Interview with Elyakim Haetzni


On Monday, I traveled to Kiryat Arba to meet with Jewish settlement activist, attorney, and frequent Yehidot Aharonot columnist Elyakim Haetzni. Haetzni was a key initiators of Jewish resettlement of Gush Etzion and Hebron after the 1967 Six Day War. He also served on the steering committee of the Yesha Council and as a member of Knesset for Tehiya, a political party closely associated with Gush Emunim, following the resignation of Eliezer Waldman in 1990.

Haetzni is a notable figure among the early core of Gush Emunim, not only for his deep personal involvement but because he does not consider himself to be dati (religious). Indeed, most of the leading figures of the movement were not only religious but studied together at Mercaz HaRav, the yeshiva established by Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook which has served since its founding as the wellspring of Religious Zionism. R’Kook’s son, Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook, was seen as the spiritual leader of Gush Emunim and taught many of its leaders.

Nonetheless, Haetzni is committed to an approach to Zionism which today many would construe as a religious vision: the valuation of the Land of Israel for its own sake. For him, the land is not something to be treated as a means to an end; either as either as a “neutral base,” one place among many where a Jewish state can be built, or as a bargaining chip to divide in order to secure peace with Israel’s Arab neighbors. In these perspectives, he sees two kinds of Jews. Those who insist the land can be divided, he argues, might be happy living anywhere they would be able to “live the good life.” On the other side are those who are prepared to endure significant hardship because they feel this specific land is so essential to the Jewish people that the good life must be a secondary consideration. “Without it, the whole exercise has no purpose.”

He admits that this is a simplistic formulation and that most Israelis actually exhibit a mixture of both these inclinations. Historically this has been true of the Zionist movement as a whole. In the early years of the Zionist Congress, Theodor Herzl turned to the British offer of Uganda as the location for the Jewish state as a “night shelter” for protection against a looming Holocaust which he sensed, “more keenly than others,” was coming. Presenting this plan before the Sixth Zionist Congress in 1903, a fierce debate ensued splitting the delegates between so-called “territorial Zionists” and those who insisted upon Eretz Israel as the only possible homeland of the Jewish people. Ultimately, it is clear which perspective held sway.

Debates regarding the integrity of the Land continued to rage within the Zionist movement even after the Balfour Declaration as to how much of the British Mandate must be incorporated in the Jewish state or homeland. Debates similarly raged between the Labor Zionists who focused on physical settlement of the land and the Revisionists who, in the early years, insisted on political recognition of Jewish sovereignty over the “whole” land. In the end, hityashvut (settlement) as well as haganah (defense), took precedence even as the Zionist movement continued to diplomatically engage with the international community at large. Some historians argue that these early pioneers avoided large Arab population centers. By contrast, Haetzni argues that there was not a targeted policy not to buy land near these centers, but on the contrary they bought land and established settlements especially outside the projected borders of the Jewish state. Settlement focused on putting facts on the ground: that the settlements would determine the future borders.

The matter was seemingly settled with Zionist acceptance of the 1947 UN Partition Plan, Arab rejection, and the resulting 1948 war. With the land effectively divided between Israel, Jordan, and Egypt, there was unanimous consent that Israeli should continue state expansion into areas conquered in the war but not sanctioned by the UN programme. Again, valuation of the land (even if only part of it) took precedence over the bargaining chip approach. Prime Minister David Ben Gurion took the immediate initiative to vigorously settle and develop these newly conquered areas.

An immediate call was made to the youth of Israel to settle these lands as they had the kibbutzim during the Yishuv period. However,  the labor movement apparently no longer had the people to engage in such “pioneering.” In desperate need to populate these spaces, the Israeli government moved its huge population of new immigrants from the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and Northern Africa, who were living in shoddy absorption camps,  into development towns. While their settlement was hardly voluntary, Haetzni notes to their credit that chose to stay and develop the land.

It was at this point that Haetzni himself entered the political arena. While the Israeli government was rushing to absorb hundreds of thousands of immigrants in the years immediately following statehood, it found it difficult to continue at such a pace. It was in response to this growing storm that Haetzni established the Shurat HaMitnavdim, a volunteer organization which went into the camps, taught Hebrew and vocational skills to the new immigrants, served meals, and helped them find jobs.

The organization also took upon itself the task of fighting government corruption. It exposed numerous scandals which rocked the country including one involving David Ben Gurion’s son, Amos. As a “reward” for its work, the state cut off aid to the organization. “For me,” Haetzni relates, “this was a terrible trauma.” He spent time in prison for contempt of court, refusing to reveal the sources of information for what he published, and renounced his membership in the Mapai ruling party. It also, he argues, gave him great insight into how the government works, namely that very little insight is employed by politicians and bureaucrats in making important decisions.

