Gideon's Blog

In direct contravention of my wife's explicit instructions, herewith I inaugurate my first blog. Long may it prosper.

For some reason, I think I have something to say to you. You think you have something to say to me? Email me at: gideonsblogger -at- yahoo -dot- com

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Friday, August 27, 2004
I've been promising various people for some time that I would write something more lengthy about the situation in Israel and, specifically, my view of the settlements. So, before I go on vacation, I'm going to try to do that.

Let me begin by giving an overall view of where I stand in the Israeli political spectrum. If I were an Israeli, my security views would make me a classical right-wing Labor voter (that is to say, these days, a Shinui or Likud voter; Labor's right wing doesn't exist anymore), my religion-state views would probably make me a Likud or left-wing National Religious voter (I think religion should have a clear but circumscribed role in the state; I'm against both the fundamentalists of Shas and the radical secularists of Shinui, and I'd probably be most comfortable with the tiny left-wing Orthodox party, Meimad, on religious issues), and my economic views would make me a Shinui voter (the only free-market party in Israel). Used to be Natan Sharansky's party - Yisrael B'Aliyah - was the most congenial to me: centrist to hawkish on security matters, reformist on political issues (Israel has serious structural problems with its constitution and has a bad corruption problem), classically liberal on economic matters and centrist/nationalist on religion-state questions. But Sharansky has moved way to the right on the settlements and has opposed the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, and I can't follow him there. This post is in part an attempt to explain why that is.

I am not going to reach back into the mists of time to discuss the legitimacy of the State of Israel or anything like that. Anyone who doesn't accept that Israel is a sovereign and legitimate state is not part of the conversation, as far as I'm concerned. (By the same token, anyone who talks about forcible expulsion of the Arab Palestinian population is not part of the conversation, as far as I'm concerned. Between those two poles, I think I can have a conversation with just about anyone.)

We start, then, with the aftermath of the Six Day War, with Israel in possession of new territories in Sinai, the Golan, Judea and Samaria, and with Israel's neighbors having decisively rejected peace and normalization in exchange for the return of the captured territories.

In the immediate years after the war, Israel outlined and began to implement a settlement policy based on security needs. Israel would plant a few settlements on the Golan, a few in Sinai, a few in Gaza and a few in the Jordan Valley to establish control of these territories. The people who founded these settlements did not think these territories could never be given away, but no one expected political conditions to permit a trade any time soon. In addition, settlements were planted along the Green Line (the cease-fire line that served as a border until June, 1967) to thicken Israel's waist at its narrowest point; in a ring around Jerusalem, to secure control of the newly united capital; in the Etzion bloc south of Jerusalem; at Ariel in the Samarian hills; and at Ma'ale Adumim east of Jerusalem. All of these settlements were established to provide additional security to pre-1967 Israel and to a united Jerusalem, and were expected to be retained in any peace settlement. All, apart from Ariel, could easily be incorporated into pre-1967 Israel if the bulk of the territories were ever traded away for peace.

I think all these settlement plans made sense at the time and still make sense in retrospect. Israel's pre-1967 borders left the state very insecure, leaving the country on a hair-trigger in matters of national defense (which fact was not incidental in triggering the 1967 war). The settlements established were designed to promote security for the State of Israel, and did not prejudice against any peace agreement in any meaningful way other than to prevent the re-division of Jerusalem, Israel's capital, which had never been divided historically until the Jordanian annexation. These settlements were not planted in Palestinian Arab population centers, did not impact their lives meaningfully, and need not have brought Israel and the Arab Palestinians under Israeli rule into conflict. Most important, there was no expectation that the settlements on the distant periphery - in Sinai, in Gaza, in the Golan, in the Jordan Valley - were absolutely permanent. The Israeli consensus of the time (which, admittedly, was never universal and certainly wavered in the Golda Meir years) contemplated the return of these territories when Arab governments were ready for peace, and given proper security arrangements, and it's hard to believe that most people thought settlements would remain if the territories were returned.

