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To Build, or Not to Build — Why that Is the Question

October 8, 2010

Summarizing the stalemate in the Israeli- Palestinian talks, a CNN anchor reported earlier this week that as soon as the settlement building freeze ended, Israel sent in bulldozers to renew the building.

The claim is patently false, of course, for Israel did no such thing. Groups of people, most of them living in the settlements, did begin building again, as the law permitted them to. So why did CNN portray the story that way? Most reasonable people understand that any eventual peace settlement will involve the creation of a Palestinian state on some significant portion of the West Bank. Some Israelis are in favor, some are desperately opposed and others are pained by the prospective loss of that land but have resigned themselves to the fact that there will be no alternative.

So why are the Palestinians (in whose footsteps CNN is following) so focused on settlement building? After all, in the disengagement from Gaza, citizens were moved, homes and synagogues were bulldozed, entire towns and small cities were leveled. Regardless of what any of us thinks of what happened in the summer of 2005, the disengagement did at least prove that when Israeli governments decide to cede land, the presence of towns or citizens on that land is not an insurmountable impediment.

Why, therefore, does Mahmoud Abbas not simply say to himself, I’ll make a deal, I’ll get a state and that land will be ours eventually, anyway.

So let the Israelis waste their time and money on roads and buildings in the West Bank. They’ll bulldoze them, or I’ll inherit them. Either way, I win.

ABBAS’S WEAKNESS and his desire to avoid real compromise are only part of the picture. More important is the fact that he understands, infinitely better than do many Jews, that the fundamental impetus at the core of Israeli society is building. More than a country, the Jewish state is a project of nation-building, of ingathering, of Jewish revitalization. Absent those, this enterprise has no point.

This is the state of the watchtower and stockade, those desperate attempts to build small outposts that were the beginnings of Jewish resettlement of the Land of Israel. This is the country of the defiant immigrants who braved their way past British soldiers patrolling the shores, seeking refuge when no other country would provide it.

Operation Flying Carpet, which saved the Jews of Yemen, and Operation Solomon, which whisked the Jews of Ethiopia out of a war zone and back to their homeland, were all part of this.

These historical moments sound like romantic evocations of the past, but they are not.

They are a reminder of what this country still is at its core. As I was in synagogue on Simhat Torah last week and listened as the verses of Ata Horeita Lada’at were assigned and sung aloud, I was reminded of this once again. The last five or six verses, each sung by a different person, were a perfect collage of who we are. There was an elderly sabra. The next person sang with a distinctly French accent, another was American, one was clearly Russian and one was from somewhere in North Africa.

I turned to my son, who was also listening to all this, and said to him, Did you hear all those different accents? It’s the perfect reminder that at the end of the day, the ingathering of the exiles, is what this place is all about.

In our national narrative, building towns and rebuilding a people are virtually synonymous.

Israelis are divided as to the wisdom of building in the settlements, of course. But those who get it understand that specific policies at this moment aside, building and rebuilding are the very oxygen of this society. End the ethos of rebuilding, and you have rendered this country devoid of its fundamental purpose.

Unlike many Jews, the Palestinians understand this perfectly. That is why Abbas has said, even recently and in no uncertain terms, that he will never recognize Israel as a Jewish state.

The fact that the Palestinian Charter declares that Palestine will be a Muslim state doesn’t bother him. For Abbas is motivated not by shame, but by strategy.

Deny Israel the right to call itself a Jewish state, and there’s no justification for the Law of Return.

Deny the Jewishness of this country, and there’s no morally justifiable basis for not admitting tens of thousands or many more Palestinian refugees from Lebanon, ultimately making Jews a minority here. Make Israel a Hebrew-speaking but ethnically neutral country, and you have eviscerated it. There would be no point to the state, no power to its narratives, no passion left to sustain those of us committed to (re)building it.

ABBAS�S INSISTENCE on the freeze, even in places like Gush Etzion, Ariel and other blocs which are clearly not going to be returned, is not about roads or houses, but is but the first shot across the bow. The freeze is a metaphor for the legitimacy of the idea of this as the home of the Jews. The issue, he knows, is not borders, or even security. Most of us know approximately how those will eventually be settled.

The real issue is whether the world will acknowledge, almost a century after the Balfour Declaration, that the Jews, like other peoples, have a right to a homeland. Sadly, on that issue, there is much less international consensus than there used to be. We are in much worse shape than we were a decade or two ago. And given the direction in which matters are moving, time is not on our side.

Abbas, the Palestinians and even CNN get all of this. The question that matters, however, is whether we do and what we will do to ensure that Jews, and others across the world who might sympathize with us, come to understand what is truly at stake.

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