After the Six Day War, Haetzni found new political purpose in the resettlement of the land, namely Judea and Samaria, today’s “West Bank.” Coming from a background in which hityashvut was popularly believed to be the most important mission of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel, “it never occurred to me that there could be another approach to Zionism.” That Zion could be not the goal or the purpose of the “exercise” but rather only a means to another end was, he argues, alien to him. With the Israeli victory of 1967, he and many others were convinced that they had finally achieved the “real purpose” of the War of Independence: Jerusalem, Hebron, Bethlehem, Shiloh, Shechem, Beit El, and so on. “In 1948, we succeeded to establish a bridgehead on the coast, and after nineteen years, we achieved our real goal.”

It was only with the publication of the Allon Plan, which came to light in June 1967 immediately after the war, that he learned that anyone could see the results of the war in any other light. The plan, which today is “right of Likud,” was revolutionary at the time in that it called for Israel to only retain the most strategically important territories it had captured and return the rest in exchange for peace. It was a shock to him that anyone could think to concede any part of Eretz Israel. He relates that his experiences with Shurat HaMitnavdim in the 1950s taught him that if the decision was left in the hands of the Israeli government, the “fate of Eretz Israel would be decided by those with the least wisdom. We shall lose it.”

Therefore, he set out in June 1967 to settle, to create facts on the ground that no one would be able to challenge. This approach was taken by at least a few ministers, both under Labor and Likud in the 1960s and 1970s in their promotion of limited settlement in Judea and Samaria. Ariel Sharon’s initial approach in the mid-1970s was to transfer military bases from within Israel proper to past the Green Line in addition to civilian settlements.  While the army may sit somewhere today, if it receives an order it may be gone tomorrow. Not so with civilian settlements. As such, it was the pattern of Gush Emunim after the 1973 Yom Kippur War and its precursors in Gush Etzion and Hebron, to establish such settlements in and around military camps.

Decades later, the US government pressured Israel to vacate such military camps, but “by that time we were already there.” Unlike army bases, “settlers cannot be moved by secret agreements between the United States and some Israeli minister. We foiled the US plans with the old Zionist pattern of hityashvut.” Settlement, Haeztni argues, is a special concept in its double nature. In the first instance, it is “a dynamic tool of redeeming and holding the Land.” But at the same time, “it is, in itself, a fulfillment of the goal.” This, he believes, was the great power of Zionism from its inception over 120 years ago. In its objectives and means, it simultaneously held the keys to its promise and fulfillment.

The difference in 1967 from the days before the state was that the youth of the left were not prepared to engage in settlement in a meaningful way. Although a few small kibbutzim were established after the 1948 war, on the whole they did not exhibit the same national energy as existed before 1948. Nor was there a Ben Gurion at the head (Levi Eshkol was Prime Minister at the time), to push settlement forward at the state level. The government, Haetzni argues, was passive at best, waiting at the telephone for a call from the Arab states to make peace and return land.

Instead, “all of a sudden, without encouragement and even facing discouragement, the masses came to settle, sometimes even fighting the government to do so.” Arguably the “masses” did not really emerge as a mass movement until after the Yom Kippur War in the form of Gush Emunim. But even so, these settlers were driven by a mission, “the fulfillment of a dream of 2000 years.” It was then that the “national religious” took up the traditional mantle of Zionist settlement, empowered by a belief in the right of Jews to live in the Land of Israel. It is with no small amount of pride that Haetzni asserts, “It is no wonder that the settlement movement is so hated by non-Jews and even some Jews. It is because it is the quintessence of what it means to be Jewish.”

But, is Gush Emunim and the settlement movement which has followed it, messianic as many pejoratively charge? Haetzni responds that Zionism itself is messianic and this no one can deny. What is the Jewish messiah, but the redeemer of the Jewish people taking them out of the misery of galut (exile) and back to the Land of Israel? This is the very force of Zionism without which the Jewish people would not have had the ability or drive to reconstitute their national homeland. “So, when people call the settlement movement messianism, we are okay with that.” If one were to divorce Zionism from the dream, from its spiritual element, nothing would remain; it would be dead. Modern settlement, he insists, is nothing but the continuation of Zionism, especially of the former Israeli political left.

What makes the settlement movement of today different is in its bucking of the trends which have typically characterized revolutions. Although successful revolutions have a meaningful impact upon the societies in which they take place, they inevitably reach a peak, take their “natural course,” and die out. The French Revolution, he noted, started with the beheading of a king and ended with the rise of a new one in the form of Napoleon. So too, the Iranian revolution threw out one dictator only to put another in its place. The Zionist revolution led to the settling of Eretz Israel and the establishment of the state, yet its revolutionary fervor too died down after 1948.

The young people of Israel were then committed to the state, but they chose to forgo the spirit of pioneering in favor of building the infrastructure of a new state “and becoming bourgeois. Then came the 1967 challenge.” He believes that, at that stage, the rise of a new generation committed again to the settlement of the land was nothing short of a miracle, a second Zionist revolution which has lasted already over forty years in its current phase. Referring to the vision of early Zionist thinker A.D. Gordon, today we are again seeing young Jewish pioneers living in the hills of Judea and Samaria, farming, cultivating orchards, and grazing flocks.

