DURHAM, N.C. (JTA) — The Jewish community in America has always supported Israel. We have raised funds, walked in solidarity, visited whenever possible and prayed for the safety of the Jewish state since its very inception. “Wherever we stand, we stand with Israel” is a comment made sincerely by many.
But surely, if we stand with Israel, if we want what’s best for the Jewish state, we must be honest — we must tell the leadership of our spiritual home the truth. And the truth is, President Obama is right when he says that settlement building must stop.
There are many reasons to argue for a settlement freeze. The economic drain of the settlements on the Israeli economy is enormous. The government has spent more than half a billion dollars on the settlements annually, with each settler getting thousands of dollars more in benefits than other Israelis. Furthermore, the Israeli government has already signed an international agreement committing itself to a freeze – the 2003 "road map."
Also, the establishment of a viable Palestinian state depends on territorial contiguity, and more construction makes the achievement of a state that much more difficult. Finally, as a rabbi, I might be expected to concern myself with the moral implications of the settlement project.
But the American Jewish community really needs to focus on only one thing in this battle over settlements: Freezing construction will lead to an improvement in Israel’s security. This result will not be direct, nor will it be immediate. But calling a halt to Israeli construction on the West Bank will serve as the first, vital step in a process that, simply put, will make Israel a safer place to live.
One need only look at a map to see what Palestinians see every day: Israeli settlements — and the attendant bypass roads, roadblocks and security fence — have served to carve the West Bank into ever shrinking pieces. Palestinians look at the cranes and bulldozers and know what we are often loath to admit: Each new stone laid in an Israeli settlement is further reason to distrust the Israeli government’s statements that it wants peace.
A settlement freeze is a requirement if the sides want to start a true negotiation process. Not only will it will allow the Palestinian leadership to sit at the table in good faith, it also will free the rest of the Arab world to begin to act on the promise of normalization made in the Arab League Peace Initiative. It will serve as the single clearest statement Israel can make that it is serious in its intention to see the establishment of a durable Palestinian state alongside Israel. And a sincere negotiating process, difficult and painful as it may yet prove, is the one thing that can lead Israel to real peace and true security.
In fighting the freeze, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is risking not only this process but also the alienation of Israel’s strongest, staunchest ally. President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton have made it abundantly clear that unlike the Bush administration, they mean what they say and they say what they mean. They expect the Israeli government to stand by its commitment to freeze all construction in the settlements. Can Israel afford to push the Americans away?
Furthermore, the settlements have proven themselves a burden on Israel’s military for years. Every soldier sent to protect settlements or escort settlers on the roads is a soldier unavailable to guard Israel’s borders. Each soldier trained to check Palestinian IDs at one of the hundreds of West Bank roadblocks is a soldier unavailable for training in modern warfare. Every dollar spent on patrols around West Bank cities is a dollar unavailable for upgraded equipment. The state of Israel’s military preparedness was revealed in the summer of 2006 during the Second Lebanon War, and the Israeli public and Jewish Diaspora grieved together to see the high cost of going to war unprepared.
A settlement freeze would not immediately halt attacks on Israel. It would not immediately free up financial or military resources with which to build a stronger country, nor would it guarantee that Israel and the United States will see eye-to-eye in the future.
But it would be an incalculably important first step, demonstrating clearly to the American administration, the Palestinian people and the world at large that Israel is serious in its peaceful intentions. And this, in turn, will allow peace talks to move forward.
If we are to truly stand with and for Israel, we must stand for peace. If we stand for peace, we as a community must stand for the settlement freeze.
(Rabbi John Friedman of Judea Reform Congregation in Durham, N.C., is the chair of Brit Tzedek v’Shalom’s Rabbinic Cabinet.)