concept of "land for peace" as the basis for settling the Arab-Israeli conflict: in return for normalized relations with Egypt, Israel relinquished the entire Sinai Peninsula.

Today we have most of the Arab and even Muslim world putting forward a proposal, the "Arab Peace Initiative," which calls for a normalization of relations in return for an Israeli withdrawal back to the 1967 borders. While negotiations on the exact implementation of the initiative are needed, an Israeli freeze to settlement expansion is part of a necessary first move toward realizing this historic offer.

An even more telling precedent is the case of Ariel Sharon, the man tasked with taking down the settlements in the Sinai, and who as prime minister subsequently took down the settlements in the Gaza Strip.

Sharon became convinced that the demographic threat to Israel's existence outweighed his life's work of settlement construction. As Sharon understood clearly, there was no way to keep controlling the Palestinian people indefinitely and to simultaneously maintain Israel's Jewish and democratic character.

At a certain point, there will be more Arabs than Jews living between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, thereby leading to one de facto apartheid state if no resolution to the conflict is reached via a two-state solution.

Nearly as important, Sharon's evacuation of Gaza, opposed so bitterly by the Israeli right in the Knesset and by settlers on the ground, was a triumph for Israeli democracy and governance. Once the government took the decision, the various organs of the state worked respectfully to uphold the rule of law. This should be kept in mind every time another illegal outpost sprouts up on the West Bank, in direct contravention of Israeli law.

It is these types of decisions from an Israeli prime minister regarding settlements that the Obama administration has said repeatedly it wants to see from Netanyahu.

The American Jewish community has, over decades, been a steadfast source of strength for Israel -- inside Israel and out, and from our local communities all the way up to Washington. As Zionists, I and the vast majority of American Jews will always remain committed to the security and well-being of the Jewish state.

However, on the issue of settlements there is seemingly a divergence of opinion: a majority of American Jews agrees with President Obama and does think that a halt to settlement construction is a reasonable request in the interest of peace.

To be sure, the Arab states and the Palestinians have to do their part, too, and the international community needs to hold them to account. After all, a future Palestinian state has to be a viable economic and political entity if it is to succeed and there is to be a lasting peace.

But continued "natural growth" in West Bank settlements cannot be allowed to take priority over the possibility of normalized relations with the entire Arab world. Peace with its neighbors, not the sensitivities of a small minority of religious settlers, has to be Israel's ultimate objective.

People have taken to calling this the "tough love" approach towards Israel, but this is wrong. Rather, it's the only approach you can take if you truly love Israel and care about its survival. A peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with two states for two peoples, is the only realistic way for Israel to ensure its Jewish and democratic character, and hence its existence.

Muddling through for another 30 years on the present course, only to have someone write again about the need for an end to settlements, is not only unsustainable but unloving.

Edgar M. Bronfman is the President of The Samuel Bronfman Foundation and the recent author of Hope, Not Fear: A Path to Jewish Renaissance.