Eliaz Cohen is a second-generation Jewish settler in the occupied West Bank — and that’s where he’s determined to remain.
Sitting in his kitchen in Kfar Etzion, between Jerusalem and Hebron, the yarmulke-wearing settler says that he wants to see a two-state solution and to see his home become part of the Palestinian state, with him in it.
The idea that some settlers could stay put after a peace deal in which territorial compromise would leave some Israeli Jewish settlers within the boundaries of a new Palestinian state has riled the Israeli government since late January, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu suggested it. In fact, Netanyahu’s government coalition was at one point on the verge of collapsing over anger stemming from this controversy.
Naftali Bennett, leader of the pro-settler Jewish Home party, which is part of the coalition, accused Netanyahu of “moral confusion” and cited murders of Jews at the hands of Palestinians to explain the problem with the prime minister’s suggestion that some settlers could live under Palestinian rule.
Arguments like Bennett’s make the conversation in Cohen’s kitchen all the more surprising. His settlement, Kfar Etzion, fell under Arab rule once before — and all but four residents were murdered when it did. That 1948 massacre is famous, and for most of the settlement movement, the message of Kfar Etzion’s re-establishment after the Six Day War is that it must always remain Israeli.
But Cohen said that even if Jerusalem and Ramallah were to reach a peace deal that annexed Kfar Etzion to Israel, he would wish they hadn’t. “I even prefer, to be honest, if we give [the Palestinians] a fair geopolitical space for their newly independent state and not cut in the middle,” he told the Forward.
Embracing a perennial Palestinian demand — one that riles Israel — he said, “The basis of 1967 lines could be the official borders of two states.”
Cohen believes that as soon as Jews in the West Bank cease to be viewed as occupiers imposing their rule and become instead a minority needing protection, they will be safe. After reciting a blessing on a cup of coffee and taking a sip, he said: “Many friends tell me that I’m naive and I’ll find myself hanged or slaughtered, and I ask them when their last time visiting a Palestinian was. I do it all the time, and when you are visiting an Arab person with his invitation, you can be sure of your life and safety 100%.”
Settlers like Cohen are few and far between, perhaps only a few hundred, but they have an ear in both Jerusalem and Ramallah. The main proponent of the idea was the late Menachem Froman, a co-founder of the Gush Emunim West Bank settlers’ movement and the maverick chief rabbi of the Tekoa settlement. He spoke to Netanyahu on the subject two years ago, and is believed to have caused him to entertain the idea.