Loans and Pawn on the West Bank:
The Moral Issue for the U.S. Isn’t Soviet Émigrés;
It’s Our Role in Backing Likud’s Settlement Agenda
The Washington Post, September 22, 1991
In the fight over Israel’s request for $10 billion in loan guarantees, President Bush’s critics have invoked morality on their side. New York Times columnist Leslie Gelb, for example, has argued that “it is immoral to tie humanitarian aid for Soviet Jews to the political issue of Israel’s settlement policy.” The president has been accused in even more extreme words by columnist William Safire of “holding the lives of a million harried and worried people hostage.” Safire further reminded his readers that “no American politician wants the blood of any possible pogrom on his hands.”
Such arguments are ill-founded even in their own terms. The $l0 billion loan guarantee package for Israel is not emergency assistance. It is not designed to provide infusions of food, tents or medicines to people in life-threatening situations. Israel plans to borrow the money over a five-year period, and it is to be used to provide housing, roads and jobs-familiar components of typically long-term development programs. Such assistance will improve economic conditions in Israel but only over a long period of time.
Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir recently explained the passion of American Jews on the loan-guarantee issue by suggesting guilt over their failure to save European Jews during the Holocaust. He may well be correct. Certainly, the realities in the Soviet Union are so unstable that no one can deny the possibility of pogroms. But if this is the fear, building roads in Israel is hardly as adequate response.
The rate of Soviet Jewish emigration is today primarily determined by the Soviet Jews themselves as they compare their options. If one wants to get them out fast, these options must be changed dramatically. There is only one way the United States can do that: It can list the quotas that restrict their ability to come to the United States. Lift the quotas, within three months 500,000 Soviet Jews will arrive in the United States.
This option is not even discussed by the Israeli government of by the Jewish establishment organizations in the United States—a fact that casts a cold light on the charge of hostage taking. If Soviet Jews are in real peril, this is, in fact, the collective responsibility of the Israeli government, the American Jewish establishment and the U.S. government, all of whom participated in the formulation of policies that allow most Soviet Jews only the option of emigrating to Israel.
The charge that conditioning aid on Israel’s settlement policy is immoral is especially distasteful in that it blithely glosses over the immorality of the settlement policy itself and the way in which it is advanced by the aid package.
Israel needs the aid to persuade Soviet Jews to emigrate. Unlike Ethiopian Jews, most Soviet Jews are not filled with a powerful aspiration to love in Israel. And their own sense of peril is not so great that they will pour out of the Soviet Union without regard to job prospects in their new country. Israelis want Soviet Jews to come for many compelling reasons: to save them from possible dangers in the Soviet Union, to reaffirm the Zionist conception that Israel is the appropriate place for Jews to live, to bolster Israel’s small population within a hostile Middle East.
But the ruling Likud Party wants these émigrés in Israel for one extra reason not shared by most Israelis: They want Soviet Jews in order to carry out the settlement drive. While most Soviet Jews do not settle in the West Bank, they place enormous pressure on the Israeli housing market with the result that all Israelis are drawn towards the highly discounted prices of West Bank housing. This is no accident. It is a clearly understood process at the heart of Ariel Sharon’s campaign to expand the settler population decisively. The Likud ran out of ideologically-minded settlers long ago. Today it relies on demographic pressure, rising housing prices and an extensive system of subsidies simultaneously to push and pull settlers into the West Bank.
The guaranteed loans are an essential part of this process in two ways. First, by helping to keep Israel attractive enough to draw Soviet Jews, the loans work to bolster the demographic pressure. And secondly, the loans free up other resources needed to finance government construction and subsidy programs in the West Bank.
Bush’s critics are right that an American response should be based on moral considerations, but they have defined the moral issue too narrowly. At bottom, the current conflict is a conflict of rights. There is the right of the Jewish people to security and to self-determination. But then there is the right of the Palestinian people not to have their land taken from them, as well as their right to self-determination. These are historic rights vested in a people. Neither Palestinian terrorism nor support for Iraq voided the rights of the Palestinian people any more than Stern Gang terrorism against British during World War II eliminated the rights of the Jewish people.
A balance must be struck. Today, Israel stands established as a sovereign state capable of self-defense. The Palestinians have been defeated, dispossessed and dominated. They now seek to retain what they can. On the moral level, it is tune to say, “Enough.”
Much of the debate over whether or not Israel’s security will be enhanced or diminished by withdrawing from the West Bank is misguided. Governments the world over use the term “national security” to provide themselves with a moral blank check. But every state faces a choice of paths is can take to pursue its security.
Sharon and Shamir recognize no Palestinian claims at all. They are not driven to their policies of land acquisition by a concept of national security; rather it is just the opposite. Because of their determination to take all of the land, they pursue certain security policies and discard others. It is for this reason that they are not seriously interested in the proposed negotiations.
The Likud government’s quest for “Greater Israel” is being pursued not through annexation or negotiations, but through a relentless settlement policy. The hapless Soviet Jews are being used as a demographic battering ram in this pursuit. And American aid is being called upon to facilitate it. The role of America in all of this is the central moral question we face.