Media Analysis

Trump’s ambassador says the unspeakable: Uprooting settlers could ’cause civil war’

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Last Sunday, the U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman said the unspeakable behind closed doors to American Jewish leaders (as reported by Israeli television).

[T]he settlers are going nowhere. The uprooting of hundreds of thousands of settlers could cause a civil war in Israel.

The comment was a depth charge against the two-state solution– from a former bankruptcy lawyer who has helped fund the settlements. And leading liberal Zionists have pushed back. Jeremy Ben-Ami of J Street wrote angrily that the Trump administration and the settlers were “dragging Israelis and Palestinians further into a one-state nightmare.”

Friedman was misstating the reality, and maligning Israel, Ben-Ami went on:

Friedman’s claim that settler evacuation would lead to a civil war is (a) based on several falsehoods and (b) insulting to the strength and resilience of Israeli democracy.

Because the two-state solution is still quite achievable:

Nearly all objective experts who’ve looked at the issue agree that only a limited percentage of settlers beyond the Green Line would need to relocate because negotiations over an Israeli-Palestinian border would certainly include land swaps.

Wildly exaggerating the number of settlers who would need to move under a peace deal is a favored scare tactic of settler advocates looking to make a two-state agreement seem infeasible — which it is not.

Anshel Pfeffer at Haaretz had a similar message: The parameters of the two-state solution are very clear, and when it’s time to effect them the settlers will walk away:

The warning that any possible eviction of settlements could lead to civil war has been used by some settlers in the past, although most responsible settler leaders say that if an Israeli government will so decree it, they will have no choice but to leave.

Pfeffer was as angry as Ben-Ami; he said the Israeli government should reprimand the US ambassador for casting aspersions on Israelis. The Israel army has never mutinied. The settlers are not “capable of fomenting civil war.” Only 80,000 Israeli settlers will have to leave the West Bank.

Whatever their political and religious views, the great majority of them are Israeli patriots who ultimately would accept the decision of the government.

The interesting thing about Friedman’s comments is that they echo the views of many on the left, who say that the two-state solution is dead, you will never pull out the settlers, and so let us accept the new reality, one state in which Palestinians are denied equal rights.

The Israeli writer Yossi Gurvitz said exactly what Friedman said about civil war, seven years ago:

“I’m not sure Partition is possible anymore. There are 400,000 settlers in the West Bank. No one has the political will and capital to remove them. Trying to remove them will result in a civil war. I don’t think it’s an option anymore.”

(Today the usual figure is 600-650,000 settlers.)

More importantly, Gurvitz said Israeli leadership actually believes the Friedman scenario more than the liberal Zionist one: the settlers are capable of fomenting civil war, and that threat is what has stopped Israel from taking any steps to implement a two-state solution.

This civil war threat is making [the two-state solution] non-viable. We need to move to a one-state solution, but I don’t see how we can sell it to either side…

It should go without saying that when an Israeli prime minister, Rabin, took real steps toward giving up occupied land for peace with Palestinians, he was assassinated, in 1995. Gurvitz  says the wider conspiracy behind the assassination was never investigated, again because of the political following it has.

When it comes to Jewish terrorism, the Israeli establishment is afraid. It will act only when it has to, it will not investigate deeply, it will let people go off…. They were afraid [that] doing a crackdown on the entire network would have led to either more assassinations, which was possible, or a widespread civil war. It’s been forgotten. No one speaks about it, it’s gone.

Liberal Zionists tend to diminish rightwing trends in Israeli society. But racist settlers have made it clear that they will enact “pricetag” attacks on Palestinians or even Israelis if they are compelled to leave the West Bank.

Removing just 8,000 settlers in Gaza in 2005 required a huge effort, as Gurvitz has noted: At least two soldiers were required for each settler, and large payments too. Removing a couple of hundred thousand West Bank settlers would damage the Israeli economy significantly and involve virtually the entire army, he says.

The most important point here, though, is the political reality: The settlement project has thrived for 50 years, and it continues to thrive, with new announcements almost every day. While it has been international law for over 50 years– and U.S. policy too– that the settlers should get out of East Jerusalem and the West Bank (and the Golan too), nothing has ever come of that stance. No, the U.S. has failed to push Israel to “uproot” any settlers, due in large part to Friedman’s audience for his speech: the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, one of the leading Israel lobby groups in U.S. political life, which has stopped all moves against the occupation.

Whatever J Street’s good intentions, it has been specifically excluded from the Conference. Even as the Conference president, Malcolm Hoenlein, celebrated 50 years of occupation with rightwing Israelis in occupied territory:

Malcolm Hoenlein, chairman of Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, at Western Wall on Jerusalem Day May 24, 2017

This is ultimately not an ideological issue, but a question of reality. Many former adherents of the two-state solution have thrown in the towel. Henry Siegman said last month in The National Interest that Trump’s Jerusalem announcement had a good effect to “shatter the illusion of a two-state outcome, and allow the Palestinian national movement to turn into a struggle for rights, which is to say a struggle to end Israel’s de facto apartheid regime, a course I have advocated for over a decade, and now increasingly embraced by younger Palestinians.”

Thanks to Scott Roth, who commented on Friedman’s statement about civil war: “It’s true, and whose fault is that? Israel’s. And who will pay the price for not dismantling settlements? Palestinians.” That price, of course, gets lost in all the U.S. political discussions.


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“Trump’s ambassador says the unspeakable: Uprooting settlers could ’cause civil war’”.

I don,t see why that would be such a negative outcome.#

Crazy , land thieves and racist bigots reducing their overall numbers would be a positive outcome.If they want to kill each other over someone elses land then why should anyone get in their way.

phil, great coverage. i really like how you segued gurvitz’s always illuminating commentary into this article and appreciate the links to your older interviews w/him. i remember, years ago when you were heading over to the ME, advising you to go meet yossi gurvitz! so brilliant. thanks.

DAVID FRIEDMAN- “The uprooting of hundreds of thousands of settlers could cause a civil war in Israel.” It is not inconceivable that it would happen. My understanding is that there are serious divisions in Israeli Jewish society which, absent an external enemy to stimulate defensive solidarity, could spiral out of control. Simply put, Israeli Zionists need an external Arab enemy and an internal Palestinian threat to function as a unified Jewish state. Israel requires a… Read more »

So how would this civil war work, I wonder? Settlers, armed with light weapons and a few trucks against the IDF, or will the IDF split, some factions staying loyal to the government, and some defending the settlers? Wonder which way the Israeli Air Force would go?
Or maybe the IDF will back the settlers, and put Israel under martial law, in a sense, occupy it?

“Only 80,000 Israeli settlers will have to leave the West Bank.”

So approximately 550,000 settlers get to stay?

I thought this site was anti-Zionist.