Why the Fight Over Israeli Settlements Is Reaching a Boiling Point
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is caught in a tightening pincer of opposing pressures as his government faces a court-ordered December 25 deadline to dismantle the West Bank’s oldest and largest illegal settlement outpost. The main combatants include Israel’s Supreme Court, the settler movement and the Obama administration. Caught in the middle are Netanyahu and — in a little-noticed twist — a group of mainstream Diaspora Jewish organizations.
Israel’s Supreme Court ruled in December 2014 that the outpost, Amona, established in 1995, sits on the private property of nearby Palestinian villagers. The court ordered Amona, population 200, demolished within two years.
Opposing pressure comes from the settler movement and its allies. They’ve been resisting Amona evacuation efforts by courts, government inspectors and the military as far back as 1997. One eviction operation in 2006 brought a violent clash between 10,000 troops and 4,000 protesters from around the country, leaving 300 injured. Nine buildings were torn down. The settlers returned days later, now settled in mobile homes.
The government has taken both sides over the years. Some agencies have tried repeatedly to evict the squatters, while other agencies supplied electricity, water lines and access roads. Early this October, with the final court deadline looming, the Netanyahu government proposed a compromise: moving the settlers from their illegal location to new housing at the edge of a nearby, well-established settlement. The settlers have vowed to resist any eviction, even to better housing.
But the government proposal has brought a fourth party into the dispute: the Obama administration. After the new housing was proposed October 5, the State Department issued an unusually harsh rebuke, claiming the plan violates an explicit Israeli promise not to create any new settlements. Israel insists the housing won’t constitute a new settlement, merely an expansion of an existing one.
The crosswinds leave Netanyahu in a tight spot. The rejection of his government’s Amona compromise by both Washington and the settlers only highlights the growing difficulty of his position, caught between an increasingly impatient international community and a settler movement that shows no signs of budging from its commitment to permanent control of the West Bank.
It’s an open secret in Jerusalem that the prime minister is deeply worried about a possible peace initiative by Obama after Election Day. The president will then be in his final weeks in office and free to do as he pleases. That could mean a relatively toothless measure like a presidential speech outlining his vision of an Israeli-Palestinian accord. Or it could mean U.S. support for an expected French resolution in the United Nations Security Council, defining the terms of an accord. Such a resolution would effectively enshrine the pre-1967 borders in international law, a nightmare scenario for Netanyahu.
Netanyahu is widely reported to have been negotiating for months to bring Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog into his coalition, though both sides deny it. Recruiting Herzog would have the dual effect of presenting a more moderate face to Washington and the world community, hopefully blunting pressure for concessions, and providing a liberal counterweight within his coalition to the veto power of the settler-backed Jewish Home party.
Those talks appear to be stuck, however. The two sides are said to have agreed on giving Herzog’s Labor-led Zionist Union bloc eight Cabinet ministries, including foreign affairs and the hot-button culture portfolio. But Herzog faces fierce opposition in his own camp to any deal with Netanyahu. He needs to present some clear concession on Israeli-Palestinian relations if he’s to bring along his party. And that’s something Netanyahu is in no position to offer, given the cast of his existing coalition.
In fact, the Jewish Home party has been hardening its line in recent days. Education Minister Naftali Bennett, the party’s leader, responded to the State Department rebuke with an October 6 speech calling for Israel to openly adopt annexation of the West Bank as its strategic goal. “We must clarify our dream,” Bennett said, “and the dream is that Judea and Samaria will be part of the sovereign Land of Israel.”
Judea and Samaria are the biblical names for the West Bank. The Israeli religious right often prefers the phrase “Land of Israel” to the official “State of Israel,” in order to demonstrate a commitment to the entire land — historic Palestine, including the West Bank — and not just to the currently recognized borders of the Jewish state.
Bennett went on to say that “we must act today, and we must give our lives.” He later clarified, after critics accused him of urging “jihad,” that he meant to urge energetic struggle and not actual death.
Arguably the most significant new action by settlement supporters, though, was one of the least noticed: the decision by the Cabinet on October 9 to renew the authority of the Settlement Division of the World Zionist Organization as the primary agent building and outfitting West Bank settlements. The WZO is a not-for-profit institution jointly run by Israeli political parties and Diaspora Jewish organizations. Theodor Herzl originally established it in 1897 in order to campaign for a Jewish state. Following Israeli independence, the WZO and its offshoot, the Jewish Agency, funded by Diaspora charities, became vehicles for carrying out state-building projects that the government viewed as Israeli-Diaspora partnerships, notably including rural development along with immigration and international Jewish education.
The institution was drawn into settlement construction after Israel captured the West Bank and Gaza in 1967. The WZO Settlement Division became a separate department in the organization. It has its own budget, supplied entirely by the government. As a nongovernmental organization, the Division has been free from oversight and freedom of information rules of government agencies. At the same time, because it’s a separate, government-funded body, Diaspora leaders within the WZO — including such groups as B’nai B’rith International, the Reform and Conservative movements and the labor Zionist group Ameinu — can and do argue that it’s the government, not them, that’s responsible for the settlement activity carried out in their names.
The arrangement was suspended two years ago, following a court ruling that the Division was in effect executing government policy without government oversight or transparency. Settler leaders have since been chafing in the resulting vacuum. The new government decision, drafted by agriculture minister Uri Ariel, head of the far-right Tekuma wing of Jewish Home, resumes WZO involvement in settlement building but imposes government standards of transparency on its actions.
It remains to be seen whether the Diaspora organizations that make up the bulk of the WZO will resume their silent acquiescence in the use of their names and fiduciary authority to cover a policy that helps turn Israel — and, increasingly, Diaspora Jews as well — into international pariahs. Based on past experience, it’s a safe bet that they will.