Interview with Pinchas Wallerstein

pinchas-wallerstein On Wednesday, I had the fortune to meet with Pinchas Wallerstein. He was, until earlier this year, the Director of the Yesha Council (מועצת יש"ע), and the mayor of the Binyamin Regional Council from 1979 to 2008.

He was also one of the early founders and leaders of Gush Emunim, a religious and political movement organized after the 1973 Yom Kippur War encouraging Jewish settlement of the West Bank and Gaza. The organization was later institutionalized in the early 1980s as the Yesha Council. He now works for the Amana Settlement Movement, a lesser known affiliate of Gush Emunim, which encourages Jewish settlement throughout Israel including the Galilee and Negev, the regions in which he now focuses. As my first interview conducted almost entirely in Hebrew, it was truly a challenge. That said, Pinchas’ deep experience and long personal history with Gush Emunim and the Yesha Council made it time very well spent.

The Yesha Council, an acronym for (Yehuda, Shomron, and Gaza) is the political and administrative pipeline to which many of the Jewish communities in the West Bank turn to receive and manage basic services (water, education, fiscal and budgetary allocations, emergency management, etc), and political representation. That said, the council is not a statutory organization. Its membership is voluntary and many of the larger blocs such as Gush Etzion, Ariel, and Maale Adumim are not as actively involved.

Despite this, there is a general sense that the council is basically representative of the settlement community as a whole. As the successor of Gush Emunim, the council operates as both a civil institution and as a political movement. Most of its representatives are elected or appointed by the communities themselves, and it is the body to which most have historically turned when pressing the settlement agenda. The council itself consists of about 25 mayors, 21 board members, and 11 secretariat members and other staff. In recent years there has been much internal and public criticism directed against the council for their failure to prevent the destruction of Gush Katif with Israel’s unilateral disengagement from Gaza in 2005.

Despite such challenges, the council has remained active particularly on the political front, continuing to press Israeli claims to Yehuda and Shomron (West Bank), although calls for a return to Gush Katif in Gaza have dwindled to near non-existence. In its place, the council has pushed public advertising campaigns around themes of Jewish history, security, and politics to solidify Jewish claims to the settlements which remain in the West Bank. One of the most prominent of these campaigns was a billboard, bumper sticker, and public informational blitz with the title “Yehuda and Shomron: the Story of Every Jew” (יהודה ושומרון: הסיפור של כל יהודי).

Their current campaign focuses on the looming end to the 10-month West Bank building freeze, set to expire on September 26. The banners, which I have seen all across the West Bank, Jerusalem, and major transportation hubs, and many Israeli newspapers, include quotations from many high profile politicians with themes ranging from calling the freeze a mistake to demanding an immediate resumption of building. The idea is to hold the government to its word that the freeze was to be temporary and conditioned on Palestinian concessions. While PM Netanyahu has been somewhat ambiguous on the issue, FM Lieberman has stated directly that Israel will not extend the freeze. Representatives from the settlement community have threatened to topple the government should the freeze be extended. After the recent murder of four Israelis in a drive-by shooting near Hebron, a new campaign was begun for the immediate resumption of building under the slogan: “They shoot, we build”.

It is interesting to note that although moves to reestablish Jewish residence in the territories captured by Israel in 1967 began as early as 1968, Gush Emunim was not founded until 1974 in the wake of the Yom Kippur War. Up until this point, settlement activities in the Golan, West Bank, Gaza, and even the Sinai had proceeded apace, both so-called “security settlements,” those established with in the intent of solidifying Israeli control of strategic highlands and “ideological settlements,” those established under the ideology of Eretz Yisrael Hashlayma, the Whole Land of Israel, both religious and secular yishuvim.