This, he argues, is something totally new, the birth of “the new Jewish peasant”. They do this not out of a need to make a living; they are young, capable, intelligent people “capable of accomplishing anything.” Rather they are moved by a deep idealism that is Jewish settlement of the Land of Israel. These activities, which he admits are often illegal, are done with great difficulty, against world opinion and even the enforcement mechanisms of the state. Yet, he argues, the government is “helpless” in the face of young committed Jewish settlers.

Haetzni particularly points to the case of Homesh. Demolished in 2005 as part of the Gaza and Northern Samaria Disengagement, since 2006 Jews have been returning despite efforts by the army to block them and remove each structure they build. When the army blocked the road to the hilltop upon which the community once sat, activists took roads through nearby Arab villages. Unable to stop the flow of people and fearing that it would incite nationalist incidents between Israelis and Palestinians, the army has reopened the old road to limited Israeli traffic. Today, although the community itself has not been rebuilt, there is once again a Jewish presence in Homesh, night and day.

Although most Israelis today still take a great deal of pride in the Zionist movement’s history of hityashvut, there is a sizeable portion of the population which does not share Haetzni’s vision that settlement of Judea and Samaria is of the same piece. There are those who believe that Jewish settlement  today “usurps Arab land” and compromises Israeli morality by upholding an unjust occupation. Perhaps more pressing is the concern that settlement in the territories will lead to the annexation of these lands, the formal absorption of millions of unwanted Arab citizens, and the end of Israel as a Jewish or democratic state.

This demographic narrative is omnipresent in Israeli domestic debates and has more than once overshadowed Israeli security prerogatives in determining policy. Indeed, it has been argued that the Israeli disengagement from Gaza was in service of this goal, detaching the Jewish state from responsibility for some 1.2-1.5 million Palestinians in the coastal strip. Haetzni rejects this approach, citing as evidence Yoram Ettinger’s “Million Person Gap”, a report which has become quite popular among pro-settlement Israelis.

The report, which analyzes Palestinian demographic projections, contends that the population in Gaza and the West Bank has actually been over-estimated by some 1-1.25 million people. Moreover, the Palestinian birthrate has stabilized or even shrunk in recent years while the Jewish birthrate has grown, against all expectations, larger than any other western state.  I will not rehash the debate again here, but follow the links provided above for more on the accuracy, plausibility, and political meaning of these competing perspectives.

Of course, even if Haetzni and other settlement advocates reject the demographic calculus as reason to withdraw from the West Bank, they must still confront the question of Palestinian nationalism and the PA’s demand for statehood. The answer, Haetzni believes, is autonomy. Although PM Netanyahu has publically expressed support for a two state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, what is his vision for a Palestinian state? It would be one in which Israel would retain control over its borders, airspace, and perhaps even water. Its foreign policy would be coordinated with (or restricted by) Israel while the state itself would be demilitarized. Meanwhile, Israel would not withdraw major settlements nor would it concede historically important places like Hebron, Shiloh, or, especially, Jerusalem. This, Haeztni asserts, is autonomy, not statehood, but “Bibi calls it a state because the United States wants two states.”

If this is what the eventual Palestinian “state” will be, is it any different from what already exists today under the Palestinian Authority? The PA has diplomatic offices in countries and official international bodies across the world and has sizeable security forces which would not be allowed to grow much larger under the Israeli vision of a demilitarized state. The PA has a parliament, a judicial system, and all the government ministries that it could expect to have as a state. What they don’t have, Haetzni notes, are all the things which Bibi will not allow them nor are they judenrein. “So,” he asks, “ what is so bad with the present situation? What are they lacking?” They are lacking Jerusalem but the Jewish people will not give that away. They will also not get the expulsion of 600,000 Jewish Israeli citizens from eastern Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria.

Today, the Jewish population of the West Bank is one third of the total, with about 1.7 million (according to Ettinger’s count) Arabs accounting for the rest including Jerusalem. Who, Haetzni asks, will remove the Jews for them? No Arab state will go to war with Israel over this nor does he believe that it is possible that the United States would send an army to remove over half a million Jews from their homes. Just as the British were “thrown out” of Mandatory Palestine by Etzel and Lekhi, so too would Israelis rise up against such a foreign force today. Nor can he imagine that even a Jewish army would be able to expel hundreds of thousands of their own. In short, the Palestinians already have almost all of what is possible for them to receive considering today’s reality.

Almost as important for Haetzni is the question of what Israel would receive in return for a peace treaty with Abu Mazen as president of the PA. It is clear that he does not speak for the 1.3 million Palestinians residing in Gaza under Hamas rule. Nor does he speak for Israel’s 1.2 million strong Arab citizens who, he believes, would insist upon the return of the descendants of refugees who fled what became Israel in 1948, nor the 4.5 million “refugees” themselves according to UNRWA estimates. Finally, with elections and the democratic process effectively suspended since Hamas’ 2006 electoral sweep, it is not even clear that he speaks for the Palestinians of Ramallah. “To whom,” Haetzni asks, “do we give our irretrievable treasures, our patrimony, and for what?”

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