In a story that's at least ten years overdue, the New York Times reports today that "many groups in the United States [are] using tax-exempt donations to help Jews establish permanence in the Israeli-occupied territories -- effectively obstructing the creation of a Palestinian state, widely seen as a necessary condition for Middle East peace":
The result is a surprising juxtaposition: As the American government seeks to end the four-decade Jewish settlement enterprise and foster a Palestinian state in the West Bank, the American Treasury helps sustain the settlements through tax breaks on donations to support them.
A New York Times examination of public records in the United States and Israel identified at least 40 American groups that have collected more than $200 million in tax-deductible gifts for Jewish settlement in the West Bank and East Jerusalem over the last decade. The money goes mostly to schools, synagogues, recreation centers and the like, legitimate expenditures under the tax law. But it has also paid for more legally questionable commodities: housing as well as guard dogs, bulletproof vests, rifle scopes and vehicles to secure outposts deep in occupied areas.
In 2007, I profiled the Hebron Fund, a New York-based charity supporting Jewish settlements in and around the West Bank city of Hebron. To put it simply, life for Palestinians in Hebron is hell. They are literally forced to live in cages to avoid harassment and violence by radical, racist Jewish settlers, abetted by Israeli troops, who are there to protect the settlers. On a recent trip to Israel, a U.S. official I spoke to acknowledged settler harassment and incitement against Palestinians as "a real problem" for U.S. goals. It is, to put it mildly, reprehensible that this problem should continue to be supported, tax-free and below the radar, by private American donors.
It would be one thing if support for settlements were just a phenomenon of the Israeli extreme right and a handful of American zealots, but it's not. In addition to the millions of dollars going to the settlements from American citizens, a substantial portion of the conservative media establishment -- Fox News, the Weekly Standard, Commentary, National Review -- either supports the expansion of settlements, or opposes any meaningful efforts to stop them, which essentially amounts to the same thing.
Key members of the GOP have also been very explicit about their support for the settlements. Last August, Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA) led Congressional delegation to Israel, offered his support for Israel's evictions of Palestinian families from their homes in East Jerusalem to make way for Jewish settlers, and criticized the Obama administration's efforts to halt the evictions.
In May, Republican National Comittee Chairman Michael Steele spoke at a rally sponsored by a number of pro-settlement groups, including the Hebron Fund, accusing the Obama administration "and its Congressional collaborators" of "[leaving] Israel to fend for herself."
Republican activist and former presidential candidate Gary Bauer said in a speech to AIPAC that "God granted the Land of Israel to the Jewish people and there is an absolute ban on giving it away to another people." A close associate of Kristol's, Bauer recently launched Keep Israel Safe, cloned off of Bill Kristol and Liz Cheney's Keep America Safe. I recently contacted Bauer to see if it was still his position that the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza -- which became official U.S. policy under George W. Bush -- was a violation of God's "absolute ban" against dividing the land. Speaking through his press representative Kristi Hamrick, Bauer had no comment.
Last November, former governor and current Republican celebrity Sarah Palin told Barbara Walters that "I disagree with the Obama administration" -- and decades of U.S. policy -- on settlements. "I believe that the Jewish settlements should be allowed to be expanded upon," Palin said. "I don't think that the Obama administration has any right to tell Israel that the Jewish settlements cannot expand."
And, of course, former presidential candidate/current Fox News host/future presidential candidate/radical cleric Mike Huckabee -- who actually believes that there's "no such thing as a Palestinian" -- has made numerous trips to Israel sponsored by the radical group Friends of Ateret Cohanim, voicing his support for the continued growth of settlements and the expulsion of the Palestinians, stating that they should be made to find a homeland "elsewhere."
A new report from Israeli human rights group B'Tselem makes clear what it is that these people really support, and what is really at stake:
The cloak of legality that Israel has sought to give to the settlement enterprise is aimed at covering the ongoing theft of West Bank land, thereby removing the basic values of legality and justice from Israel's system of law enforcement in the West Bank. The report exposes the system Israel has adopted as a tool to advance political objectives, enabling the systematic infringement of the Palestinians' human rights.
The extensive geographic-spatial changes that Israel has made in the landscape of the West Bank undermine the negotiations that Israel has conducted for eighteen years with the Palestinians and breach its international obligations. The settlement enterprise, being based on discrimination against the Palestinians living in the West Bank, also weakens the pillars of the State of Israel as a democratic country and diminishes its status among the nations of the world.
The bottom line here is that we shouldn't be surprised that private American citizens can support the settlements with impunity, given that much of the American conservative movement is institutionally --and, in regard to key leaders, personally -- also committed to the Israeli settlement enterprise. Whatever talking points they may issue, these people simply do not support the goal of a two-state solution, at least not in any way that genuinely merits the term. The question is whether they'll ever have to pay political price for it, and whether they'll have to answer for the damage they've done to American security and interests in the region, as well as to Israel's future as a Jewish and democratic state.
Cross-posted from Wonk Room.