As for the legitimacy of the settlements, that depended on the status of the territories. If they were occupied land of another state, settlement would have been prohibited by international law. But the territories of Judea and Samaria were part of the original British Mandate for a Jewish state, were not generally recognized as anyone's sovereign territory, and were as reasonably claimed by Israel as by Jordan (which had annexed Judea and Samaria in 1950, but that annexation was recognized only by Britain and Pakistan, and not by any other Arab country, by Israel or by either the United States or the Soviet Union). They were and are properly considered disputed territory rather than occupied territory in the sense that they were not territory recognized as belonging to one state and occupied by another, but rather territory claimed by both Israel (a sovereign state), Jordan (a sovereign state) and (after its founding) the PLO, a private armed group claiming to represent the Palestinian Arab people. (Sorry to have to belabor this, but Israel - though unrecognized by any Arab state at that point - was not similarly "disputed territory" but rather was a sovereign state with unsettled borders. The United Nations and the overwhelming majority of the countries of the world recognized Israel as a sovereign state, as they continue to do, but Israel's final borders were subject to final resolution by agreement with its neighbors. Israel is far from unique globally in having borders that are in dispute.)

But at the same time that these settlements were established, the first settlements that did not follow this pattern were established as well. These settlements were driven by ideological motivations: to hold on to the entirety of the historic Land of Israel. Acquisition, retention and settlement of the entirety of that Land was part of the core of Revisionist Zionist ideology, and was the foundation stone of the Likud party. Moreover, the sanctity of the Land and the imperative to settle it in order to more quickly bring the Messianic Age was a key tenet of the religious ideology of Rabbi Avraham Kook, the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Palestine, and after the 1967 war his ideological descendents took an increasingly strident line on this question, and began to crowd out other, more traditional religious perspectives among Zionist Orthodox Jews. Indeed, prior to 1967 Orthodox Jews who were Zionist were unlikely to adhere to Messianic ideas about the meaning of the State of Israel, and held to the traditional view that questions of territory and borders were matters of state that rabbis had no business meddling in. After 1967, the Messianic perspective progressively took hold, with disastrous consequences.

The first ideological settlement was the wildcat operation mounted in Hevron. In 1968, a group of Jews registered at the Park Hotel in the city of Hevron. The day after registering, they announced that they intended to reestablish the Jewish community in the city. (The ancient Jewish community of Hevron had fled after 67 Jews were murdered in a pogrom in 1929.) The government of Israel was faced with a choice: pull the wildcatters out, or allow them to dictate settlement policy. They ultimately agreed to what looked like a compromise, but was really a victory for the wildcat settlers: the government removed them from Hevron, but built a new community (then just a handful of people, now with over 6,000 residents) just outside the city called Kiryat Arba. In 1979, a group of Jews from Kiryat Arba moved into the old Jewish Quarter of Hevron proper, founding a settlement which remains there today.

Hevron was a tough issue for the government because of its religious significance to Jews. Hevron is one of four holy cities to Judaism. The holiest by far is Jerusalem, site of the ancient Temple built by Solomon and of its successor, built upon the return from exile in Babylon. After Jerusalem, the four other holy cities are Hevron, where (according to Jewish and Muslim tradition) Abraham and his family are buried; Tiberias, in northern Israel on the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee), where the ancient Sanhedrin convened and where parts of the Mishnah and the Jerusalem Talmud were compiled; and Safed, in the mountains of the Galilee, the epicenter of the Jewish mystical tradition popularly known as Kabbalah. Hevron, additionally, has special status in that according to the Biblical account, Abraham acquired the tomb for his wife (and himself and subsequent generations) by purchase, the first clear purchase of title to part of the Holy Land, and a title which is specified in the text as being perpetual. Because of its religious significance, and because of this special status in the Torah text, and because of the circumstances (a pogrom) that drove the original Jewish community from Hevron decades before, Israel's government had a hard time saying to these wildcat settlers: get out of there.

But that's what they should have done. Israel had not annexed Hevron, and was extremely unlikely to do so, for quite simple demographic reasons. The city is a large, hostile Arab city, and Israel was founded to be a Jewish state. Absorbing a large, hostile Arab population simply made no sense.

And, more important, Israel should have kicked these settlers out for a simple reason of principle: they were not authorized to be there. You cannot privatize matters of national security and the setting of borders. By allowing the Hevron settlers to remain, that's precisely what Israel's government did.

