The Enemy Within

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December 4, 2009

It may be, as many are arguing, that it is already too late, that the settlements are irreversible facts and the political power of their leadership is too great to be overcome. If those people are correct, then Israel has already sacrificed its future as a Jewish and democratic state on the altar of the settlements.

But it may also be that there is still time, that Israel can escape from the trap of the settlements and secure its future within secure and recognized borders that are based on its actual needs, not the ideological drive to make the Holy Land wholly Jewish.

The arguments for removing the settlements in the West Bank are familiar, and most accept that a good number of them will have to go. Yet they remain, and any attempt by Israel even to remove one small illegal mobile home on a West Bank hilltop is met with ferocious resistance.

While it’s true that the current settlement freeze in the West Bank is more rhetoric than reality, the Netanyahu government’s concession to at least some sort of freeze has raised the ire of militant settlers. They have protested, prevented freeze observers from entering settlements and threatened a good deal more.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with protest and direct action. Indeed, these are cornerstones of a vibrant democracy. But when a small minority can impose its will over the state, there can be no democracy and no rule of law. Watching the right-wing Prime Minister going to beg and plead with fanatics to allow the government to implement its own decisions, one gets a sense of who is really in charge in the West Bank.

Successive Israeli governments, whether led by hawkish or more moderate parties, have only themselves to blame for this state of affairs. For decades, the popular and political power of the ideological settlers has been growing while the government has looked the other way. Despite public statements in the last 15 years that Israel understands that most settlements would have to be sacrificed for peace, the presence of even the most far-flung settlements has become more and more entrenched.

Today, settlers attack soldiers and police officers and actively undermine the law whenever it suits them. Their “Operation Price Tag” means that whenever the government takes down an outpost or in any way impedes the settlement project, settlers fan out into nearby Palestinian towns and villages and riot, injuring locals and destroying property.

The army, which is the primary body of law and order in the West Bank, prefers to stay out of this.

“Even though we will carry out every order we are given, the current situation suits us,” an officer serving in the West Bank told Ha’aretz. “For many soldiers [confronting settlers] is a difficult subject, and at the end of the day it’s not really the task for which we have been prepared.”

The settlers take advantage of these pangs of conscience, which are by no means limited to soldiers. Dani Dayan, the chairman of Yesha Council, the settlers’ umbrella organization, told reporters, “We do not intend even for one second, and certainly not for 10 months, to deviate from our mission of building the land of Israel. We prefer to do it with the government, but the government, unfortunately, has caved in.”

Dayan demonstrates the indifference to the well-being of the state when it is in conflict with the expansion of the settlement program. I’m sure he believes that program to be absolutely necessary for the state, but this is ideology at work, not security strategy. For Dayan, the only mission is to reclaim the Land of Israel and a secure state. Living in peace within the borders of the Green Line, or something akin to them, would be a complete defeat.

Part of this is due to the fact that the government has avoided the public confrontation with the idea of settlements. Israel is a settler state—settlement of the land was the most basic ethos of pre-state Zionism. The modern settlers echo that spirit for many Israelis.

But more to the point, there has been a general avoidance of discussing the problem of what the West Bank is, and this needs more open discussion.

The left often underestimates how much the historical and national significance of the West Bank means to Israelis. The real cradle of Jewish history and national identity is there, not in Tel Aviv or Haifa. Nablus (the biblical Shechem), Hebron, Jericho and East Jerusalem…these are the places that speak to Jewish religion and history.

And those are the places the Jews are being asked to give up. Put that together with the discomfort many Israelis feel about confronting Jews for what they see as “the sake of Arabs” and you can see the problem.

That problem is a lack of will. Poll after poll has shown that most Israelis recognize the need to give up most of the West Bank and leave the settlements. Most Israelis want to try to pursue peace and to live in a country with clearly established borders. The question is how much do they want these things?

Most Israelis have mixed feelings about confronting the settlers and giving up land so key to the Jewish memory. The settlers, on the other hand, have no ambiguity at all.

The only way forward is strong leadership, a government that insists on the rule of law and democracy that extends beyond the Green Line and includes every Israeli citizen. The issue cannot be whether a Prime Minister or a soldier sympathizes with the settlers or not.

The settlers are committed, and it is obvious that their commitment is much stronger right now than those Israelis committed to diplomacy and peace. The world sees this, and is forced to ask “Does Israel really want peace, or does it want the West Bank more?”

Netanyahu has the chance to show the world that peace is more important than ideology to most Israelis. But more than that, he has a chance now to restore Israel’s image as a country dedicated to the rule of law. It’s not time to sit and make nice with the Yesha Council; it is time for Bibi to transcend ideological differences and do his job. It’s time, in short, for him to tell the settlers they are not above or beyond the law, and tp back it up with arrests and charges commensurate to the settlers’ actions.

Right now, the soft way the government is treating the settlers demonstrates that the settlers can’t be overcome. If that is the case, if the settlers can effectively disrupt this freeze and get away with it, is there any hope that the larger concessions on settlements can be carried out?

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