The Whole Land of Israel Movement, often pejoratively mistranslated as the Movement for Greater Israel, formed in July 1967 a month after the end of the Six-Day War, was primarily headed by secular Labor Zionists. They formed an electoral list in the 1969 Knesset election but received fewer that 1% of the vote. However, their ideology of demanding Jewish resettlement and annexation of the territories, had a profound impact on Israeli politics and actual settlement policy. Appealing to broad enthusiasm for a return to the “liberated” territories of the “biblical heartland,” their ideology drew the sympathy of religious Zionists inspired by the teachings of R’Avraham Yitzchak Kook and his son R’Tzvi Yehuda Kook, the institutionally marginalized, secular Revisionist Zionist movement founded by Ze’ev Jabotinsky and headed by Menachem Begin which led to Herut and later Likud in 1977, as well as many members of the Labor Zionist establishment. 

It was under the leadership of Labor that the initial settlement enterprise thrived. Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, Gush Etzion, Hebron, Kfar Darom in the Gaza Strip, numerous sites in the Golan Heights, and many more were all established under the purview of the Labor government. This, Pinchas told me, is the paradox of Jewish settlement which is rarely appreciated outside of Israel. Without the political “left”, the settlement movement would never have established itself in Israeli politics and in the everyday reality of the region as successfully as it has.

However, after the shock of the Yom Kippur War, the air of confidence which pervaded Israeli public opinion had started to dissipate. “Zionism,” Pinchas claims, “was a broken ideology” in the practical sense. Even those who had been previously against any form of territorial compromise with the Arab states were beginning to consider ways in which to placate the demands of their neighbors and the local Palestinian populations of the West Bank and Gaza. Even prominent figures like Moshe Dayan and Yigal Allon, previously strong supporters of the settlement enterprise, began to publically discuss the idea of political autonomy for the Palestinians.

It was this space of national uncertainty regarding the future of the territories into which Gush Emunim entered. Under the charismatic leadership of people like R’Moshe Levinger and Hanan Porat, the organization pushed for the establishment of many new explicitly ideological settlements. With public sympathy still largely on their side, they forced the government into compromises at sites like Sebastia. Here Gush Emunim attempted to found an unauthorized settlement in 1975. After intense negotiations, the people there were allowed to move to and remain at a nearby military base, near the current settlement of Elon Moreh. This model of confrontation and compromise characterized much of the Jewish settlement enterprise until at least the early 1980s, although they enjoyed more open support under the leadership of PM Begin with the rise to power of his Likud party in the 1977 Knesset election, displacing the previously hegemonic Labor party.

Whatever domestic support the settlement enterprise has historically received from both the political Left and Right, no one in Gush Emunim or the Yesha Council today is oblivious to the fact that their activities are condemned by much of the international community. Recognizing the costs of settlement to Israel on the world stage, I asked Pinchas why it was important that the settlement enterprise be continued. He responded that where Jews live, there is a much greater chance that these areas will remain under Israeli sovereignty. This, he contended, was the nature of historical agreements during the Mandate period; where Jews lived determined the projected borders of the Jewish state.

This begs the question, however, of why these borders? The classic self-determination argument, tracing its modern political roots to Wilson’s Fourteen Points, assumes that the value of territory is determined by the ethnic demography of its residents. If, however, people are settled in some location as a means to ensure particular borders, it must be inquired as to why those borders were chosen as the ideal. For Pinchas it comes down to a matter of ideology. Even at the inception of organized, secular political Zionism, the Zionist Congress rejected the Uganda option in favor of the Land of Israel. The territorial key of Zionism is that the Land of Israel should be the location of the Jews.

No place, he contends, is more appropriate, and even then more so Hebron than Tel Aviv. He expressed the belief that without Yehuda and Shomron, it would be almost impossible to have a state for the Jewish people. The determination of Israel’s borders, he argued, is not a black and white issue. He recognizes that Israel faces problems of security and, to a lesser extent, demography. That one may traverse the whole of the country without the West Bank by a mere 18 kilometers is a strategic problem. That millions of Palestinian “refugees” who have never lived in the land are demanding that they be able to “return” to Israel is also not conducive to peace. That Arabs live in Israel is a fact, and he does not believe that Israel should ever make moves to expel them. However, the basic question is whether or not Israel should be the home of the Jewish people.