Back during the War of Independence, there was an incident that makes Likudnik blood boil to this day. Revisionist guerilla groups were smuggling arms into the country on a ship called the Altalena. Ben Gurion, leader of the incipient Jewish state, demanded that the Altalena place itself under his command and surrender its arms. The Altalena refused. Ben Gurion ordered the boat sunk. Yitzhak Rabin was the man who executed the order. Ben Gurion understood that first and foremost, the nascent state had to avoid a civil war. He had to be sure that the Irgun, the Stern Gang, and all the rest of the armed Jewish gangs roaming the country would obey a single central authority, or the state would be stillborn. He was willing to fire on Jews bringing much-needed weaponry to the country if they would not submit. Among Likudniks, the incident is proof of Ben Gurion's megalomania, his "fascist" or "Stalinist" tendencies, etc., etc. But firing on the Altalena was exactly the right thing for Ben Gurion to do. Allowing the wildcatters to blackmail the government into settling Hevron opened up the very Pandora's Box that Ben Gurion had slammed shut by sinking that ship.

Now, to be fair, I say that Israel was extremely unlikely to annex Hevron, but the second-largest political party in Israel did have a platform of doing pretty much just that. Likud was absolutely opposed to trading away any part of the Holy Land. (Which, I should note, did not include Sinai at any point in Jewish history; for that matter, it never included much of the Negev desert which is included in today's state of Israel, and the historic borders of Israel otherwise varied quite widely over time, sometimes not including much of today's coastal Israel, sometimes including not only today's Israel but chunks of what is today Jordan, etc. But I digress.) But what was to be done with the Arab population living there was never clearly specified.

I should digress a little more at this point. I understand Revisionist ideology. I even have some sympathy for it. The Revisionists were animated by a healthy nationalism and were free of utopian Socialist ideas. The Revisionists had a clearer-eyed view of the Arab population precisely because they were not deluded by Socialist and anti-Imperialist dream-talk. You get the feeling reading the Labor Zionists from the pre-State period that sometimes they thought the Arabs would welcome them with open arms and sometimes they forgot that the Arabs were even there. The Revisionists never thought either; they thought the Jews would have to fight to establish their right to return to their home, and that the only way they would win that right was through victory. The Revisionists have the better of that argument, in my view.

But the Revisionists had their own, profound delusions, and none more profound than the notion that the Arabs, after defeat, would join with their Jewish vanquishers to build what to readers today sounds like a right-wing version of a bi-national state. Jabotinsky, the father of Revisionist Zionism, actually talked about providing that each cabinet department would, by law, have either a Jewish Minister and an Arab Deputy Minister or vice versa. (He assumed that the Prime Minister would always be Jewish.) This idea of right-wing bi-nationalism, however appealing to Jews, was no less delusional than the Labor Zionist dream of class solidarity between Arab fellaheen and Jewish proletarians.

The difference between the Revisionist/Likud delusion and the Labor Zionist delusion is that Labor Zionism's dream of Socialist brotherhood was not central to their vision for the State, whereas Revisionist Zionism makes little sense without their dream. If a bi-national state dominated by Jews was not going to happen (because there would be too many Arabs, and because Arabs in large numbers would not accept being dominated by Jews) then how on earth was Israel supposed to hold on to all of the territories? There is no answer, and for this reason a series of Likud governments - under Begin, Shamir and Netanyahu - have declined to even try to answer this question.

Labor Zionists, from the days of the Allon Plan onward, assumed that one day the Sinai would be returned (as it was, under Likud PM Menahem Begin) in exchange for peace, that most of Judea and Samaria would be traded with Jordan for peace, and that - in the distant future - even the Golan would be traded with Syria for peace, in the latter two cases with territorial adjustments to provide for Israeli security and to reflect facts like the reunification of Jerusalem. The Likud, on the other hand, planned to retain the Golan (the territory was annexed by Begin in 1981) and Judea and Samaria, permanently. And, after Labor's terrible performance on multiple fronts in the 1970s (Golda Meir was unquestionably Israel's worst PM, whatever ignorant American Jewish feminists think), Likud took power, with Labor never to be restored to a clear majority until a very brief period under Rabin in 1992.

