What Kind of Israel Do Settlers Want?

A Journey Across the Green Line

Dividing Line: The paved road from Efrat in the West Bank turns to gravel on its way to a Palestinian village.
Jane Eisner
Dividing Line: The paved road from Efrat in the West Bank turns to gravel on its way to a Palestinian village.

By Jane Eisner

Published July 14, 2014, issue of August 01, 2014.

(page 2 of 4)

Ofra, however, is flourishing. Seven hundred families, by the latest count.

“I feel deeply privileged to be living here, at this time,” Avital says.

I am having trouble imagining that Ruchie Avital and her Jewish neighbors would ever leave Ofra.

Nor can I envision her counterparts leaving Efrat, or Ariel, or Shiloh — Jewish communities established on land that many believe should be part of an independent Palestinian state.

These are not the settlements that hug the Green Line, and could reasonably be expected to remain part of Israel should there ever come a time when negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians resume. These are not the settlers who moved across the Green Line for affordable housing and a suburban lifestyle, who could reasonably be expected to move back the other way with enough compensation and other incentives.

Of the estimated 450,000 Jews who live in the West Bank — one-third secular, one-third ultra-Orthodox, one-third Religious Zionists — only the Religious Zionists are thought to be the most wedded to the place, to the land, and the most reluctant ever to leave.

They are the vanguard and the obstacle. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s continued support of their presence, and expansion of their communities is the reason American officials have given for the recent breakdown of negotiations with Palestinians. A plurality of American Jews say that continued settlement building hurts the security of Israel. More and more Israelis seem to agree; a recent poll showed a continued decline in the public’s support for settlements.

No matter. Enabled by a vast network of government services, these settlers are entrenched in their own sovereignty and are determined to ignore the sentiments and claims of others — be they Palestinians, international diplomats or, at times, their own leaders and countrymen. They are harder to write off than the zealots on the hilltops or in Hebron, who are flamboyantly outside the mainstream, actively embracing a life of confrontation and limit-testing.

What disturbs me most about my recent visit with Ruchie Avital and like-minded settlers is the sheer normalcy they project: an assertion of a status quo that clearly works for them, but is utterly detached from the context of Israeli-Palestinian relations, and one that, with each passing year, makes the task of creating a viable state of Palestine that much more difficult.

These settlers are not the only reason for my pessimism about peace — not when Hamas is sending rockets to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv and beyond, confirming its refusal to live with and recognize Israel and to abandon terror. But I want to understand what these Israelis think of the future character of their nation.

What I learn is that, with the recent breakdown of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians and the tragic surge in violence, these settlers believe that the two-state solution is even more discredited and impossible. They think they are winning. They have been at this for a long time — really, ever since Israel’s surprisingly dramatic victory in June 1967 gave leaders of the Jewish state much more land than they knew what to do with.

Some months later, in January 1968, Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol met with President Lyndon Johnson at his Texas ranch to discuss an arms sale and the broader questions raised by Israel’s occupation. According to Gershom Gorenberg’s superb 2006 book, “The Accidental Empire,” Johnson asked Eshkol, “What kind of Israel do you want?”

And Eshkol replied, “My government has decided not to decide.”

So others decided it instead. They are still at it today.

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