Jerusalem — In previous decades, an American president who pressured Israel to freeze settlement growth, as President Obama has done, would have riled large sections of Israel’s Jewish population. But public sympathy for settlers and the settlements is currently at an all-time low, adding a new dimension to the sometimes tense relationship between Washington and Jerusalem.
Pollsters at Tel Aviv University found on June 1 that the majority of Israelis are prepared to dismantle the settlements outside the large blocks that Israel is expected to keep in any agreement with the Palestinians. The same pollsters, who survey the Israeli public monthly, consistently find that a majority of Israelis — almost two-thirds — consider the settlements a liability rather than an asset.
In the Israeli mainstream there has been a “disassociation” from the settlements and settlers — in other words, an “absence of strong feeling” toward either, said Daniel Schueftan, director of the National Security Studies Center at the University of Haifa.
Further neutralizing opposition to Obama’s insistence on curbing “natural growth” is the general sense of lethargy in Israel. Characterized by disillusionment with the established paths of both left and right, “Israelis are generally worn out, and in the same way that today they won’t take to the streets calling for peace, they are not going to get up and fight for the settlements,” said Mitchell Barak, CEO of Keevoon Research, Strategy & Communications.
Many experts suggest that the relationship of mainstream Israel to settlers and settlements has undergone a 180-degree turn in the past two decades. “For a long time the settlers were seen among the general Israeli public as the new pioneers, going to settle the land in hard conditions, and there was appreciation,” Barak said. “But in recent years the public has become far less supportive.”
While settlements have provoked strong criticism from some on the left ever since they were established, from the start of the occupation in 1967 until the outbreak of the first intifada in 1987, the Israeli mainstream was broadly supportive. The consensus began to erode, undermined during debates on “land for peace” and as the Oslo process took hold.
What Schueftan calls the “disassociation” from settlers and the settlements was cemented during and after the second intifada, when large sections of the population no longer seemed to accept the original security rationale for settlement activity. Today, the public believes that “settlements did not stop terror and they use up Israeli resources,” said Tel Aviv University political scientist Tamar Hermann, who is in charge of her institution’s monthly opinion polls.
Another contrast between original settlement policy and today’s reality is that settlements were originally viewed as a national project, whereas now they are increasingly seen as the sectarian interest of the religious right.
The shifts in attitude have taken place toward both large settlement blocks and (in an even more marked manner) outlying settlements. Regarding practical action, though, the public draws a line between the two, and is prepared to see the outlying ones dismantled before anything happens to the larger blocks. Israelis would still need to be convinced that their country is “getting something in return” for any major evacuations, but there is no major emotional or political attachment to overcome, said Schueftan, who is a former senior security adviser to numerous Israeli prime ministers and widely regarded as the man who placed disengagement and the separation barrier on the political agenda.
One factor contributing toward this absence of strong feeling is the fact that the average Israeli is more likely to travel internationally than to visit the territories. Last year, when polling company Ma’agar Mohot, commissioned by Peace Now, asked people whether, in recent years, they had visited the Palestinian-controlled West Bank, 73% of respondents said they had not, while in the years of the occupation, tourism there was commonplace.
Settlers are acutely aware that this works against them, and last October the settler umbrella body, the Council of Jewish Communities in Judea and Samaria, launched an annual $1.5 million public relations campaign to lure vacationing Israelis to the West Bank.
But those efforts have been drowned out by the fact that, in the past year, the West Bank has become increasingly violent, or as one lawmaker described last September, “like the Wild West.” This has included violence by Palestinians, such as a fatal attack on a 13-year-old Jewish boy in Bat Ayin in April, and an intentional upturn in the use of violence by some settlers.
Last summer radical settlers introduced “price tag,” a new campaign intended to disrupt evacuations of illegal settlement outposts by wreaking havoc on roads, burning fields, and attacking Palestinian people and property.
In a single day on June 1, as Benjamin Netanyahu pushed ahead with his promise to evacuate outposts, this strategy went into overdrive. Settlers began blocking roads and stoning Palestinian cars near Karnei Shomron, Kedumim and Yitzhar and Palestinians responded by throwing rocks at the settlers. Olive groves and fields belonging to Palestinian residents of Burin, near Yitzhar, were torched, allegedly by settlers. After soldiers and police removed three caravans from the Nahalat Yosef outpost, near Elon Moreh, settlers retaliated later in the day by torching Palestinian fields at various locations in the northern West Bank. In a statement sent to reporters, the perpetrators said this was “the price for harming our sacred land.”
Palestinians torched a Jewish field at the Havat Gilad outpost; settlers and Palestinians began throwing rocks at each other on the road near Yitzhar, and a group of young settlers blocked the main Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway near the entrance to Jerusalem to protest the outpost evacuations.
Some settlers have also created conflict with police and soldiers. During the June 1 settler actions, lawmaker Michael Ben-Ari of the National Union alliance was arrested after he climbed onto the van in which police had locked a settler and refused to get off, claiming parliamentary immunity. Ben-Ari is now demanding a police investigation into his treatment, arguing he was beaten as he was removed from the van.
Such violence tends to alienate the Israeli mainstream. “When they start to clash with Israeli forces, they clash with people who the public think represent what is best for Israeli society and people who they think they have a certain sanctity attached to them,” said Ephraim Yaar, head of Tel Aviv University’s conflict resolution program.
Contact Nathan Jeffay at email@example.com.