Under Begin's government, Ariel Sharon established settlements all through Judea and Samaria, specifically designed to make it impossible to carve up the territory in a hypothetical peace settlement. Israel pursued a war in Lebanon to wipe out the PLO, an ambition that was frustrated by President Ronald Reagan (who, understandably, was unwilling to risk a confrontation with the Soviet Union over the issue), and which in the course of the adventure spawned new enemies (Hezbollah) as formidable and deadly as the PLO had been. By the mid-1980s, a new Palestinian Arab resistance movement had sprung up, and while neither Israelis nor Palestinians suffered anything in the first intifadeh to compare to the suffering of the past four years, that first intifadeh did shake Israel profoundly. Israelis, by and large, did not want to rule the Palestinian Arabs by force. But force was just about the only thing the brought to the table to deal with them. Israel never seriously tried to implement the autonomy provisions of the Camp David accords with Egypt. Israel never contemplated any permanent status for the Palestinian Arabs that would relieve the weight of the occupation, whether the establishment of real territorial governments or the extension of Israeli citizenship. I don't know whether any such scheme would have worked, given Arafat's determination to prevent any kind of accommodation with Israel (friendly Arab mayors were routinely assassinated by PLO hit squads) but the fact is they were never seriously tried. Likud, the heir to Revisionist Zionism, never really tried to implement a fair version of right-wing bi-nationalism that their founders purported to believe in. Which left force as the only argument. And force was failing - the intifadeh wasn't easily crushed; Israel was morally weakened by the attempt; and Israel's generals increasingly worried about the security cost of deploying so much of the army doing police work in the territories.

This is the context that led to the first Labor government since 1977, the government of Yitzhak Rabin. Rabin was considered a Labor hawk, but he had turned into a reluctant dove behind the scenes, convinced that Hamas was rising, and would pose a graver threat than the PLO; convinced that the territories were a losing proposition in terms of security, a drain on the army's resources and a drain on morale; and convinced that Israel needed peace urgently because they couldn't afford another war. Rabin signed on to the Oslo Accords (negotiated privately by leftist wildcatters - another example of privatization of fundamental state functions that neatly parallels the wildcat settlement of Hevron) in order to beat a strategic retreat under diplomatic cover. He had only two problems.

First, he lacked a popular mandate for such a revolutionary decision. He had been elected on a platform of never talking to the PLO, and he promptly signed a deal with the PLO. This undermined his government from the start, lost him a Jewish majority, and led to a situation where the opposition no longer believed the government was patriotic (it relied, at the end, on the Arab parties to avoid being toppled). This is not to excuse the assassination, which was a dispicable crime. But it is to explain a bit of why it happened. Rabin tried to turn the country too quickly from a situation where extremist settlers were coddled and allowed to blackmail the government to a situation where they realistically anticipated being uprooted and (much less realistically) feared that the entire enterprise of Zionism was being reversed before their eyes.

Second, he lacked a partner genuinely interested in reaching accommodation. Rabin gambled that Yasser Arafat would be a better partner than Sheikh Yassin; that Arafat could be made into Israel's puppet, to keep the Palestinians in line and allow for a calm withdrawal from Arab population centers, with a final political settlement well down the road. Arafat had no interest in playing ball. Arafat has never been interested in playing ball; he's never been interested in establishing himself as head of a Palestinian State, to say nothing of wanting to actually do anything good for his people. Arafat's only interest, throughout his murderous career - in Jordan, in Lebanon, and then in the territories - was in creating chaos, because in chaos he thrives and has no accountability. And boy, did he create chaos for Israel.

Rabin was succeeded by Netanyahu, who tried to put the Palestinian situation in a deep freeze. But this was impossible; diplomatic processes had begun and would move along of their own accord. Netanyahu was, I think, a terrible Prime Minister, who divided the country and lied to everyone he met. But his situation was, to be fair, impossible: he could neither back out of Oslo nor implement it. Barak figured out the winning formula for beating Netanyahu: cut to the chase. Call Arafat's bluff. Dare him to go directly to final-status negotiations. Put everything on the table, and dare Arafat to sign, and agree to end the conflict with a two-state solution.

Well, we know what happened.

Now, one thing worth mentioning, because all the pro-Palestinian factions out there will certainly mention it, is that all through the Oslo years, settlement activity expanded - indeed, settlements grew more in the 1990s than they did in the 1980s, by a considerable margin. What can explain this? If Israel was trying to disengage from the Palestinian Arab population, why on earth were they continuing to build?

