Israel -- a serious liberal view
There are very few cases in which it is so blindingly clear, from a liberal viewpoint, who the good guys are and who the bad guys are. It's sometimes said that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East (not quite true -- Turkey mostly qualifies), but the more important point is that it's the only liberal society in the region, the only one which accepts a broad pluralism in ways of life. It's the only country in the region where women, gays, and atheists can live free and normal lives -- the only one in which my own life would not be in immediate danger if I were there and the people around me knew what my beliefs are. The only place nearby that even comes close is the exception that proves the rule -- the enclave of Lebanon where non-Muslims and non-Muslim influences dominate. The Muslim countries around Israel are almost-medieval societies totally in the benighted grip of religion, where women risk honor killings if they get out of line, gays face the harshest penalties, and atheism is simply unthinkable.
Israel does have some onerous religion-inspired laws, but this is due to its electoral system which gives the small ultra-Orthodox religious minority an excessive political influence. The secular majority resents these laws as the secular majority in the US would resent, say, a re-imposition of blue laws by the Christian Right. Ultra-Orthodoxy in Israel looks pretty much like hard-line religion looks anywhere else -- pious old bearded men in charge, restrictions on women's dress and social roles, etc. -- but the vast majority of Israeli society is nothing like that.
Zionist settlement in what was then Palestine extends back to the late nineteenth century, almost as far as the settlement of much of the western United States. During the decades between then and 1947, the Jewish and Muslim populations both grew rapidly, both fueled largely by immigration -- Jewish settlers came mostly from Europe, Muslims from surrounding countries due to the attraction of the economy the settlers were building.
Soon after the British mandate of Palestine was established after World War I, the British separated the eastern three-quarters of its territory to form the state of Transjordan (later Jordan), which became fully independent in 1946. There is already a Palestinian state making up three-quarters of Palestine's original territory. The remaining one-fourth, a bit larger than Wales, comprises Israel proper plus the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
During Israel's 1947-1948 war of independence, around 700,000 Muslims fled or were expelled from what became Israel proper, to the West Bank, Gaza, and nearby Muslim countries. A similar number of Jews fled or were expelled from Muslim countries and took refuge in Israel -- there was an exchange of population. Israel successfully assimilated this influx, despite the fact that it actually outnumbered Israel's existing Jewish population at that time. During roughly the same period, Germany assimilated millions of refugees from the trans-Oder-Neiße region and the Sudetenland, India and Pakistan absorbed millions of refugees from each other, large numbers of refugees from eastern Europe were resettled in western Europe and the US, etc. Two decades earlier, war between Greece and Turkey had driven hundreds of thousands of refugees in both directions, which both countries also assimilated. Losses of territory and flows of refugees were a common result of major wars at that time. Only the Palestinians reacted (or in some cases, were pressured by Muslim regimes to react) by clinging to an impossible irredentism instead of assimilation into the countries where they had taken refuge.
Various coalitions of Muslim countries have launched several wars and terror campaigns with the intent of destroying Israel; in one of these, in 1967, Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza, giving the conflict the geographical configuration it still roughly has today. Note that between 1948 and 1967 there was no move to make the West Bank and Gaza a state; the West Bank was part of the real Palestinian state, Jordan.
Israel's often-harsh policies toward the Muslim population under its rule may be rooted in the fact that half its Jewish population is descended from Jewish refugees from Muslim lands -- victims of centuries of oppression who now have the upper hand over the former oppressor. By analogy, imagine if, after our own Civil War, ex-slaves had been given a slice of Confederate territory to set up their own independent nation, and had then fended off several efforts by the surrounding "white" states to re-conquer them.
The misinterpretations of all this history which are rife on the left result from trying to force it into a "Western colonialism" template which it does not fit. If anything, I view the establishment of Israel and of the Maronite enclave in Lebanon in the same light as the earlier European re-conquest of the Balkans, Spain, and Sicily -- a rolling back of the wave of Islamic colonialism which had swept over so much of the world centuries before.
During the 43 years that the West Bank has been under Israeli control, urban sprawl around Jerusalem and Tel Aviv has spread into it across the old borderline (this accounts for much of the "settlement" activity) -- an almost inevitable development given the small size of the whole territory. Other settlements have been established throughout the West Bank, some by ultra-Orthodox groups and some by the Israeli government, with the explicit aim of making sure that it would remain part of Israel forever.
Which brings me to the recent flare-up of conflict between the Obama administration and Israel over the settlements.
Here is the reality of the situation: Israel cannot give up control over the West Bank. Without the West Bank, Israel's coastal plain, which contains most of its population, would be reduced to a width of between nine and thirteen miles -- a shorter distance than many Americans commute to work. The main cities would be within range of the same kind of rocket attacks which Muslims in newly-independent Gaza recently rained down on southern Israeli towns, until the much-criticized Israeli re-invasion of Gaza put a stop to them. Aside from rocket attacks, such a loss of strategic depth would handicap Israel in a wide range of scenarios. The fact that it has nuclear weapons does not render such considerations obsolete. The US, Russia, Britain, and other countries have much larger nuclear arsenals than Israel, yet they too remain concerned about conventional strategic issues which affect national security.
The situation is analogous to that of Czechoslovakia before 1938. The Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia was geographically essential to the country's ability to defend itself; but because its population was ethnically German, Western democracies forced democratic Czechoslovakia to hand it over to fascist Germany in exchange for promises of lasting peace. As we all know, Germany simply invaded the rest of Czechoslovakia a few months later. Western pressure on Israel to hand over the West Bank to Muslim control (if successful) might not similarly result in the destruction of Israel within a few months, but it is nevertheless a horrifyingly blind repetition of a shameful history.
This is why no Israeli government can stop building settlements on the West Bank. Whatever Israel may feel compelled to say for diplomatic reasons, it needs to keep on integrating the territory irreversably into itself. There can be no second Munich.
It's worth looking, here, at why this conflict has dragged on for so long. Wars normally end when one side decisively defeats the other and imposes peace terms of its own choosing. When a war instead ends with an armistice and negotiations, as World War I did, the result is often a new war later on. If the 1947-1948 war of independence had been a "normal" war, with Israel completely smashing its enemies and dictating terms after an unconditional surrender, that would probably have been the end of the conflict. Instead, every war has resulted in a cease-fire and endless rounds of the grotesquely-misnamed "peace process". Since the conflict has never been allowed to be ended, it simply continues.
The Sudetenland issue was resolved at the end of World War II when Czechoslovakia regained the territory, expelled the ethnic German population from it, and settled it with ethnic Czechs. The eventual resolution of the West Bank issue is unlikely to be so decisive, if only because most Israeli leaders lack the ruthlessness for it. But the much-touted high Muslim birth rate in the West Bank, which was supposed to threaten Israel with demographic conquest from within if it kept the territory, has been decreasing and will continue to do so; Israel's Jewish population has been increased by an influx of Jews from the former Soviet bloc; a trickle of Muslims emigrates from the West Bank to friendlier countries, a trend which would increase if it were made more clear that Israel will never give up the land. Over time these factors in combination will make the West Bank more digestible. Such a victory of a pluralistic society over jihadist irredentism should be celebrated, not obstructed.
That is the reality of the situation. I don't know whether the public American commitment to an eventual (second) Palestinian state on the West Bank, and the resulting on-and-off squabbles with Israel over the settlements, are the real US position or a sort of theater to curry favor with Islamic countries. Either way, such behavior is neither honorable nor realistic. Even less so is the naïve rhetoric of liberals condemning the embattled nation which, alone in the region, shares our pluralistic social ideals.