In 1830, France invaded Algeria. In 1958, the French Army occupying Algeria very nearly invaded France. The Fourth Republic had, in the eyes of many French settlers in Algeria and individuals on the French right, become increasingly unwilling to deal with the Arab rebellion against French colonialism and increasingly unsympathetic to the cause of the settlers. French generals seized Algiers, launched an airborne invasion of the island of Corsica, and began drawing up plans to take Paris. Panicked French politicians ordered citizens to occupy the airports to protect democracy. The generals were sated by the extraordinary accession to power of Charles de Gaulle, who assumed new powers as President and inaugurated the Fifth Republic. What had happened, then, was essentially a coup. We should reflect on this for a moment–a military faction had forced the end of the government of a leading First World democracy. This was truly a dark moment in the history of the modern West.
What could the French government have done? The issue of Algeria had penetrated into the core of the French political system, with major forces deeply invested in the continuation of occupation even as that occupation became increasingly painful. The democratic system had lost its capacity to act decisively; only action that transcended democracy could provoke changes. Thus, a coup, thus, the empowerment of de Gaulle, thus, ironically, the French withdrawal under his orders.
It is easy to see parallels between this situation and the current Israeli settlements in the West Bank (Judea and Samaria, in the nomenclature of the Israeli right). Everybody involved knows that the settlements are an obstacle to peace. The settlements require protection; thus, the Israeli military must be deeply involved in the daily life of the West Bank, manning checkpoints, securing roads, and controlling access. This is quite unpleasant for the Palestinians, and it will make it very difficult for them to ever establish an even vaguely independent state. That is, however, what final peace will require.
With each settlement that goes up, with each settler that moves in, Israel becomes more and more entangled in Palestine. With hundreds of thousands of Israelis now living in settlements, any major attempt to roll back the settlements as part of a peace deal will be extraordinarily contentious. It will open all the rifts in Israeli society–the split between right and left, between secular and religious, between rich and poor, between Jew and Arab–in very dangerous ways. I frankly doubt that even the current Israeli government, with its solid credentials with the right and with settlers, could pull it off, and it’s only going to get worse as Israel’s demographics (and the IDF) become more religious and more right wing. However, the pain of holding the settlements will grow. Many Israelis are already unhappy with them, and it is unlikely that Palestine’s warring factions can stave off another intifada forever.
We are already seeing the first signs that the settlement issue has begun to become too entrenched for the democratic process to resolve. The Knesset passed a law banning calls for boycotts of Israel or any geographic region, with the aim of silencing Israeli leftists that have been doing this. Needless to say, this was extremely contentious–I am not sure if the Knesset footage has been put on Youtube, but I imagine it being quite like other contentious topics, where the Speaker is beside himself trying to keep the various MKs under control. It goes without saying that such a law is inconsistent with the principles of liberal democracy. Also inconsistent is a story that broke recently of a popular grocery chain taking measures to separate Jewish and Arab employees after a Jewish cashier fell in love with an Arab bagger. The settlement where the store is located was very unhappy with this Romeo and Juliet tale, and pressured it to take new measures to segregate its employees and prevent forbidden love. As a citizen of the American state famous for its overturned anti-miscegenation law, I am particularly aware of the extreme strains that segregation–whether by law or popular custom–can place on a society. Recall, for instance, that the South was once reliably Democratic, until Democrat Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act. Though that was over fifty years ago, the South remains a Republican stronghold, and racism still occasionally shows up in our politics.
The settlements are creating strains on Israel’s internal politics that its government may be unable to address. There is a danger that in the future–not soon, but in a few decades–the fruit of these strains will be the interruption of Israeli democracy.