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Outside, the streets are quiet, storefronts shuttered because of the security situation. As we walk through another compressed Jewish neighborhood — there are four such enclaves tucked into the city — we see a few boys defying the afternoon heat and playing outside. Most of the Jews have to use nearby Kiryat Arba as a source of food, work and provisions, since their lives are so circumscribed in Hebron.
Why do you stay here, I ask Wilder.
“It’s a privilege to live here!” he replies, as if I had asked him the most ridiculous thing. “How many people can say they live where they started?”
So that frames the answer to President Johnson’s question. What kind of Israel do you want? David Wilder and the other settlers — who embody only kinder, gentler versions of his wildcat approach — want an Israel tied inextricably to its past. Damn the consequences. I contrast that with my experience a few days earlier, when a friend took me to Sarona, yet another new and instantly popular redeveloped area of Tel Aviv, bursting with restaurants and shops, its playgrounds and grassy spaces filled with children, casually sophisticated and brimming with energy.
Looking forward or looking back. Wedded to place, or hitched to the future.
Rockets are flying as I write this, a frightening escalation. The looming existential question Israel faces is, understandably, overshadowed by the challenge of mere existence, of ensuring that citizens are safe and that it has the right to defend itself.
Eventually the violence will subside and Israel will again be faced with the decision of what it wants to be. Ever since a cease-fire ended the 1967 war, there have been calls for Israel to annex some or all of the lands it captured. Those calls are growing louder and more insistent now, championed by Naftali Bennett, who is minister of Economics, Religious Services, and Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs and, as head of the Jewish Home party, a member of the ruling coalition.
But he opposes a key principle of the Netanyahu government — a stated belief, however tenuous and far off, in an independent Palestinian state.
“A Palestinian state would be the equivalent of suicide,” he tells me in a rare interview in Jerusalem. “I’m not going to commit suicide because the world will applaud. That’s not a good enough reason to give up your homeland.
“If you want to survive in the toughest region of the world, you need land, strength and deterrence. In the Middle East, land matters.”
Bennett is pushing a plan he’s talked about for years: annexation of Area C, the large swaths of the West Bank already controlled by Israel, where Jews far outnumber Palestinians. Those Palestinians would be offered full citizenship, and their brethren in Areas A and B would live under some sort of occupation for the foreseeable future.
I was surprised by how many of the settlers I interviewed agreed with this plan. Many of them were former Likudniks who voted for Bennett’s party in the 2013 election. If anything, they don’t like to say “annex,” since that implies that the land wasn’t Israel’s to start with; they prefer saying “apply sovereignty to Area C.”
Dani Dayan, chief foreign envoy for the Yesha Council, which represents “the Jewish communities of Judea, Samaria and Gaza,” is gaining notoriety for his version of a plan that would also maintain Israeli sovereignty indefinitely.
“Whoever thinks you can draw an arbitrary line that will be stronger than our yearning for Hebron and their yearning for Jaffa doesn’t understand the conflict,” he tells me as we lunch at the tourist center in Shiloh. “This is a conflict between two genuine beliefs. It is irreconcilable.”
Dayan is a charming man, a gregarious marketer of his beliefs no matter how dire they sound, absolutely convinced that he represents the future even more than the vibrant life I saw bubbling in Tel Aviv. For him, too, the land is everything.
“People call us sometimes messianic, driven by fantasies,” he says of the ideological settlers he represents. “We are not carried away by messianic fantasy. We are the group in the Middle East with our feet most solidly on the ground of reality.”
This is not the kind of Israel I want, an Israel in constant conflict, morally stained by its own power. But in the absence of a government able to make bold and just decisions, surrounded by enemies in a hostile and volatile region, I fear this is the Israel we will have.