An Israeli View: Rupture and its rewards

The settlement construction freeze imposed by the government in Judea and Samaria has far-reaching practical, political and ideological ramifications…

Beginning with the practical: despite domestic and international political pressures against the settlements that inevitably generate heavy doubts among prospective settlers, demand for homes in these settlements is great, particularly among the second and third generations of settlers. If we add the security and economic price the settlers in any case pay (financial rewards under the government’s „areas of national priority“ are a joke in view of the settlers‘ heavy expenses incurred by their location), we find that the settlement movement is deeply rooted among the Israeli people. There is a strong desire to strengthen that movement so that it cannot again be uprooted like the small Katif enclave in Gaza in 2005.

Thus, if only to continue to exist, i.e., to prevent another Katif bloc uprooting, the settlers understand that they must bring tens of thousands of new people to the settlements. But that cannot happen without ongoing construction.

Further, even if, in view of the lessons of Katif, no government is able to remove settlers (there are 300,000 in Judea and Samaria in contrast with some 10,000 in Katif in 2005), they face an additional existential threat: atrophy. Many of the veteran settlements are over 30. Without housing there, the second and third generations will be obliged to live elsewhere and the original settlement is liable to age and eventually disappear. Thus, another reason for the struggle against the freeze is the need to bring fresh blood to the veins of these settlements.

There is also a profound ideological reason. When the government issues construction freeze directives targeting only Judea and Samaria–something it would not dream of doing anywhere else–this sends a disturbing emotional and ideological message to the settlers. They view their communities as an integral part of the state of Israel; they settled where they did so that these territories would become part of the state.

Then too, the freeze communicates a strong sense of insult: what leftist or otherwise hostile governments like that of Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert (which carried out the Gaza removal, then followed up with unprecedented and brutal force against the youth of Amona) never dreamed of doing is now being implemented by a Likud government for which many of the settlers themselves voted. This, incidentally, explains why in some places, especially secular settlements identified with the Likud, officials sent to enforce the construction freeze encountered a more violent response than in „ideological“ settlements.

PM Binyamin Netanyahu is perceived by settlers and others as a weak figure who succumbs to whoever pressures hardest. The settlers are correct in calculating that their tough response to the freeze, which the media exaggerates in order to prove the settlers are violent, will generate antagonism to the freeze among Likud voters and supporters of other parties in the coalition (including not a few Laborites), thereby obliging Netanyahu to back off. Indeed, the ministerial committee appointed to mollify the settlers and deal with exceptional construction cases has already permitted the renewal of construction of hundreds of dwellings.

Netanyahu’s inclination to fold under pressure generates yet another concern. Nothing will change in the Obama administration’s approach ten months from now. There will be more pressure, followed by further freezes. And since there will be no new construction starts during the coming ten months, there can be no second ministerial committee for exceptions. Thus as long as Obama is president, there will be no housing construction in Judea and Samaria despite Netanyahu’s reassurances that this is the last and only freeze.

The settlers, of course, cannot accept this situation. They have ways to melt much of the freeze, at least from the standpoint of political consciousness. Conceivably, with the right approach, they can even transform the freeze into a lever for generating greater momentum of construction than before, while in parallel recruiting more volunteers to strengthen the settler movement.

Prior to the uprooting from Katif, a kind of referendum was held among Likud party members. PM Ariel Sharon dreamed up the idea and promised that if the majority was against him there would be no withdrawal. He made this commitment with a clear head, knowing that all opinion polls had predicted he would triumph. The settlers, not only those from the Katif bloc, visited Likudniks house by house to persuade them that because Hamas would view the withdrawal as its victory, the Qassam rockets then falling mainly on settlements would, after the withdrawal, fall on the western Negev. These encounters were so effective that Sharon’s victory predictions were overturned. He proceeded to violate his promise and implement the withdrawal anyway, even as he was creating a new party.

But the lesson was learned. Netanyahu is not Sharon and the Likud ministers in his government did not accompany Sharon to Kadima and will not allow Netanyahu to repeat that totally undemocratic exercise.

Conceivably, the fathers of this construction freeze–and not only in Washington–concluded that another mass uprooting of settlements is impossible, hence the solution is to atrophy them until they collapse on their own. If there is a significant and extended freeze, this could eventually happen. If indeed this is the strategy, the settlers will know in nine or ten months. If the freeze is extended, they can again begin visiting the homes of Likud Central Committee members to confront them with what is already being called „Netanyahu’s betrayal“. And considering that no Israeli government in the past two decades survived its full four-year term and elections are held every two or three years, Netanyahu does not have the luxury of losing the confidence of his voters.

Thus it appears that even at the cost of tension with the United States, and probably sooner rather than later, the freeze will fail–like every previous American effort to pressure Israeli governments, right and left, to restrict settlers‘ lives.- Published 14/12/2009 © bitterlemons.org

Yisrael Harel heads the Institute for Zionist Strategy in Jerusalem and writes a weekly political column in Haaretz. He founded the Yesha Council (Council of Jewish Settlements in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza District) and headed it for 15 years.