If Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s purpose was to criticize the Palestinian leadership, there are many issues he could have raised in his latest short video posted on Sept. 9. He could have spoken about their celebration of terrorists, or he could have raised their demonization of Israel through anti-Semitic conspiracy theories or their repeated rejection of any Jewish connection to the Land of Israel. He could have pointed to how the Palestinian Authority has abandoned the path of direct negotiations for a quixotic quest to delegitimize Israel in international organizations.
Instead, the Israeli prime minister chose to raise an inappropriate straw man regarding Palestinian policy toward Israeli settlements.
Netanyahu claimed that the Palestinian demand that no Israeli settlers remain in a Palestinian state, in the eventuality of a peace agreement, constitutes “ethnic cleansing.” He argued that just as Israel accepts and treats Israel’s Arab citizens with respect, so too should Palestinians accept and respect Israeli Jewish settlers.
This line of reasoning ignores the complexity of the settlement issue.
Whatever one’s views of settlements, settlers are not the equivalent of Israeli-Arabs. They always have seen themselves as part of Israel and have demanded at every stage to live under the protection of Israeli sovereignty and security. These demands cannot coexist with the idea of a two-state solution, which requires Palestinian sovereignty over the territory agreed upon for their state.
Under such circumstances, it is hardly surprising or offensive that Palestinians insist that no Israeli sovereignty, which the settlers insist on bringing, can exist in an independent Palestinian state. There is nothing intrinsically anti-Jewish nor anything remotely amounting to “ethnic cleansing” in this policy position.
Nor was it appropriate to compare the settlers to Israeli-Arabs, who are full-fledged Israeli citizens and as such are entitled to the full array of civic equality under Israeli law. There never has been a question about the legitimacy of the Israeli-Arab presence within Israel’s democratic society.
Instead of speaking of “ethnic cleansing,” Netanyahu would have been better served making two legitimate points about Israeli settlers. First, the prime minister could have noted that all serious negotiations about a two-state solution over the years include territory swaps in which the settlement blocs — the major Israeli population centers near the Green Line — would become part of Israel.
Second, he could have said that when and if a two-state agreement is concluded, if some settlers desire to continue living where they are (with the understanding that they will be living under Palestinian sovereignty — and without the protection of the Israel Defense Forces) then that is a legitimate negotiating position Palestinians need to consider. If this situation becomes a reality, questions of respect, tolerance, and security become extremely relevant.
But this is a hypothetical that may very well never come to pass. Netanyahu is well aware of the necessity to provide security to settler communities. That concern has led those involved in negotiating a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to favor including the majority of settlers within Israel. Territorial compromise presents less of a challenge than creating a large minority of Jewish residents in a Palestinian state.
Israel has many legitimate concerns about Palestinian policies and behavior, not the least of which is Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s rash accusations that Israel commits acts of genocide and ethnic cleansing of Palestinians. However, the charge that the Palestinians seek “ethnic cleansing” of settlers is just not one of them.
Like the term “genocide,” the term “ethnic cleansing” should be restricted to actually describing the atrocity it suggests — rather than distorted to suit political ends.