Try to see it from the other guy’s point of view. He may be wrong. He may be, at least partly, right. Today, I am trying hard to see life from the point of view of an Israeli settler in the occupied West Bank. I have known a few, including one named Benzion Gruber, whom I liked. Benzi Gruber was the kind of man you would want beside you in a fight. It was not because he was a good fighter, which I suspect he was, but because he wouldn’t desert you.
Benzi was a colonel in the armored corps. Many of the men under his command told me he went out of his way to support them. More than one remembered sitting in a bunker somewhere in the West Bank, cold and in the dead of night. To make matters worse, it was their birthday. Suddenly, out of the dark, they would see Jeep lights approaching. Out of the door came little lights from birthday candles on cakes hand-delivered by Benzi Gruber.
Benzi, whom I have not seen in about eight years, lived in a settlement on land expropriated from its Palestinian owners. He had decent and intelligent children, and his family was hospitable when I had dinner at the house. It happened to be January 23, 2002, when I turned fifty-one. I’m not sure who told Benzi, but he came into the house with a birthday cake that had five candles plus one. I try to see the world through Benzi’s eyes.
When I covered southern Africa in the late 1970s, I tried as well to see Rhodesia from the white settlers’ point of view. They had a lot to lose, although they had stolen the country from its inhabitants, enacted laws to exclude blacks from the most fertile land, kept the indigenous population from power, and went to war to prevent granting the vote to the majority. When I look at the crimes committed now by Robert Mugabe—and they are many—I recall that rule by violence was also paramount to Cecil Rhodes’s conquest of Mashonaland and Matabeleland in the late 19th century. Mugabe has continued the system, mistreating not only the whites but also most of the country’s blacks. Ian Smith and his white followers, however much they wanted their white society to survive as they knew it, were wrong. Their war to prevent democracy was not merely immoral. It was self-destructive. In making military and police force the sole arbiter of disputes, they insured democracy would be stillborn.
My fear for Benzi Gruber, his family, and the other 300,000 settlers in the West Bank is that they are destroying a country that I know they love. They may be afraid of withdrawing from the West Bank. Some have a biblical attachment to the land, and others are taking advantage of government subsidies and tax breaks they would not enjoy in Israel proper. To preserve the settlements, they insist that the pre-1967 borders are indefensible. Ephraim Sneh, a former deputy defense minister and retired general, put that lie to bed in a recent New York Times Op-Ed that said a “security package would make the 1967 lines defensible.” In other words, two states—an independent Israel and an independent Palestine—are safer than one.
The Arab League decided last week to present the United Nations General Assembly with a resolution that the US and Israel have long been dreading: for UN recognition of an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza, and east Jerusalem. Both the US and Israel would be wrong, in law and in their own interests, to oppose Palestinian statehood this September. UN General Assembly Resolution 181 of 1947 called for two states in the British Mandate of Palestine. The Arabs made the mistake of opposing partition. Most Jewish leaders embraced it. Remember, they embraced a resolution that called for two states, not one. That resolution became Israel’s birth certificate when, on May 15, 1948, it declared statehood. For the Palestinians today to call for their own state means not only that they accept partition, but that they accept Israel’s birth certificate—its “right to exist.” Israel and the US should embrace world recognition of Palestinian statehood and thus the Palestinian state’s acceptance of Israel.
The resolution will create problems for Benzi Gruber and his fellow settlers, whose houses will be within another country. Israeli insistence on the idea that its forces are occupying “disputed territories” must vanish, because the land will not be disputed in the world’s eyes. It will be a country called Palestine, whose independence the world will be as obliged to protect as it did the borders of Kuwait when Iraq invaded it in 1990. That same world must also accept UN Resolution 181’s first state, Israel.
Last Friday, a couple thousand Israelis and Palestinians marched from the Jaffa Gate of Jerusalem’s old city to Sheikh Jarrah, an Arab neighborhood where settlers have been taking over houses.
Their banners said, “Marching to Independence.”
One Israeli told the Washington Post, “The struggle for Palestinian independence is also a struggle for freedom for Israelis.” His statement was no exaggeration, particularly in light of last week’s Knesset law that made it a crime for anyone to call for boycotting the settlements. Amnesty International’s deputy director for the Mideast and North Africa, Philip Luther, said, “Despite proponents’ claims to the contrary, this law is a blatant attempt to stifle peaceful dissent and campaigning by attacking the right to freedom of expression, which all governments must uphold.”
Preserving and expanding settlements requires legislation and behavior that no democratic state can impose while remaining democratic. Holding onto a country called Palestine in defiance of the world and of international law will increase demands outside Israel for the kind of boycotts Israelis themselves will be prohibited from supporting.
As much as I try to see it from Benzi Gruber’s point of view, I suspect that for him to live in Israel and in healthy relations with the Palestinians next door is safer and better than relying on his tanks to keep the Palestinians down. Many people are leaving Israel itself—not in protest, but out of weariness with international isolation, repressive legislation, and the waste of tax money on settlements and armed forces to protect them. Half a million Israelis have the insurance policy of American passports, with another quarter-million applications in the pipeline. Gideon Levy wrote in Haaretz that Germany—“of all places”—granted 100,000 passports to Israeli Jews. In one year alone, 650,000 Israelis left the country.
For Israel to survive as a democracy, it should heed the wise words that Giuseppe di Lampedusa put in the mouth of his Prince of Salina in The Leopard. Advising his fellow Sicilians to vote for unification with Italy, he reminded them, “Things will have to change in order that they remain the same.”