There are several answers, none of them wholly satisfactory. First, as I mentioned, Rabin lacked a mandate to implement Oslo's radical plans. So he could hardly go beyond the letter of Oslo and restrain settlement growth. Second, because final status negotiations were deferred, it made sense for both sides to try to create "facts on the ground" in a hurry to try to influence where borders would ultimately be drawn - and both sides did do this. Relatedly, some within both Likud and in the Barak camp felt that continued settlement building put pressure on Arafat to come to a deal, before facts on the ground went against him. But the main reason settlement building continued is that Israel's political system is a mess, and one consequence of the mess is that advocates for the settlers held inordinate power in the Knesset. And no one was going to take them on until absolutely necessary.

Did continued building cause the failure of Oslo? No, I don't think so. If Arafat had ever wanted a deal, he could have had one. Arafat deliberately avoided preparing his people for a two-state solution; he even propagandized against it, even as much of Israel's leadership was slowly getting its people used to the idea. But continued building gave Arafat a good propaganda talking-point, and certainly did nothing to minimize tensions on the ground between settlers and Arabs.

So we come to today. There is now a very wide consensus in Israel in favor of unilateral moves to consolidate Israel's borders, withdrawing from indefensible areas near Palestinian population centers and putting up a fence to protect Israel from Palestinian terrorists. With 70% of the Israeli population, then, the dream of settling the whole of the Land of Israel is decisively dead. An overwhelming majority wants out of the territories, including removing settlements, and retreating to militarily and demographically secure borders. If I were an Israeli, I would certainly be part of this majority, even though I have real reservations about whether a "fighting retreat" will work in terms of preventing terrorism.

How do I feel about the settlement enterprise in retrospect? Mixed. I think the Allon Plan was a good one. I still think the only solution to the Palestinian problem is incorporation of the territories into Jordan; Palestinian politics is toxic in the extreme and any Palestinian state would be small and defenseless anyhow, and so would be a practical dependency of either Jordan or Israel or both, so why not make the relationship formal and clear? How to convince Jordan to take on this responsibility, I have no idea, but I still think it's the only long-term solution, so until we get there we probably will continue to have war.

I think the settlements that are in the "consensus" make sense and were perfectly legal. But I think the Begin/Sharon settlement plan, which planted Jews all through Judea and Samaria, was a historic mistake. And I think the expansion of these settlements in the 1990s was folly, though once they were there I don't see how politically you could stop them from expanding.

Most important, I think it is tragic that it took the Likud so long to understand the fundamental moral and intellectual flaw in their program. Yes, Israel had a claim to the territories of Judea and Samaria, probably a better claim than anyone. But the logical implication of this claim is that the residents of these territories had a logical claim to Israeli citizenship. Israel, after all, granted citizenship to all the Arabs who stayed put in the 1948 conflict. They could not, in any plausible way, hold on to the territories without granting citizenship to those who lived there - or, at a minimum, granting them sufficient autonomy that they could have prohibited Israelis from settling among them. No one in Israel wanted to grant citizenship to all the Arabs of the territories. Logically, that should have meant that no one in Israel wanted to hold on to the territories, certainly not to settle them. Because the Right in Israel did not understand this, Israel got itself into a mess from which it still does not know how to extricate itself.

The most under-appreciated damage to Israel that flows from the settlement enterprise, though, has been the destruction of Religious Zionism. This post has already gone on way too long. But I'm going to talk about this for a couple of paragraphs anyhow. Back in the pre-1967 years, Religious Zionism was the centrist position, holding that Israel, as the Jewish state, had to have a government of Jewish character, had to have religious significance, and had to relate to notions of self-government that spring from Jewish tradition, and not just from Socialist ideas brought from Poland, British institutions inherited from the Mandate period, or the vague liberalism of the international "community" (or, for that matter, American ideas about the social contract, non-establishment of religion, etc.). This attitude springs from Religious Zionism's progressive Messianism, the belief that the Messiah comes by means of a process - obscure and mysterious, but unfolding in history and hence capable of being assisted or hindered in time by human actions. All this is, I think, very good, in terms of strengthening the state but also in terms of religion. I can appreciate religious quietism, but I don't prefer it, generally; I think religion should speak to the world and should relate to history.

