On Tuesday, I interviewed Uri Ariel, a current member of Knesset and second on the electoral list of Ichud Leumi (National Union). The party currently holds four seats, sits in opposition, and is considered the most right-wing party in Knesset. For more on the party’s background, check out my previous post featuring my interview with fellow MK Michael Ben-Ari.
Uri Ariel has been active in Israeli national politics as a member of Ichud Leumi since the 1999 Knesset elections. Although he was not seated in this election, he assumed Rehavam (Gandhi) Ze’evi’s seat after he was assassinated by Palestinian terrorists in October 2001. Prior to the Gaza Disengagement, Ariel moved to Kfar Darom with his family in solidarity with the residents of Gush Katif and in opposition to the plan. He also moved to Amona before that settlement was dismantled in February 2006. The MK has also made headlines in his advocacy for freedom of worship on the Temple Mount, calls for the construction of a synagogue there during Sukkot 2006, and his vocal opposition to German President Andrea Merkel’s speech before Knesset in 2008.
Uri Ariel’s position, and generally that of his party, is that the Land of Israel stretches, uninterrupted, from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River. So too does it include land on the eastern bank of the Jordan, however acquisition of this territory is not an active policy objective of the party. The Land of Israel, he asserts, is the land of the Tanakh (complete Hebrew Bible) and the Jewish people were here before any other people who live in the region today.
While this claim is based first and foremost in the Torah, he also asserts that Israel’s return to Yehudah and Shomron is critical to the security of the state, as is the prevention of a return by Palestinian refugees. Strategically, the highlands of the West Bank give the country the means to defend the country against foreign attack and monitor developments on the ground. In terms of a return of refugees, he asserts that it is simply impossible for Israel to absorb them. Why, he asks, should they move into the tiny space that is Israel when there are expansive and available Arab lands outside of the country’s borders? With such concerns, he and his party believe that is not possible that the territory of the West Bank could ever again be part of another country.
Asking him about his experience in Gaza, he argued that Israel should have maintained control of this territory “because it is our land.” Even Russia, he noted, is unwilling to give up an inch of its territory in the remote Kuril Islands, so why should a country as tiny as Israel be more willing to do so? Moreover, he cannot countenance a situation in which Israel is removing Jewish people from their homes. This goes against the mission and idea of the Jewish state and is illegitimate. Finally, he noted that after the expulsion and disengagement, Israel still did not have peace. With missiles raining down on Sderot and Gilad Shalit still in Hamas captivity, it is clear to him that the disengagement did not fulfill its strategic nor diplomatic objectives.
Israel, he believes, must return to this territory, but this is something “in our dreams” which is not possible today. He noted that after 1948 and the Jordanian conquest of Gush Etzion, no one thought that it would be possible for Jews to return. Yet, in 1967 they did. Why could the same not be true for Gush Katif? This may strike many observers as indicative of the irrational extremism of nationalism. However, I suggest that this attitude, nearly universally shared across Israel even in nationalist circles, is indicative of a pragmatism inherent in Israeli politics. Even those who believe that Israel should be in uncontested control of the whole of the land are often willing to concede certain ambitions where they are not realistically attainable or strategically or diplomatically advisable.
This flexibility is less apparent on the issues of the West Bank, Golan, and particularly Jerusalem. With regard to his experience at Amona, Ariel argued that the government under PM Ehud Olmert severely mishandled the evacuation. By prioritizing a desire to please international critics over negotiation with the outpost’s residents, they refused to engage in any compromise which might have averted the violence which accompanied Amona’s destruction. As with Gaza, Ariel believed that it was not acceptable that the government would forcibly remove Jews from their homes. Since then, a small outpost has been rebuilt and Israeli authorities are hesitant to evict its residents again.
With regard to the Golan, here too he argued that the land “is ours” although he above all else he highlighted its importance to state security. Not only does this territory offer control of the strategic highlands from which Syria used to regularly bombard all of northern Israel between 1948 and 1967, but it controls the headwaters of the Jordan River and the Kinneret. Access to and control of the water supply is a question of existential security for Israel. Continued belligerency by Syria, manifest in their bombastic anti-Israel propaganda, open support of Hamas and Hezbollah, alliance with Iran, and recent attempts to develop nuclear weapons make a meaningful peace with Israel’s northern neighbor a distant possibility.
