On Sunday, I traveled to the northern West Bank city of Ariel to meet with David Ha’ivri, director of the Shomron Liaison Office and spokesperson for the Shomron Regional Council. The Liaison Office serves as the representative of the regional council’s interests to outside inquiries, particularly the foreign media and international interests.
The Shomron Regional Council itself is the local governing body for all the small Jewish communities of the Shomron (Samaria) region which comprise the northern portion of the West Bank. Excluded from this body are the large towns and cities like Ariel which have their own municipality and elected government. The council provides municipal services to the area including schools, security, town planning, waste and sewage disposal, electricity, and emergency services. Members of the council are elected by residents of the region and the statutory body as a whole is under the authority of the Ministry of the Interior.
The council administers one of the largest areas geographically in the country, some 2800 square kilometers comprising roughly 10% of the state including the West Bank. After the Israeli withdrawal from portions of Northern Shomron in 2005 coinciding with the Gaza Disengagement, four communities (Ganim, Kadim, Homesh, and Sanur) were destroyed, and Israelis were banned from accessing the northern portion of Route 60, the central highway in the West Bank. This has presented particular problems for the provision of services to more isolated settlements, which must now be accessed via Afula to the north.
Unlike the Yesha Council, which is not a statutory body but is actively involved in politics, the Shomron Regional Council officially operates in the reverse. When the current mayor, Gershon Mesika, was elected some 2-3 years ago, he moved to officially disconnect the political/ideological elements of the council from its administrative functions, through the creation of the Shomron Residents Committee. This body is headed by longtime settlement advocate Benny Katzsover.
However, Mesika was elected in a landslide (70% against a number of other challengers) in part on the promise that he would be a stronger figure for the settlement movement than his predecessors. As a firm public advocate of Jewish building in the West Bank, he was seen as a welcome change from the previous leadership associated with the failures of the Gaza Disengagement. Mesika has continued to take a strong stand publically in favor of continued settlement, recently declaring that if PM Netanyahu were to extend the building freeze, it would signal the end of his government.
Ha’ivri asserts that even as an officially non-political figure, Mesika can afford to take such stands because of his relationships with senior members of government and in the Likud party itself. Over the last year, Mesika and his supporters have brought over 12,000 people into the Likud party. They now comprise 25% of the party membership. As a party whose internal leadership is dictated by election by its members, this pro-settlement constituency is in a powerful position to support members of the party sympathetic to their cause and punish those who stand against them.
Why have settlement advocates have concentrated their energies in Likud rather than the explicitly pro-settler parties like Ichud Leumi and Habayit Hayehudi? Ha’ivri argues that while they do carry influence in these parties as well as Yisrael Beiteinu and Shas, it has become obvious that the political dynamics of the country are such that Likud is the larger and more influential party. Assuming these numbers are correct, it would suggest that Likud’s supporters, even in the last election, may not simply be those casing a protest vote against Kadima or Avodah (Labor).
We then turned to the question of why Israelis are living in the Shomron at all. It is one of the sparser areas of Jewish settlement in the West Bank and is home to two major Palestinian population centers; Ramallah and Nablus/Shechem. Ha’ivri argued that this land is the core of the national homeland; that it has been the dream of Jews for 2000 years since they were “forced off the land by the Romans.” It is the land for which Jews have prayed to be returned and which they have successfully resettled.
No other nation, he argued, has been so dispersed from its homeland and successfully re-gathered to re-constitute its state. To see Jews of all backgrounds from around the world gathering together is an “acknowledgement of the truth of the prophesy of the Bible.” Even when presented with other alternatives in the early years of the Zionist Congress, it was decided by religious and secular alike that the Jewish state could only be constituted in the historic land of the Jewish people. As such, the Jewish claim to Yehuda and Shomron is greater than the claim to Tel Aviv, and it is only through the former claim that the latter can have any legitimacy.
Here he referred to the Talmudic concept of Yiush, despair at the loss of an object and the belief that this object will never be returned. If however, one loses an object but does not give up hope that it will be retrieved, the ruling states that the original owner is still obligated to that object. So much more so if the object can be identified by the location where it was found and by the characteristics unique to that object. This, he argued, is the Land of Israel, a place for which the Jewish people never gave up hope of returning and where the signs of ancient Jewish history in Shechem, Shiloh, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Hebron are all readily apparent.
If this land in the West Bank is so important to the Jewish people, than why are there not more Jews living here? David responded that the whole world is astounded by the Jewish population growth in Yehuda and Shomron, which is one of the highest in the western world and certainly the highest in Israel. He is not at all concerned that this is not an attractive place for Jewish people to live. Rather, he is concerned that continued pressure from the international community, especially the United States, will continue to keep these communities from expanding at their natural pace. The problem is not that people do not want to move here or that people are not having babies, rather it is that there are no vacancies in almost any community. Those who grew up in the West Bank are therefore being forced to move elsewhere for lack of anywhere to live.
But what of the problem of demography? This is an issue which David asserted is rather strange. It is hypocritical, he believes, that the left wing in Israel claims to be so concerned about democracy and freedoms, when they are really concerned that the Arabs might become the majority. The ugly things which they say about the right wing and religious in Israel, that they are racist or the like, he believes pales with the idea that the left is willing to “cut up our homeland because they don’t want Arab population mass in our country.”
The two great fears of the left, he argued, are of the population growth of the Arab minority and of the Orthodox. These fears are expressed alternatively as it is politically convenient. This builds on what David believes is the other misnomer of the Israeli left, that Israel should be a western democracy in the American mold. That Israel can or should be a melting pot for all peoples is a mistaken concept. The values of a western democracy, he asserted, should not be prioritized over the idea of a Jewish state.