But after 1967, as noted, Religious Zionism began to change, and to focus with increasing exclusivity on the settlement of the Land of Israel. It also became more avowedly prophetic, claiming to know that the End Times were coming and that the 1967 victory was a sign of this, and that therefore anything that hindered - to say nothing of reversing - the ingathering of the exiles, the settlement of the Land, and the building of the third Temple, was a grave sin against God. As I say, I think this change was absolutely disastrous, even idolatrous. The arrogance implied in saying that any one can know what God has planned is stupifying. These people who claim to be prophets seem never to have read the Book of Jeremiah.

The consequence of this change, though, is negative beyond the fact that it created a dangerously Messianic group of Israeli Jews, and created foreign policy and security problems for the State of Israel. It gravely weakened Judaism by corrupting its strongest and most centrist branch, the branch that was both progressive and traditional. This left Judaism religiously split in three: liberals (mostly in the Diaspora) with decreasing ties to the tradition; nationalists (mostly in Israel) who veer into idolatry in their attitudes towards the state and their claims to know God's mind; and anti-moderns (in Israel and the Diaspora) who do not live in historic time, espouse fundamentalist and anti-scientific ideas, and (in Israel) have become increasingly parasitic on a larger society whose values and even existence they purport to reject. This split has been devastating; the center has not held, and Judaism has been badly weakened as a result.

And the consequence has been bad for Israel as well, because without the centrist Religious Zionist perspective to articulate how Israel can have Jewish content and relate to Jewish tradition as a state, Israel is split between two perspectives: the ultra-secularists of Shinui, who reject any such content (for them Israel is a Jewish state because it has mostly Jewish citizens, no more); and the fundamentalists of Shas, who want Israel to legislate religious law in the manner of the Islamic Republic of Iran. This, in turn, has progressively alienated Israelis from non-Orthodox Diaspora Jews, and vice versa; secular Israelis feel progressively less Jewish, and hence have no interest in Diaspora Jews, and Diaspora Jews feel Israel is increasingly Jewish only in a narrow, sectarian sense, and hence have less affinity for Israel. And, more dangerously, the loss of the religious center has undermined loyalty to the state among the religious, who are a growing proportion of Israelies. The ultra-Orthodox are already only equivocally loyal, because they reject a Jewish state before the advent of the Messiah. But the Religious Zionists who form something like 40% of the Israeli officer corps are only equivocally loyal as well. They may well be more loyal to their own ideology and their rabbis than they are to the state and their commanders in the army. That is a very, very bad situation, and one reason why Israel is moving so slowly to implement any kind of withdrawal.

The settlement enterprise did not necessarily have to lead to these dire consequences for Judaism by corrupting Religious Zionism. But it did lead to those consequences in fact, and the past cannot be undone.

What has to happen now, to me, is clear.

- Israel has to stage a fighting retreat, withdrawing settlers from indefensible areas and consolidating its borders. Whether the IDF continued to operate beyond the fence is a question; I think it will, and that peace or even quiet will be elusive for a long time. But civilians will be brought behind lines that Israel genuinely intends to defend, and that's the main thing.

- Israel has to try to lure Jordan and Egypt into a cooperative role in bringing the Palestinian areas under control. How they will do this is not clear to me. If the U.S. can help in this part of the process, we should, assuming we have any ideas.

- Orthodox Jewish leaders who are engaged with modernity have got to start work on rebuilding the centrist Orthodoxy that has died off in part as a consequence of the settlement enterprise.

- Israel's political system has to tackle long-overdue political reform: formalizing and circumscribing the place of religion in the state; tackling corruption; and, most important, devolving more power to regional governors and ending proportional representation and switching to a district-based first-past-the-post system for elections to the Knesset. The only way Arab Israelis will ever be integrated into Israeli political life is if they have some influence on the political system. That will never be the case so long as the only votes they cast are for disloyal Arab parties, and they will continue to cast such votes so long as Israel has proportional representation. If Israeli politicians have to campaign locally among Jews and Arabs (where districts or regions contain both Jewish and Arab voters), you'll slowly see Arab Israeli politics accommodating to the existence of the Jewish state. This is indispensible to the long-term future of Israel; Arabs are 20% of the population, and Israel cannot survive as a democracy if they become progressively more alienated.

It's late in the day, but it's never too late. The past cannot be undone, but the future is still there to be built.