In Jerusalem, Ariel is unequivocal in his opposition to plans to divide the capital. No state in the world, he asserts would divide its capital. Moreover, history has demonstrated that when those places important to Judaism are under foreign control, Jews cannot expect to be given equitable access or fair treatment. Under Jordanian occupation and the 1949 armistice, Israelis were to be given controlled access to the Kotel, but this agreement was never honored. This is to say nothing of Arab desecration of the ancient Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives and their wholesale destruction of the Jewish Quarter of the Old City. Today, under Israeli control, these sites are open to all and religious freedoms for Christians and Muslims, as well as Jews, are respected with the notable exception of the prohibition against Jewish worship on the Temple Mount.
On top of these considerations, Ariel questions why the ownership of all these contentious territories is automatically considered to rightfully belong to Israel’s Arab neighbors or the Palestinians. Following the dissolution of the British Mandate in 1947, the establishment of Israel in 1948, and the subsequent regional war, the lands of the Gaza Strip, West Bank, and significant parts of the Golan Heights fell under Arab occupation. Yet this situation lasted only 19 years, until 1967, when they were conquered by Israel. The current situation has prevailed for 43 years. Given both the questionable legality and relatively short period in which the status quo ante prevailed, Ariel sees no reason that this should take precedence over Israel’s claim.
Of course, if Israel does remain in these territories, it is left to face the much feared demographic dilemma; a growing Arab population which challenges the Jewish majority upon which the democratic State of Israel has based its legitimacy. Ariel’s response is this: give the Arabs citizenship. While he acknowledges that a large Arab population presents a demographic challenge in theory, he does not believe that it constitutes a political problem in practice. Pointing to the limited political power of Arab parties in Knesset, despite full rights of Israel’s 1.5 million strong Arab population constituting 20% of the country, he argues that one should not expect that newly enfranchised Arabs would significantly change the status quo.
While there certainly are political active, nationalist Palestinians, he does not believe that they represent even a bare majority. In this perspective, Ariel is certainly in the minority opinion in Israel. While Palestinian residents of Jerusalem have the right to vote in municipal elections but largely do not is not, most have argued, a reflection of their lack of nationalism. Rather, it is indicative of their mass protest (whether popular or enforced from above) against inclusion in the Israeli political system and state.
That said, Ariel does maintain that the biggest threat to Israel’s existence today is the specter of the absorption of Palestinian refugees. In this, however, Ariel does agree with the Israeli national consensus. No Israeli government has been willing to countenance a large-scale absorption of Palestinian refugees and insist that the Palestinian demand for national self-determination must be achieved in a Palestinian state rather than the Israeli one. He frames this issue as a problem of security, not democracy; that a radicalized Palestinian population will bring violence and terrorism back with them.
On all these issues, the nationalist right, represented by Ichud Leumi, HaBayit Hayehudi, Yisrael Beiteinu, and numerous activist organizations, is quite consistent: opposition to the creation of a Palestinian state, heightened concerns regarding security, and a firm belief in a Jewish religious or historical entitlement to the Land of Israel. In many ways, the left in Israel, represented in my research thus far by numerous activist organizations and members of Meretz, share some elements of these beliefs. While they generally support the creation of a Palestinian state, they too share security concerns and a general belief in the legitimacy of Jewish title to the land (although they are more willing than the right to negotiate its content).
As I (hopefully) secure interviews with politicians in the political center: Likud, Kadima, and Labor, it will be interesting to see how these conditions and policy objectives vary. I am making some progress on this front, but with the government currently engaged in budget negotiations, people are not returning calls as promptly as I would prefer. So too do I hope to schedule interviews with Israel’s predominantly Arab parties: Ra’am-Ta’al, Balad, and Hadash, and the Haredi parties: Shas and Yahadut HaTorah HaMeukhedet, whose firm detachment from “normal” Israel nationalist politics will likely yield other perspectives. Thanks for reading and stay tuned.