“Israel,” he insisted, “was founded to be a Jewish State, it should be a democracy for all of its Jewish citizens.” In the context of the Middle East, it should be recalled that Israel is the only democracy, and the notion of limiting democratic principles for the benefit of a particular population is hardly exceptional here. While the western world is quick to criticize Israel for granting Palestinians anything less than first class citizenship, they do not bother to consider the incredibly low standard of living of most Palestinians in Jordan, Egypt, or Lebanon to name but a few other states where their rights are incredibly limited. Nor do they consider absolute lack of rights for Jews anywhere else in the region.
Moreover, David firmly believes that Palestinians in Israel, if given the uncoerced choice, would prefer to live under Israeli control without voting rights than under the likes of Hamas. A Palestinian working in one of the settlements makes three times what he would in areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority. Under Israeli control, their standard of living is considerably higher and they arguably enjoy more freedoms they they do elsewhere in the Arab world or than they would under a fundamentalist regime.
While Palestinian polls dispute this evaluation, he believes that Palestinians are not free to express their preferences. Should they say publically they would prefer Israeli control, they would expect violence in response. Conversely, Palestinians under more firm Israeli control, namely in eastern Jerusalem and Arab citizens elsewhere in the state have expressed such sentiments, that they prefer Israeli control to transfer to a Palestinian state.
We then came to the question of security: is Jewish settlement in the West Bank a security liability for the state of Israel? If this is so, David challenged, then why does the IDF follow settlers to the hilltops they control and set up military outposts? Note that in the early days of the settlement movement, the process was somewhat in reverse. Communities would either be established by the state on strategic sites or set up in “provocative” locales and the army would force them to move onto or near military bases.
In any event, the government understands that giving up strategic mountain ranges to a Palestinian state is an intolerable security hazard. It is for this reason why every Israeli government which has pondered the creation of a Palestinian state have insisted that it be thoroughly demilitarized. Even the Geneva Initiative includes this stipulation.
Finally, I asked David if he fears that there will be another expulsion from the settlements on the pattern of the 2005 disengagement. He believes that the state continues to be “plagued by irresponsible leadership” who might make such a move, but it would be a terrible mistake. The majority of Israelis and the Israeli leadership acknowledge that the disengagement brought no benefit to anyone, neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians. Yet there is still active pressure to continue such moves.
Still, he strongly doubts that this will happen again. The state and its citizenry are still reeling from the expulsion of 8000 people, and not just the former residents but the soldiers and workers who participated are still traumatized. To think that this is a “Monopoly game that can repeat itself is naive.” To say that the “left” is willing to engage in another disengagement is also an overstatement. There are at least a few in this camp who are not, although this may depend on how one defines the “left.”
On the possibility of executing another territorial withdrawal on the pattern of Gaza, after visiting Ariel, it is easy to become skeptical. For proponents of the Geneva Initiative, excluding Ariel from the map of Israel is essentially a matter of simplifying borders and minimizing percentages of territory in the West Bank which will need to be swapped for territory outside of it. Yet walking around the city, it is clear that this is no hilltop outpost. With a population of about 17,000, this is over twice the number of people removed from their homes in the whole of Gush Katif in a single municipality.
If dismantling Jewish settlements in Gaza was a national trauma, many might say that this will be national suicide. Those who advocate withdrawal from the territories highlight that while removing settlements will certainly be difficult, the consequences for the state of continuing its rule over the Palestinians will be worse. The conventional debate suggests that Israelis are now faced with two choices: the preservation of a Jewish democratic state without the territories, or the move to an apartheid-like regime in which democracy is lost in an attempt to preserve the state’s Jewish character in the whole of the land.
Speaking to opponents of such withdrawals, particularly those who live in the West Bank, the frame of reference is somewhat different. The choice is not between land and democracy, but first and foremost between land and Jewish identity. If Israel withdraws from places like Shiloh, Shechem, Hebron, and eastern Jerusalem, what most Israelis consider to a great degree to be their historical homeland, what legitimacy does Israel have to exist as a Jewish state in Tel Aviv, Haifa, and Eilat? In this view, having an ethnically homogenous Jewish state is a poor substitute which most opponents of withdrawal increasingly believe to be impossible anyway. A Jewish state devoid of control of its “historic heartland” has no more right to exist in the Middle East than a European colonial state.
This concern for identity is quickly followed by a perceived trade-off between land and security. If Israel gives up control of the strategic highlands which dominate the West Bank, what assurances can Israel have that it will not face persistent rocket attacks which will target the country’s largest population centers? This debate is certainly a familiar one and the differences between the two camps seems rooted in the degree to which they believe that a reliable partner for peace can be found. This partner may not necessarily be Palestinian; it could be Jordanian, American, pan-Arab, European, or a body imposed by the United Nations. The question is whether a responsible body, military and/or diplomatic, exists that can ensure that an Israeli withdrawal will not be detrimental to the state’s security.
Over the next few days and into next week, I have a number of other meetings scheduled with members of the settlement community. These include members of elected representative bodies, administrative officials, and community activists, all of whom are coming from different backgrounds and political interests. I will be looking especially for how they reflect on these three concepts integral to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: democracy, identity, and security. Thus far, my interviews have demonstrated to me that it is impossible to identify any specific combination of opinions on these issues to one end of the political spectrum or the other. All bear directly on Israelis’ relationships with the Land of Israel. As always, I will report more as patterns emerge. Wish me luck.