Before 1967, he acknowledged that Eretz Yisrael Hashleyma was not on the active political agenda. There, however, was an active nostalgia felt by all for the places outside of Israel’s post 1948 borders; that Jerusalem was the historical center of the Jewish people and that Yehuda and Shomron were the biblical heartland. Even before 1967, one could see in state educational programs and children’s books reoccurring themes of Jewish history in the Old City of Jerusalem, the Jordan River, and other parts of the land not under Israeli control. The conquests of the Six Day War were “exciting” for chilonim (secular Jews), and there was a true feeling of happiness to be able to return to the Temple Mount and other places of national significance.

Today, he knows that people are the left are saying that Jerusalem, Hebron, and Shechem (Nablus) are key parts of Israel, but that they are not realistic to keep. Pinchas strongly rejects this view. “If we do not have rights to Har Habayit, we do not have a right to Israel.” That these rights and claims are enshrined in the Tanakh (bible) is meaningful not only for Haredim (ultra-orthodox), but for secular Jews as well. In this light, he thinks it is very important that PM Netanyahu is demanding in negotiations with the Palestinian Authority that they recognize that Israel is a Jewish state.

On the question of territorial compromise, he believes the issue is very complicated. He noted that even those Israelis who want to see the creation of a Palestinian state on territories captured in 1967 also want to see Israeli soldiers still patrolling the whole of the territory. Why is this? Because if they were not there, there would be an enormous security problem. No one wants to return to the days of suicide bombers in the streets of Israel nor do Israelis want to see qassams coming out of the West Bank. To prevent this eventuality, a Palestinian state must be demilitarized.

Many have argued, however, that the settlement enterprise is a burden rather than a boon to Israeli security. So is it possible to have security for Israel and still have the settlements? Here he sees two levels to consider. First that Hamas, although an openly implacable enemy of the Jewish state,. is at least honest. The Palestinian state they desire is one which stretches from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River and includes not a single Jew in the region. In this respect, a political agreement will make no difference.

On the Israeli side of the equation, he believes the choice is between a difficult existence or destruction. Whether the problem is demography (an argument to which he does not subscribe) or security, one will choose the situation which will save your life, not end it. Faced with an enemy which seeks the state’s destruction, this is a problem not just of Yehuda and Shomron. In this case, the State of Israel is merely “chelek m’olam”, a piece of the world. Giving in to the demands of radicals here would merely empower them elsewhere in the world.

To sum up, from this interview and others conducted so far with the leadership of the settlement communities, several critical issues are clear. The first is that although the Jewish leadership in Yehuda and Shomron is plainly aware of challenges and threats posed by continuing the settlement enterprise, these costs are outweighed by the perceived requirements of ensuring Jewish residence in the biblical heartland. The second is that although settlements are seen as a means to protect the state against internal and external challengers, this is not their primary function. Rather, they are a means to ensure continued Jewish sovereignty over the Land of Israel. Thirdly, there is a strong belief, supported by the behavior of the state and public opinion, that claims to the Land of Israel are widely understood to be legitimate expressions of Jewish historical sovereignty in the region.

It appears that the question then is not whether Eretz Yisrael Hashlayma is common across the political and social discourse of Israelis but to what extent they are willing to incur costs to defend this vision and by what means they believe it should be fulfilled. As I continue my conversations with the settler community, the vocally anti-settlement political left, and figures in the political “mainstream”, it will be interesting to see if these observations remain consistent.

4 Responses to Interview with Pinchas Wallerstein

  1. This: “They formed an electoral list in the 1969 Knesset election but received fewer that 1% of the vote” – are you referring to Eldad’s “Ken” List? If so, that was not quite LIM

  2. arielzellman says:

    Really? I’m hoping that Haim can give me some clarity on all this if I can ever pin him down for an interview. Acharei hachaggim… story of my life. 🙂

  3. […] however, the difference lies in their engagement with the Israeli public. While those on the Yesha Council arguably spent much of their energies “convincing those who were already convinced” while […]

  4. […] conversation with Yisrael in many ways paralleled my interview with Pinchas Wallerstein, the former Director of the Yesha Council. Both were significant early leaders in the Yesha […]

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