By Amotz Asa-El
Israel’s West Bank settlements are under a new cloud of uncertainty. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, for decades a staunch supporter of sinking Jewish roots in the territories Israel conquered during the 1967 war, has now imposed a building freeze in the West Bank.
The declaration, which took the Prime Minister a good several months to deliver, marks another landmark in more than four decades of Israeli settlement in the mountain ridges that sprawl north and south of Jerusalem, and east of Tel Aviv.
What began with the emotional resettlement in 1968 of several adjoining hills where Jewish communities were erased by Arab troops back in 1948, remained for a decade largely limited to the sparsely settled and utterly hot Jordan Valley and Dead Sea shore, which lie respectively at the eastern edge of Samaria and Judea. The mountains themselves, at the same time, were avoided, with the exceptions of the Etzion Bloc – the area outside Jerusalem that was lost in 1948, and Hebron, where a Jewish community had thrived for centuries until the pogrom of 1929, when its inhabitants were either murdered or forced to leave.
That policy, which sought to balance strategic interests with Jewish history and diplomatic opportunity, was led by a succession of Labor governments, headed successively by Levi Eshkol, Golda Meir and Yitzhak Rabin. Ten years on the course was changed, first when Labor gave in to public pressure and allowed civilian presence in two locations in Samaria, and then when Labor lost power to the Likud.
In 1981, then-defence minister Ariel Sharon launched an ambitious settlement drive that in due course coated the West Bank with some 200 communities which today house close to a quarter-of-a-million Israelis. Situated mostly flanking the mountainous watershed that links the Palestinian cities of Jenin, Nablus, Ramallah, Bethlehem and Hebron, the Jewish communities in the West Bank have come to the fore forcefully since US President Barak Obama’s Middle East speech in Cairo last June.
Obama’s strongly worded public demand, that the settlements “must stop,” has cornered Netanyahu, first into abandoning his ambiguity on Palestinian statehood, and now into potentially undoing the project that has been to his Likud party a source of inspiration, pride and votes.
Technically, this is not the first time the settlers have faced this kind of challenge. It happened when Labor returned to power in 1992. However, the settlement freeze announced at the time by Yitzhak Rabin was partial, the result in part of political hostility to a project that was identified with the opposition. Netanyahu’s freeze, by contrast, includes the entire West Bank except Jerusalem, and reflects diplomatic pressure rather than political considerations.
Understandably, then, the settlers are worried, even though Netanyahu limited his move to ten months, and has told a delegation of settler leaders that the morning after that deadline expires construction will immediately resume. The settlers, for their part, remained unimpressed.
Over the past three decades they have seen a succession of right-wing leaders, including Menachem Begin, Ariel Sharon, Tzipi Livni and Ehud Olmert, relinquish or offer to relinquish land, whether with or without peace treaties. They have all the reason in the world to suspect that Netanyahu is prepared to follow in their footsteps. Much more ominously, the retreat from Gaza in summer 2005 has set a precedent whereby entire communities can be dismantled within days, while most Israelis stand by idly.
The right’s responses varied: some, like ministers Avigdor Lieberman and Benny Begin, grudgingly acquiesced. Settler leaders, at the same time, mostly said they would fight the decision legally, a process they launched with a rally in downtown Jerusalem. Down in the field, some activists tried to physically chase away officials as they arrived to impose the freeze. Further to the right, one rabbi said he would order his students to disobey evacuation orders, should such come in the future. And lastly, several activists defaced part of a West Bank mosque, immediately touching off harsh criticism from across the right, whose leaders agreed the provocation was the last thing their already precarious cause needed.
The settlers did have one achievement since Netanyahu’s announcement, when the Knesset decided to proceed with a bill that would require referendums to approve territorial retreats. Settler leaders believe they will always plead their case more convincingly with the public than with the legislature. Indeed, polls indicated that a majority of the public disapproves of the settlement freeze, which many see as a surrender to an American president who, as they view it, demanded a great deal from Israel and nothing from the Arabs.
Even so, settler leaders openly decry the social shortcomings of their project, which over the years has generally failed to attract the mainstream public, and was altogether avoided by last decade’s post-Soviet immigration, which flocked en-masse to the cities of pre-1967 Israel. While back in the 1970s no one predicted the West Bank’s Jewish population would reach its current size, the settlements nonetheless comprise but a fraction of the Israeli population, and many Israelis have never even visited a West Bank settlement.
Even worse, from its leaders’ viewpoint, the settlement project was led mainly by religious people, who unwittingly put off the secular majority. Today many of the leaders regret this, but the fact remains that a majority of the 200 settlements are religious, some rigorously so, while the Orthodox population in Israel comprises about a quarter of the Jewish population. That means that in case a real peace deal arrives on the table, and Netanyahu champions it with his nationalist credentials, the settlers’ chances of gaining majority public sympathy against him are slim at best.
Paradoxically, the settlers are now pinning their hopes on Palestinian rigidity. Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and his government have accorded Netanyahu’s latest overture the same kind of coolness with which they greeted his espousal of the two-state principle. As of this writing, widespread assessments that Barack Obama would now force Abbas to enter into negotiations with Netanyahu, have yet to materialise.
Some, in fact, believe that Netanyahu made his concession while assessing that Abbas would not come to the table, not because he would not like to, but because he is not able to, as he must consider Hamas’ unswerving opposition to the prospective negotiations’ aim – a peace treaty with Israel.
Even so, in the longer term the settlement scheme as originally designed by the Likud may prove to have spent itself. With leader after leader of the major conservative party ending up at loggerheads with the settlement movement, the deeper differences between them will become more and more difficult to bridge. For the secular right, the settlements are part of a strategic vision and reflect nationalist conviction, but not religious dogma.
Some of the settler leaders actually hail from the same secular-strategic school as Netanyahu, particularly those representing the largest West Bank towns, but many are Orthodox followers of a particular stream in Judaism that sanctifies the Jewish state’s borders as they were delineated in the Bible. Netanyahu, personally even more secular than many less conservative Israelis, never came close to espousing theological nationalism, and will only go so far to please its followers.
It follows that between now and the end of 2010, one of two scenarios will unfold. Either Abbas (or his successor) contradicts expectations and seeks a deal with Netanyahu, or he does not. If he does, then the ten-month freeze will have to be extended and the Israeli consensus will likely converge around the clusters of settlements that ring Jerusalem and flank Tel Aviv. If the Palestinians do not come through, then by this time next year, Israeli construction in the West Bank will likely have resumed in earnest.