Skip to main content

Michael Bell teaches at Carleton University. He served as Canada's ambassador to Jordan, Egypt and Israel.

Israel is facing its moment of truth in the wake of extremist terrorism in the occupied West Bank. Jewish nationalists may well have reaped what they have sown in the ill-fated settlement exercise that began in earnest with the advent of Israel's first right-wing ideologically infused government headed by Menachem Begin in 1977.

As someone who spent nine years at the Canadian Embassy in Israel between 1975 and 2003, and visited numerous times thereafter, I do not doubt for a moment the revulsion of the overwhelming majority of Israelis at the July 31 firebombing of the Palestinian home in the Palestinian town of Duma. Israeli settlers are suspected in the attack, which occurred near the West Bank city of Nablus.

There can also be no doubt that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's is sincerely distressed by the cruel deaths of Saad Dawabsha and his infant son, Ali. Ali's mother remains in "serious condition." That said, the Prime Minister's personal feelings of disgust are accompanied by fear that Palestinian anger at these murders will erupt into the streets and spark yet another uprising.

It is for both these reasons that the Israeli security service, the Shin Bit, on Sunday morning raided a number of homes of Israeli settlers located in Jewish outposts in the area. They detained at least nine suspects, who for the time being will be held without trial. There has already been retribution when a Palestinian driver rammed his car into a group of Israeli soldiers, seriously wounding three.

The core of the matter is whether a growing presence of Israeli settlers, extremists or not, can co-exist, with the citizens of the Palestinian Authority, who view this territory as the essential territorial base for a viable homeland.

The Central Intelligence Agency fact book estimates the West Bank settler population, including East Jerusalem, at about 550,000. The Israeli Information Center for Human rights in the Occupied Territories, B'Tselem, often criticized for its left-wing politics but less so for its statistical veracity, estimates population growth among settlers at more than 4 per cent and among Palestinians at just under 2 per cent. That's a clear indicator of the impact demographic change can have on prospects for Palestinian self-determination.

Confining itself to economic factors only, the CIA fact book asserts that "Israeli closure policies disrupt labour and trade flows, industrial capacity, and basic commerce." It also cites "Palestinian inability to access land and resources in Israeli-controlled areas, import and export restrictions and high cost capital structures."

While only a tiny minority of settlers has any sympathy for the extremists who have perpetrated the latest outrages, most outsiders, and many Israelis as well, view the settlement movement – facilitated by generous state subsidies – as a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention. That convention forbids the transfer of a country's own civilian population into territories under occupation.

Ethno-nationalism and ideology too often constitute the genesis and outcome of the protracted social conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. Settler ideology represents a comprehensive vision, an ethical set of ideals, and a world view creating expectations and inspiring goals too often necessitating radical action in the mind of the believer.

Mr. Netanyahu, and the Israeli right as a whole appear to very much share this ethno-ideological view of manifest destiny: witness the repeated statements of the members of his own Likud party, his electoral coalition, and the Prime Minister himself. Mr. Netanyahu is a supporter of "land" Zionism, meaning support for an exclusive messianic mission that requires the incorporation of the entirety of the ancient land of Israel into a greater Jewish state.

My own proclivity has always been one of sympathy for secular and pragmatic "state" Zionism for which self-determination – the political independence of Jews within a democratic albeit national entity – constitutes fulfilment of the need for security and self-realization. That the "state" Zionism ideal, which leaves room for Palestinian fulfilment, is on the defensive bodes ill for the future prosperity of Israel.

The current chaos in the Arab world, it can be argued, gives pause to any early realization of a distinct Palestinian state, but more certain is that the settlement exercise will give rise to a permanent occupation and a growing ethno-ideological struggle where absolutism and intolerance will be the lietmotif for Israeli and Palestinian alike.

It is difficult to argue that the settlement exercise contributes to Israeli security in this age of modern weaponry, rather the reverse. It creates a running sore as the events of the last few days so vividly demonstrate.

In the immediate term, the settlement enterprise compromises Israel's efforts to make common cause with both the Europeans and Sunni Arabs against the threat of Shiite expansionism. This argument is made by many well-credentialed and highly regarded security veterans who are anything but soft on Israel's defense needs. Ami Ayalon, the former head of the Shin Bet, is but one example.

Most fundamentally the settlement exercise and the extremism to which it gives rise threatens the long-term survival of a Jewish democratic state. The future of West Bank Palestinians and their national aspirations cannot be put off forever. If Israeli governments continue on their present course, they risk provoking a tragic day of reckoning.

Michael Bell serves as a member of Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau's foreign policy advisory team. The views expressed are his own.

Eds note: This version has been updated to reflect settlers apprehended for questioning in the Duma firebombing have been released.