When the mass violence starts, and some Israeli Jews die, and many more huddle in bomb shelters, I won’t write a column like this. I won’t write a column like this because when Jewish blood flows, it changes the conversation. American Jews became less tolerant of criticism of Israel. And I feel less comfortable offering it. When the next intifada begins, I’ll write more cautiously for fear of causing pain to my fellow Jews, who will already be suffering enough.
So I’ll say it bluntly now: Unless they change course, Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu are going to get Jews killed. I’m not saying that’s what they want. Of course not. And I’m not trying to detract from the primary moral responsibility of those Palestinians who detonate bombs or shoot guns or stab with knives. Palestinian terrorism is inexcusable. It always has been. It always will be.
But when experts warn that actions are likely to spark violence, and you take them anyway, you are responsible too.
Last week, according to Haaretz, the Israeli army, police and internal security service all “presented Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and senior ministers with scenarios of worsening violence should incoming President Donald Trump announce the relocation of the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.” Mohammed al-Momani, media affairs minister for the government of Jordan, which provides invaluable anti-terror assistance to both Israel and the United States, warned that moving the embassy would have “catastrophic consequences.” Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said moving the embassy, and annexing West Bank settlements, will spark “chaos, lawlessness and extremism.”
Yet despite this, Trump says he’ll move the embassy, and Netanyahu says he’ll increase settlement building (which was pretty massive already), at least in East Jerusalem and the “settlement blocs.” And each man eggs the other on.
There are two justifications for what Trump and Netanyahu are doing. The first is that moving the embassy and boosting settlement growth are so valuable that they are worth doing even if they increase the risk of violence. But why?
Moving the embassy is symbolic. Jerusalem will be Israel’s capital whether the U.S. places its embassy there or not. Israel will control West Jerusalem in any two-state deal, whether the U.S. moves its embassy there or not. The PLO itself accepted that in 1993. What remains to be negotiated, if serious negotiations ever occur again, is whether the Palestinians will have a capital in East Jerusalem, and if so, where. Moving the American embassy won’t change that either.
But unfettered building in East Jerusalem makes it harder for East Jerusalem to serve as the capital of a Palestinian state. And since East Jerusalem is the cultural, religious and commercial capital of the West Bank, establishing a Palestinian state without a capital there is like a establishing a country in Westchester that lacks access to New York City. It’s absurd.
Massive building in “settlement blocs” imperils the two-state solution, too. To hear American Jewish leaders explain it, “settlement blocs” are near the Green Line, and are part of the occupied territories that everyone agrees will remain under Israeli control in a peace agreement. But that’s not true. Ariel is considered part of a “settlement bloc” yet it stretches almost halfway across the West Bank. Which is why Mahmoud Abbas, during his 2007-2008 negotiations with Ehud Olmert, insisted that Israel dismantle it.
The second defense of Trump and Netanyahu’s behavior is that even if moving the embassy and building more settlements aren’t valuable in and of themselves, Israel should never be cowed by the prospect of Palestinian violence. To do so would be to imply that Israel deserves some of the blame for that violence, which is like blaming a woman who is raped for wearing a short skirt.
The problem with the analogy is that rape is purely a product of male pathology. Palestinian violence in the West Bank, by contrast, is a pathological response to a genuine grievance: living for 50 years without the rights of citizenship, free movement and due process.
That’s why Israeli security officials have consistently noted that when Palestinians despair of gaining those basic rights, the likelihood of Palestinian violence goes up. In 2013, Yuval Diskin, former head of the Shin Bet, warned that “The fading hopes for a real change in the situation” is “the reason why, at the end of the day, the Palestinians will take to the streets, leading to another round of bloody violence.” In 2015, Herzl Halevi, the IDF’s chief of military intelligence, said one of the main drivers of Palestinian violence was the feeling among Palestinian youth that they have “nothing to lose.”
The greatest protest leaders, Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi, found ways to give their people hope while still insisting that they reject violence no matter the provocation. And unlike Yasser Arafat, who flirted disastrously with violence during the second intifada, today’s Palestinian leaders must strive to emulate King and Gandhi’s example.
But if Palestinians have responsibilities, we Jews do, too. On the night King was murdered, as violence erupted in black neighborhoods across America, Robert Kennedy said that, “There is another kind of violence, slower but just as deadly, destructive as the shot or the bomb in the night. This is the violence of institutions; indifference and inaction and slow decay…This is the breaking of a man’s spirit by denying him the chance to stand as a father and as a man among other men.”
Holding millions of Palestinians as non-citizens under military law is violence. Entrenching the system that treats them as lesser human beings because they are not Jews is violence. Snuffing out their hopes of ever tasting the basic freedoms that David Friedman and Jared Kushner take for granted is violence.
We must say so now, before the sight of dead Jews drives us all mad.
Peter Beinart is a Forward senior columnist and contributing editor. Follow him on Twitter, @PeterBeinart
Peter Beinart is a Senior Columnist at The Forward and Associate Professor of Journalism and Political Science at the City University of New York. He is also a Contributor to The Atlantic and a CNN Political Commentator.