AFTER A STORM of criticism hit Israel for the plan it announced to expand settlements in the occupied territories, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pushed back. "Israel will continue to stand for its essential interests," he declared, "even in the face of international pressure, and there will be no change in the decision it has taken."
But the "international pressure" that Netanyahu too easily dismisses has come to consist of more than mere expressions of diplomatic displeasure — and poses a profound threat to his country's "essential interests." Israel has often displayed an anxiety about becoming "delegitimized." That concern acknowledges that nations — at least democratic nations — must always pay what Thomas Jefferson called "a decent respect to the opinions of mankind." A government's duty to maintain the physical security of its people is matched by the obligation to safeguard its moral standing among nations. Yet Israel's Likud-led government is fatally undermining that standing.
The current problem began with a misinterpretation of the Palestinian Authority's move to be upgraded to non-member observer status at the United Nations. Netanyahu's circle saw this as a grave threat to Israel, when it could as readily have been taken as an opportunity to advance Israeli as well as Palestinian interests. On the eve of the UN vote, former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told the writer Bernard Avishai that he saw "no reason to oppose" the Palestinian initiative. "It is time," he said, "to give a hand to, and encourage, the moderate forces amongst the Palestinians."
That was also the view of many Jewish leaders; a number of leading American rabbis welcomed the Palestinian diplomatic victory. An empowered Palestinian Authority is far preferable to a resurgent Hamas. Since Netanyahu so grievously failed to convince many Israelis and supporters of Israel of his position, it was no surprise that so few nations supported it at the UN. The Czech Republic was the only European country to vote with Israel.
Immediately after the UN vote, the Netanyahu government announced its settlement expansion, more than 3,000 new housing units in a previously taboo area — so-called "E-1." Because this would divide Palestinian territory and cut it off from East Jerusalem, the move was widely taken as the death knell for a future Palestinian state, what UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called an "almost fatal blow" to the two-state solution. A US State Department spokesperson criticized the E-1 plan as "especially damaging" to the peace process. European nations reacted with outrage, calling in Israel's ambassadors to protest. That prompted Netanyahu's push-back against "international pressures."
But the "opinions of mankind" matter. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said, after meeting with Netanyahu in Berlin Thursday, "We agreed that we disagree" about the settlement expansion. The plan, in fact, brings into bold relief just what a stumbling block to peace the presence of 500,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem has become. Yet the wrangling over this policy — which the United States has always opposed — has gone on so long that one forgets what these Israeli settlements are: a betrayal of trust and a pillar of an inhumane occupation.
Palestinian suffering has been far too little noted. If the world now concludes that Israel has always only given lip service to the peace process while deliberately undermining it — embracing the goal of two states, while callously destroying what one state needs — the moral and political damage to the Jewish state will surpass anything a perceived Palestinian enemy could have done. Netanyahu's E-1 expansion invites just such a conclusion.
So what is to be done? It is striking that last week's protests from European nations included the demand for, in Netanyahu's own phrase, "a change in the decision." His E-1 expansion plan must be reversed. Not only nations should insist on this. The American public, which has resolutely supported Israel, should find ways to be heard on this question. Religious groups, editorial writers, dinner party conversationalists, participants in university seminars, and office holders — voices must be raised.
President Obama came into office four years ago insisting that Israel's settlement expansions across the pre-1967 borders must stop. This is the heart of the matter now. More than ever, the president must say so, to rescue justice for Palestine and preserve Israel's standing in the world.
James Carroll writes regularly for the Globe.